The moral of 3 Hearts seems to be, “If you don’t get a room, at least get each other’s phone numbers.” Or, “When you’re planning to marry a lovely woman, you might want to glance at the family photos on the staircase, just to make sure she’s not the sister of the lady you romanced one night a couple of years ago.” Or maybe, “Boy, that Catherine Deneuve still is lovely, even with her little pot belly.”
Deneuve doesn’t have much to do in 3 Hearts besides glide elegantly through airy bourgeois rooms and fairy-lit garden parties, representing French cinema as surely as she represented Marianne, the national symbol of France itself in the 1980s. She’s deployed here like an angel atop a Christmas tree. Her glowing presence, maybe, is meant to keep us from noticing that all the ornaments on the branches below her are secondhand and a little silly.
She plays the mother of two close sisters, Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Serge and Jane Birkin’s daughter) and Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni, Marcello and Deneuve’s daughter). The two women run an antiques shop together in their suburban town, and both live in vague dissatisfaction with two vaguely handsome and vaguely characterized boyfriends.
Missing his train back to Paris one night, a tax inspector named Marc (Benôit Poelvoorde) strikes up a conversation with Sylvie — though “stalks her on the sidewalk” might be more accurate. “I really like women,” he overshares. “You can meet tons of women at funerals.”
Pervy enough for you? Maybe it’s just a French thing.
Anyway, Sylvie seems to find him charming. Which requires a leap for the viewer, since Marc is no more charming than he is handsome. In a kind of wowser of miscasting, Poelvoorde is plausible portraying a potato-faced thug or a buffoon — elements he combined as a killer inviting a documentary crew to film his crimes in the ahead-of-its-time Man Bites Dog from 1992. But the actor as an object of passion? Not so believable.
Anyway, Marc and Sylvie walk and talk all night, à la Before Sunrise, then vow to meet again the next weekend in Paris. But a mishap keeps their reunion from happening, à la An Affair to Remember.
Of course, in that 1957 chestnut, Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant didn’t have cell phones to reconnect and explain the mixup. Marc and Sylvie do . . . they just never exchange information, or even their names.
So anyway, to show how broken-hearted she is at being stood up by this ugly, nameless, middle-aged man, Sylvie decides to move with the boyfriend she vaguely detests all the way to the American Midwest. That’ll teach him! (Whoever he is!)
Some months later, Sophie travels to Paris to the tax office to sort out her sister’s bad bookkeeping and — quelle coïncidence! — you will never in a hundred million years guess who she meets and falls in love with. (Maybe it’s because he does not use his line on her about cruising funerals for chicks . . .)
Up until Marc’s belated discovery that he’s marrying the sister of the woman he (we are meant to believe) fell passionately in love with one long, platonic night, there’s no harm, no foul. As farfetched as the setup is, the character has until now behaved properly, if a little stupidly.
Then, stupid takes center court once Sylvie, returning to France, reignites Marc’s ardor. Casting wounded, enamored glances at each other, they make out in garden sheds and caverns with all the believable heat of a kitchen match struck on a drizzly afternoon. They behave horribly, especially in pursuit of a love that the film cannot convince us was destined to be.
In addition to borrowing from movies previously mentioned, director and cowriter Benôit Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen) seems eager to emulate the slow-boil tension of The Woman Next Door. That’s François Truffaut’s daytime noir about dangerous passions rekindled when a man’s ex-lover unwittingly moves into his neighborhood. It’s an underseen Truffaut, and worth checking out. 3 Hearts doesn’t come close.
If Poelvoorde is an unlikely leading man, it’s also hard to buy Gainsbourg as an alluring siren. Mastroianni’s Sophie is lovelier in classical terms (visually, emotionally). Another problem: Gainsbourg’s onscreen association with genital mutilation, nymphomania and the destruction of the entire planet in three films with Lars von Trier. She lugs cinematic baggage.
So, yeah, the movie is a misfire. Here’s the weird thing, though. Even mediocre French films are easy to watch, for Francophiles anyway. 3 Hearts is pretty ludicrous and insults the viewers’ intelligence with a brazen kind of gusto. But the sight of Deneuve swanning around, and the allure of scenes set in gold-glowing bistros or the autumnal Tuileries Garden, can make a film — and France-loving heart — go skippety-hop.
We’ll always have Paris, even bad movies remind us. And even its suburbs are stylish. The people you meet there? Maybe not so much.
3 Hearts. Wth Benôit Poelvoorde, Chiara Mastroianni, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Catherine Deneuve. Directed by Benôit Jacquot. In French with subtitles. Rated PG-13. 106 minutes. Through Thursday at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.