One + one + one equals two films
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct 21, 2011
"3" is really two movies.
The first one concerns a 40-something German couple, Hanna (Sophie Rois), a doctor and television host, and Simon (Sebastian Schipper), an engineer who runs an art fabrication company. Like many people who have lived together awhile - 20 years, in this case - their relationship isn't dead, but it's in a bit of a rut. They're not sick of each other, but their love could use a shot in the arm.
It gets one, in a weird way, when they each meet a younger doctor named Adam (Devid Striesow) and, unbeknown to each other, begin an affair with him. There's an energy to Adam that awakens something dormant in Hanna and Simon. Perversely, Adam's appearance also strengthens Hanna and Simon's attraction to each other even as it threatens to undermine what they've come to understand about themselves.
That's one movie. And with its reliance on the eternal love triangle, it feels ever so slightly familiar, even with the gay twist.
But writer-director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") has fashioned a second, far more interesting shadow film that he layers on top of the first. It takes place not in Berlin, where the action is ostensibly set, but in Tykwer's head - or maybe in yours. It's a dense, evocative film of symbols, metaphors and ideas.
What kind of ideas? How about Spinoza's, for starters? The philosopher's name is dropped, on Hanna's talk show, raising questions about ethics, pleasure and pain. It's heady stuff for the boob tube - is there no equivalent to "Jersey Shore" on German TV? - but it also makes for one heady movie. To Tykwer, the problems of three little people really don't amount to a hill of beans. He's more interested in the Big Questions: birth, life, sex, love and death.
The film is rife with references to fertility, desire, suffering, mortality and the soul. Simon comes down with testicular cancer, and his mother dies. But unlike, say, "Beginners," which managed to grapple with such philosophical concerns without sacrificing recognizable characters, Tykwer can't seem to turn Hanna, Simon and Adam into real people. They feel like pawns in the service of a more cerebral diversion than the game of life.
For that reason, Adam is a bit of a cipher. A stem-cell researcher by profession, he's presented as something of a stem cell himself, an undifferentiated entity capable of becoming one thing with Hanna and something else with Simon. Even his name, Adam Born, suggests that we're meant to see him as someone - or something - elemental, even catalytic.
"Say farewell to your deterministic understanding of biology," he tells Simon, portentously.
But Tykwer's film, as provocative as it is, also forces the audience to say farewell to conventional notions of plausible human behavior. As attractive as he may be, Adam is a bit of a promiscuous jerk. In addition to being involved with Simon and Hanna, he's messing around on the side with another boy toy (and that's not even counting his two ex-girlfriends).
What do Hanna and Simon even see in him? The two of them live the life of the mind. Their apartment - and their shared life together - is filled with literature, theater, dance, music, movies and art. Simon lives in an apartment without a single book.
I love the concept that Tykwer's film is selling: The thing that destroys us is also the thing that keeps us alive. But when it comes to the people in the movie, I just ain't buying them.
Contains sex scenes, nudity, obscenity and some icky surgical imagery. In German with English subtitles.