Charlotte Gainsbourg has always had a flinch in her acting, a twitch that suggests she’s bracing for that next blow — physical or psychological.
It made her the perfect Jane Eyre, perfect as Sean Penn’s I-know-he’ll-leave-me wife in “21 Grams,” and well-suited to Sylvie, the morose, can’t-get-a-break lover in “3 Hearts.”
This is a French love triangle melodrama with a few twists, and one moment of jaw-dropping emotional power, courtesy of Gainsbourg, playing another character who takes a metaphoric kick to the gut.
It doesn’t start that way. A gasping, middle-aged Frenchman misses the last train back to Paris. He stumbles around town looking for a hotel, and shares a smoke break with a woman outside a bar. He senses something about her, a wounded humanity. In an instant, they’re sharing intimate questions and revelations. He likes to meet women at funerals, he confesses.
“I’m entering her private life, right away.”
That’s what he’s done here, without the funeral. They walk and talk all night, he asks her to meet him at the fountains in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris on Friday. We haven’t caught their names, because they haven’t offered them. He lost his cell, so there’s no exchange of phone numbers.
And we all recall how such meetings worked out, pre-cell phones. We’ve all seen “An Affair to Remember.” He has a bad day at work, his weak heart gives him fainting spells, and since she’s been stood up, she goes home, goes back to the lover she doesn’t love and plans her move to Minneapolis with Mr. Wrong. Fate is hard on love affairs.
Sylvie is her name, and she’s never been separated from her sister, Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), who co-inherited the antiques business their mother (Catherine Deneuve) started.
So when Sophie panics over the accounting that Sylvie used to do and needs a tax professional, she meets Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde of “Coco Before Chanel”). Marc is the man her sister was ready to drop everything and run away with. Forever.
Naturally Marc and Sophie fall in love. How long before he discovers just whose sister he married, and how long before Sylvie figures out the same?
The melodrama is fairly thick at times, but co-writer/director Benoît Jacquot teases the situations out nicely, a Skype revelation narrowly averted, the clues Marc starts to piece together that suggest the relationship between his one-night-walk and his new wife. An intrusive, omniscient narrator clumsily shows up, but just a couple of times.
One great bit of business is vintage Gainsbourg. Sylvie puts her fingers on her lips to force the corners into a smile, a trick she shared with her sister.
Gainsbourg plays this one the verge of tears, and Mastroianni — the real-life daughter of Deneuve and Italian film icon Marcello Mastroianni — is actually in tears until that fateful day she met the soulful Marc. He is her happiness, and he might have been Sylvie’s.
But we have to take these women’s word for this attraction, because there’s little to this balding, anxiety-attack prone smoker and tax official to suggest that. Deneuve has the slimmest of supporting parts, and Mastroianni the lesser of the leads.
But Gainsbourg masterfully lets us see Sylvie’s pain, read between Sylvie’s lines to understand the life she wanted, the hopes she held and the dreams that ill-fated brief re-encounter shattered.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity, thematic material, and smoking throughout
Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve
Credits: Directed by Benoît Jacquot, script by Julien Boivent, Benoît Jacquot. A Cohen Media release.
Running time: 1:48