The gently perfumed air of impending doom suffuses “3 Hearts,” a tasteful, mildly intriguing romantic drama from writer-director Benoît Jacquot. In subject matter, this atmospheric bagatelle is the stuff of either melodrama or screwball comedy, with its twists, turns, coincidences and domestic disasters. Depending on the filmmaker’s mood, each could be open to either tragic or hilarious spin. Jacquot unquestionably goes for the former, adding a tense, menacing tone that gives an already somber morality tale the taut dynamics of a thriller.
“3 Hearts” opens as Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde), a rumpled tax inspector, just misses his train back to Paris from an unnamed provincial town. At a loss, he repairs to a nearby cafe, where he spies Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Later, on the street, he bumps into her again, and they spend the night walking and talking, vowing to meet a week later at a designated spot in Paris.
Fans of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” cycle may think they know how this ends. But Jacquot — who collaborated on the script with Julien Boivent — takes “3 Hearts” in a decidedly less lyrical direction, sending Marc and Sylvie down unexpected paths that will result either in blissful true love or thwarted desire. Adding complications to the mix are Sylvie’s mother and sister, played by real-life mother and daughter Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni, who play increasingly significant roles in a story that, while well-executed, ultimately amounts to little more than a minor diversion.
There’s no doubt that Jacquot knows his way around a world in which smoking, longing looks over wine glasses and furtive, shadowy kisses take the place of spoken dialogue. If he doesn’t always close the circle on some of his foreshadowings and subplots (one involves Marc’s investigation of the small town’s mayor), he manages to hold the viewer’s interest, heightened by frequent Hans Zimmer-esque “thromps” of foreboding minor-key chords. Poelvoorde isn’t entirely convincing as a man with whom women instantly fall in love, but all three actresses in “3 Hearts” are entirely believable as people hurtling toward Jacquot’s downbeat conclusion: Let’s just say that everything in the title winds up broken.
PG-13. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains adult themes, smoking and brief profanity.
In French with subtitles. 106 minutes.