What the Heart Wants, by David Bax
Benoît Jacquot is a largely undersung mainstay of French cinema who is doing some of his best work in his 60s. His 2012 Farewell, My Queen, which observed the chaos inside Versailles after the storming of the Bastille through the eyes of a young servant woman, was a peak for his mature, independent and predominantly feminist work. His latest film, 3 Hearts, continues on that same path but with a new twist. This time the film is, at least by Jacquot’s standards, a comedy.
Were the film not made with a sense of humor, the coincidences and contrivances that pile up would be mockable. 3 Hearts is the sum of one male lead (Benoît Poelvoorde) and two female ones (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroiani). Marc (Poelvoorde) meets Sylvie (Gainsbourg) when a missed train forces him to stay overnight in the small town outside Paris where he has come on business. They have a Before Sunrise-style all-night walk and talk and then foolishly decide not to exchange numbers but to instead meet at a fountain in Paris in a week’s time. On the way to the rendezvous (and with a nod to An Affair to Remember), Marc has a heart attack in his car and Sylvie is left to assume she’s been stood up. Marc returns again and again to the town, looking for Sylvie. Eventually, he meets Sophie (Mastroianna) instead and it’s not until months later, when the couple are nearing cohabitation and marriage that Marc discovers that Sophie and Sylvie are sisters.
Obviously, some suspension of disbelief is required to buy these turns of events but Jacquot and his cast aid matters by wisely choosing to favor a comedic path. Even the way the two sisters both fall madly in love with this harried salaryman is played for laughs. All the actors thread the dramedy needle admirably but none shines quite as much as Gainsbourg. Fortunately, it’s only right for the story being told that, when Sylvie enters a room, everyone else seems to dim a bit. Some of the best scenes are the brief ones between Gainsbourg and Catherine Deneuve, who plays the women’s mother in a somewhat thankless role for the screen legend.
Just as much a presence as the cast is Jacquot’s camera. Once again wielded by repeat Jacquot collaborator Julien Hirsch (who also lensed last year’s Bird People), the widescreen frame teeters and careens through the filmic space in the same way it has always done in Jacquot’s work, be it in contemporary Paris or 18th century Versailles. There might not be quite as much handheld work as in Farewell, My Queen or in 1995’s minor miracle A Single Girl, but the restless pans and zooms maintain a lively balance between farce and anxiety.
That balance is key because 3 Hearts isn’t all madcap comedy; not even close. Like Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, which also involves a person keeping a secret from a paramour, this film is deceptively deep and nuanced. Jacquot keeps the emotional stakes real and immediate. And even when it’s superficially discordant, the score alternates between foreboding and wistful in a way that is subtly instructive.
Despite the ways in which 3 Hearts feels like a departure for Jacquot, it is unquestionably in step with the rest of his oeuvre. He’s done melodrama before, in the soapy, steamy The School of Flesh, but what cuts through all his films, up to and including this newest one, is a humanism that is sympathetic but probing, like a trustworthy psychiatrist.