3 (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Simon (Sebastian Schipper) is supposed to meet his partner of almost twenty years, Hanna (Sophie Ross), in a theatre to watch a performance, but he is unable to make it due to work. Coincidentally, Hanna crosses paths with Adam (Devid Striesow), a scientist she had met–and challenged–at a conference just a couple of days before. Not letting a ticket go to waste, Hanna and Adam decide to go together and the two discover an intense attraction toward one another. This leads to an affair. On a separate occasion, Simon and Adam meet and they, too, have sex.

The premise of “3,” written and directed by Tom Tykwer, is familiar, often found in silly romantic comedies where the humor rests on the situation and not much else, but it is executed with intelligence, depth, and a genuine understanding on how specific individuals might think and respond to an opportunity that shatters the ennui of being with only one partner for so long. In a lot of ways, it respects the audience by allowing us to judge the characters and also question if we are making the right call while keeping in mind the prejudices that lead to our assessments.

I liked its attitude toward sex. It never comes off as cheap because it does not lose track of its purpose. We are given a chance to understand why Hanna and Simon are attracted to Adam and he to them as separate people. For Hanna, it is a question of excitement. Sometimes we wonder if what she values more is the act of keeping a secret than the physical act of sex itself. For Simon, he is drawn to the feeling of being wanted and accepted. Having just gone through an operation to stop his testicular cancer from spreading, we can imagine the shame and embarrassment he feels every time he gets naked with someone else in the room. Adam provides Hanna and Simon what they need so that the couple’s relationship can continue. It is a complex symbiosis among the triad.

Naturally, since the picture tackles sexual needs, sexual repression, and sexual identity, there is (and appropriately) a whole lot of nudity. I appreciated that the three actors that are cast do not necessarily have the most perfect bodies. They have fat and wrinkles in some areas. By leaving the vanity aside, the writer-director is able to establish an air of realism. We get to know Hanna, Adam, and Simon as people: what drives them, what they find annoying, and the lies they tell themselves via inner monologues. It makes sense and it feels right that their physicality is shared. If their bodies had been sculpted or young (the characters are supposed to be mid- to late-forties) or hidden by camera trickeries, the entire thing would have felt like a lie.

The film has some distracting elements. While I had no problem with scenes that are in black and white when a character is dreaming or imagining, the flow is almost always interrupted when when we are forced to observe multiple scenes through several frames of concurrent events. This technique is prevalent in the first half. Perhaps the intention is to get us to pay attention and to look a little closer. However, to me, it feels too amateur. The necessary elegance of a finely-tuned drama is not there–at least initially.

“3” is able to deal with the complexities of sexuality in profound ways. Consider Adam being a stem cell scientist. One can argue that the method of extracting these cells and the act of inducing them to be specialized are most unnatural–even immoral. Tie this into the “unnatural” or “immoral” fluidity of sexuality and labels like heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. The parallels drawn between science and humanity are worth thinking about.

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