Venice 2014: 'Three Hearts' review

★★☆☆☆
Director Benoît Jacquot returns to the Venice Lido with Three Hearts (2014), a slickly presented and thespy relationship drama which flounders on its own lack of originality, humourlessness and absence of credibility. Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde, in his second film of the festival), a tax inspector from Paris, misses his train and finds himself trapped in a provincial town for the night. A chance encounter with a woman Sylvie (the obligatory Charlotte Gainsbourg) leads to a Before Sunrise-style wander through the streets until sunset. The encounter is chaste and coy - they neither exchange names nor phone numbers - but the two are obviously attracted to each other and arrange to meet in Paris at a fountain.

Marc, however, is delayed because of some inept racist comedy (the one attempt at humour in the whole piece) featuring two Chinese businessmen and a heart condition, which doesn't bode well. Stood up Sylvie returns home to her partner and her normal life with her sister Sofie (Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of the iconic Marcello) and her unnamed mother (Catherine Deneuve), but her mind made up to leave with her partner to the United States, a move she had been resisting. With her out of the picture, Sophie then meets Marc, by chance once more, when she is visiting the Paris tax office following a mistake Sylvie had made in the accounts of the family antique shop. He agrees to help her with the accounts and a romance begins to blossom between the two, though Sophie already has a partner.

Sophie's aforementioned partner is swiftly ditched (in a cinema, mid-film, naturally) and the romance can progress to marriage and domestic bliss. However, a shadow looms on the couple's happiness and that shadow is the returning sister Sylvie. Marc has in the meantime found out the sister's relationship but is holding the knowledge close to his anxiously palpitating chest. If the plot of Jacquot's latest sounds like a soap opera, that's because Three Hearts is exactly that. Adultery has been a source of fascination for French art from Madame Bovary onwards, and the very idea of a ménage à trois itself is so French that it's actually in French. All the characters smoke persistently and eat wonderful food, with Deneuve cutting the gateaux. Any more Gallic than this would be hard to imagine. And yet beneath the simmering passions, the obsessional destructive lust and the tragic family drama, the whole thing is all so slight and silly.

That the drama should hinge on a series of bizarre novelistic coincidences and the irrational dopiness of the characters with whom we're supposed to empathise drains the film of realism and sends us into Mills & Boon territory. Bruno Coulais' score pounds significantly to signify impending doom and a glum-sounding narrator links episodes with such essential information as "Life goes on and Marc is happy". Julien Hirsch's cinematography, meanwhile, is as polished and glowing as the antique shop-owning, upper middle-class existence of the protagonists. Quite why Sofie and Sylvie should fall so heavily for the nice but dull Marc is left a mystery, but the actors somehow sell it. However, given the pedigree of the talent involved - Mastroianni's mother in real life is, of course, Deneuve - one can't help but wish that Jacquot's Three Hearts wasn't itself such an antique plot-wise.

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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