3 Hearts (3 coeurs)

France (2014) Dir. Benoît Jacquot

“Sisters, sisters / There were never such devoted sisters”

So wrote legendary songwriter Irving Berlin in 1954 and while this sentiment has stood the test of time, it also provides us with the central conceit of this French romantic melodrama. Ironically, whilst it doesn’t star real life sisters, it does star a real life mother and daughter pairing.

Missing his train one night, beleaguered tax inspector Marc Beaulieu (Benoît Poelvoorde) heads to a nearby café where he meets Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Sylvie walks Marc to the nearest hotel and they realise a mutual spark is forming, arranging to meet again, but a mild heart attack causes Marc to be late, leaving Sylvie to believe she has been stood up and leave Paris for the US with her husband Christophe (Patrick Mille).

A few months later Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni) shows up at Marc’s tax office in distress over an audit on her antiques business. Marc offers to help and they fall in love, with Sophie leaving her partner for Marc. They decide to get married but during a weekend with Sophie and her mother (Catherine Deneuve), Marc makes a shocking discovery – Sophie is Sylvie’s sister!

In the milieu of classic love triangles this is an awkward one but to be fair, Marc didn’t know about Sylvie and Sophie being siblings so no toes were strictly being stepped on. Lest we forget that Sylvie was married thus cheating on her hubby and Sophie was also in a relationship so both copybooks were already blotted.

Benoît Jacquot presents us with a film that doesn’t judge its characters and their selfish decision making but does put the concept of fate on trial to ponder how different things could have been had that heart attack not happened, or had Marc not missed that train. Jacquot asks if we should fight fate or let it run its course, laying out a scenario of the consequences of trying to change it.

The audience is introduced to Sophie after Marc and Sylvie’s first meeting. If we didn’t already know the plot, our suspicions wouldn’t be aroused by these loving and close sisters. If anything, we could envision Sophie being the voice of concern and reason in Sylvie’s extra-marital dalliance, such is the instant delineation of their characters, supported by their different sartorial appearances.

Marc it has to be said, is hardly a catch – a 47 year-old stressed out, thinning on top tax inspector – so the attraction for either sister is baffling, yet it grounds this sorry saga in a loose sort of “it could happen to you” reality. If Sylvie would find Marc preferable to her hard working and clearly successful husband, the inference is that their marriage isn’t all peachy, but this backstory isn’t elaborated on.

Sophie is in trouble because Sylvie use to do her books at the antiques store which their mother used to run but as far as Marc is concerned the “sister” in question could be anybody. But this brings a niggling contrivance to the plot in the many near misses of Marc finding out about Sylvie, like arriving at the end of a Skype conversation between the sisters.

Worse still, there is a huge dent in the story’s credibility as Marc is shown to be a guest at the mother’s house on numerous occasions, yet it is only during the late stages of planning the wedding that he ventures far enough up the staircase to see the parade of family photos on the wall and learn that his future sister-in-law was once his potential paramour.

A little suspension of disbelief is asked of us and I’d advise it is accommodated otherwise you’ll never make it to the end of the film. Not that things get too ridiculous but once Marc and Sophie become Mr and Mrs and Sylvie return home from the US, the frisson this creates is manifest through Sylvie’s stroppy and aloof behaviour towards Marc. Given how brief and how long ago their first meeting was, their feelings should theoretically have been extinguished by now.

Sylvie has a right to be upset at being stood up but conveniently doesn’t feel the need to raise the subject with Marc when they are alone because, well you can guess why, but in any other universe this would have been a urgent discussion between them. Then again we’d have no drama and no emotional conflict to witness so again, we are to accept this and let the story play out.

Gripes aside, the script is wantonly amoral to the point the audience starts to feel guilty for knowing what Sophie doesn’t, leaving us cringing every time we get a scene of happy families on the screen. Love can be embarrassing but this is toe-curling stuff and as contrived and uneven as this sometimes is – like Marc’s on-off heart condition – Jacquot does a stellar job in making us suffer with relentless voyeuristic discomfort.

Equally culpable in our suffering are the excellent cast. Benoît Poelvoorde is normally known for being a comedian but he reveals a convincing and powerful dramatic side to his repertoire despite his comical looks. Charlotte Gainsbourg wanders through the film like an enigmatic ghost, a saturnine presence with tacit razor sharp intensity and again hardly love interest material but so very bewitching.

Catherine Deneuve seems to do little as the matriarch of this dysfunctional family unit except smoke and cook yet effortlessly commands every scene with her gravitas and luminous presence. He real life daughter Chiara Mastroianni (the spitting image of her father, Italian legend Marcello yet still a handsome woman) is the nominal sympathy figure, underplaying the drama of Sophie’s blissful ignorance but still able to be likeable.

Taking 3 Hearts as a cynical and emotionally brutal relationship melodrama it hits many of the right notes and the performances gets the audience invested, as long as the plot contrivances and lapses of implausibility can be overlooked.