German director Tom Tykwer scored a major international success with 1999’s Run Lola Run, a film that was a near-perfect vehicle for his sharp, kinetic visual style and witty, inventive storytelling. As is often the case for European directors who suddenly score big in the United States, Tykwer found himself heading up big-budget English-language productions like The International and working with major stars such as Clive Owen, Dustin Hoffman and Cate Blanchett. However, 3 finds Tykwer back at home and working with a cast who, despite their talent, aren’t well known outside Germany, and after watching the film, it’s easy to see why: 3 is, quite simply, a film most major American studios would never dream of financing. It’s a film about love, sex, and relationships that’s smart, often funny, emotionally powerful, and beautifully crafted, but it’s bold enough in its portrayal of the messy side of life to make some folks squeamish; at a time when, in the wake of Brokeback Mountain, Hollywood is still figuring out how to handle a romance involving a same-sex couple, 3 posits a relationship a bit more complicated than two cowboys in love.
In 3, Hannah (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper) are a couple who’ve been together for 20 years; she hosts a television talk show on contemporary art and studies medical ethics, while he’s an engineer who works with artists to build large public sculptures. Hannah and Simon still love one another, but much of the spark has gone out of their relationship. One evening, Simon has to work late after Hannah makes plans to see a play; she ends up giving her extra ticket to a handsome man she met a few days earlier at a medical conference. When they bump into one another several days later while Hannah is working on a piece about a performance artist, one thing leads to another and they end up in bed together. That same evening, Simon checks into the hospital after his doctor advises emergency surgery when he’s diagnosed with testicular cancer. Weeks later, Simon, who swims for exercise, strikes up a conversation with a man at a public pool about his recent surgery, and in the locker room, the chat turns into a spontaneous sexual encounter. Soon, both Hannah and Simon are engaged in affairs that bring some excitement into their lives, making them happier together and reigniting their sex life. However, what Hannah and Simon don’t know is they’re both involved with the same man, a fertility expert and medical researcher named Adam (Devid Striesow), who seems determined to avoid serious entanglements in his life. However, this becomes difficult as he gets more deeply involved with both Hannah and Simon.
In 3, Tom Tykwer’s characters spend a lot of time discussing art, science, and philosophy, which sometimes gives the impression that the director is trying to make this film sound smarter than it is; this is curious because even when it’s simply dealing with an unconventional romantic triangle, 3 is lively and clever stuff. Tykwer, who also wrote the screenplay, shows a sure hand with the push and pull of a long-term relationship and the furtive excitement of a clandestine affair, and makes a romantic and sexual scenario that’s unlikely at first glance seem plausible onscreen, even as he sidesteps the guilt that’s usually a major part of any romantic triangle in the movies. And Tykwer isn’t shy about confronting the realities of surgery or sex; he’s not purposefully offensive in either case, but 3 is blunt in a way most American films would not attempt, and the combination of artifice and honesty is a big part of what makes the film effective. It doesn’t hurt that Tykwer is a gifted visual stylist who has filled this picture with striking compositions and vibrant montages, and with the help of cinematographer Frank Griebe he’s made a movie that’s a pleasure to look at. In addition, Tykwer’s cast do excellent work, especially Sophie Rois, who communicates a fierce intellect and a burnished sensuality as Sophie, and Sebastian Schipper, who underplays to impressive effect as Simon. Sometimes 3 edges into pretentiousness as the characters talk about issues of the mind and the heart as if they’re practicing for a doctorial dissertation, which is a shame since it weighs down what for the most part is a satisfying and fearless comedy-drama. Even if Tykwer really is trying to tell us a story that will redefine the paradigm of romantic relationships, in the grand tradition of the cinema, it works better when he shows us rather than he tells us, and he shows us enough that 3 is a treat for open-minded grown-ups.
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