They say good things come in threes. Director-writer Tom Tykwer explores this adage in his aptly titled 3, a fresh take on that plot staple of ’30s romps, the love triangle. Narratively and stylistically, Tykwer turns this familiar romantic configuration on its head, crafting an emotionally mature and complex film that’s dense with the stuff of life.
After nearly 20 years together, Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper) haven’t gotten around to getting married—nuptials are presented almost as an afterthought—nor have they started a family. (In a typically irreverent exchange, they joke that theirs would be the first divorce in which neither wants custody of the kids.) Perhaps this missing third party is why, though they remain truly, deeply in love, they’re also a bit restless.
Hanna’s attraction to handsome scientist Adam (Devid Striesow) takes her by surprise, but the Fates seem intent on pushing them together, first at a seminar on stem cell research, then at a contemporary staging of a Shakespeare play, then in the park, where a public art installation and an amateur soccer match rub shoulders. When she realizes what’s coming, she attempts to escape in a hilarious comedic bit. On her way home the next morning, where she’ll have to explain her whereabouts to Simon, Hanna, who otherwise has been a little severe and humorless, can’t help but suppress a smile.
Unbeknownst to her, however, her tryst coincides with Simon’s emergency surgery. He’s been diagnosed with testicular cancer but put off meeting with his doctor while dealing with his mother’s illness. Hanna’s date and Simon’s procedure are crosscut in a masterful sequence that culminates in her arrival at their empty apartment. It’s in this moment that the viewer experiences the devastation of her absence from his hospital bedside, not in their inevitable confrontation with all of its questions and evasions and regret, which Tykwer shrewdly leaves offscreen.
Separately, Simon also meets Adam, and likewise stumbles into an affair. Adam is, after all, intriguing: a biologist on the cutting edge of reproductive research who lives in an ascetic apartment free of TV and books but fills his free time—when he’s not seducing everyone, it seems, who crosses his path—with sailing and karate and choir practice. Tykwer deftly reveals Adam’s private life—for it is private, as his lifestyle necessitates he reveal little to his lovers—via a split-screen montage, a device that swiftly and effectively moves the story forward at several key moments in the film.
Adam is handsome, smart and outgoing, but his particular talent lies in his ability to flow easily from one social situation to the next. He seems to sense what people need—physically, emotionally, psychologically—and gives it to them. As voyeurs, we fear for these people, that they’ll be hurt in the end, at first for Hanna and Simon but later for Adam as well. It becomes clear that he’s become taken with someone, although the script cleverly veils with whom. Meanwhile, his relationships with Hanna and Simon have revitalized the connection between the couple, injecting a new lease on love into their flagging romance.
Eventually, the situation must be discovered, and it’s with dread that we await it, but Tykwer devises a scenario in which who finds out what/when is as artfully executed as it is unexpected.
Yet we’ve only scratched the surface of a rich tale fraught with the dichotomies of home and work, intimacy and distance, life and death. Each character, for example, works in a field where art and science merge: Hanna is a television host who attends both scientific summits and public art unveilings; Simon is an engineer who installs large-scale sculptures; and Adam’s genetic experiments have chimeric implications. Even on the job, none is a type but an amalgamation of diverse, yet concordant qualities.
Meanwhile, in addition to judicious use of the split screen, Tykwer interpolates the plot with stylistically divergent images—a modern dance routine against a white backdrop, a funeral procession on scratched, black and white film stock, cells under a microscope—that inform and enhance his story. Tykwer also toyed with form in Run Lola Run, the film that marked his breakthrough on the international film scene a dozen years ago. With 3, he offers yet another challenging, satisfying cinematic experience.