Uh, Wow

In interviews, German director Tom Tykwer says that his latest film reflects the contemporary reality that, as he puts it, “our consideration of what is normal has gotten a bit wider in scope, thank god. We all basically know that sexual categories and how people of one sex or the other are supposed to behave—and all these other commitments that we let be forced upon ourselves by educational imposition—belong to a system that is somehow expired.” In other words, as he observes, no one is particularly surprised that cable TV shows like Six Feet Under “don’t kid around with the gay sex scenes.”  The culture has just started to accept multisexuality as an everyday thing.

Okay… so there’s the contemporary cultural setting of 3.  Right there, you can pretty much decide if you’re comfortable with the idea of sitting down to watch this film.

In a nutshell, Simon and Hanna are a forty-something professional couple whose lives, through circumstances not entirely of their own making, have started drifting apart.  Because there’s nothing particularly compelling holding them together—they travel in different circles, for instance, as Hanna is a doctor and Simon is an industrial art installer, and they are childless—they betray each other by allowing themselves to drift into an affair… and if you’ve seen the poster for the movie, or seen the trailer, or read a promotional blurb about it, it’s no surprise: they both fall for the same man.

Sophie Rois as Hanna in 3Tykwer is certainly a masterful filmmaker, and with 3 he establishes himself—in my mind, at least—as heir-apparent to the generation of auteurs that mass market cinema once saw as the wave of the future: Frankenheimer, Pakula, Friedkin, Ashby, Lumet, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, even Wenders—artistes who could make films that were clearly personal yet also felt like blockbusters… but who also either burned out or sold out in one spectacular way or another, simultaneously victims and purveyors, I suppose, of the illusion factory. As Tykwer himself remarks, “What I find interesting is that I want to be lied to and I still want to believe that the lies are related to the truth.”  Master filmmakers seem to be every bit as susceptible to self-deception as anybody else.

With 3, I think Tykwer may have conned audiences, critics, and possibly even himself into believing that the film is merely a sophisticated black comedy about sexuality, fidelity, and relationships.  I hope that’s not really the case—because if it is, Tykwer and audiences will have expended a whole lot of energy on a scenario that is likely to work for only a very, very small percentage of the population.

The reason that Simon and Hanna can make their mutual relationship with Adam, the target of their affections, work is that all three of them are terribly self-absorbed.  Yes, they all have professions that demand a great deal of attention; and yes, they all have extra-curricular interests (Adam even has an ex-wife and son that he visits from time to time).  But they do little more than inhabit their living spaces, jobs, and relationships; they are not invested in them.  In other words, all three have plenty of room in their lives for a very, very complicated relationship.

But will a threesome work any better for any of them than twosomes did?  Will a casting aside of outmoded norms of sexual behavior suddenly free them from their dishonesty, inability to communicate, and other personality flaws?  Um, no.

So I hope that 3 is not really a simplistic take on our culture’s apparently doomed love affair with heterosexual monogamy.  Because if it is, as Tykwer admits in philosophical terms, it’s not really offering any universally applicable alternative.

But here’s a clue to what I think the film is really all about: embedded in a subnarrative about Simon’s mother is her obsession with numerology—and specifically multiplies of three, and the number 39.  Now, maybe it’s just me, but when intelligent German filmmakers start setting their narratives in Berlin and bringing up that particular number, I start thinking about a work of art taking on nationalistic significance as metaphor.  And when the three central characters are specifically called out as being from three distinct regions—what used to be East Germany, West Germany, and Austria—and the actors who play those roles are actually from those regions… well, I start thinking of the seeds of World War II, Anschluss, and the reunification of Germany.

So my guess is that Tykwer is pretty sly about what he’s really saying with the film, using sexual politics as a metaphor for the geopolitical while indulging more obvious lines of questioning.  At least, I hope that’s the case.  I can see the film working as a statement of Hitler’s Germany being the product of strange, incestuous, and self-indulgent bedfellows.  It works well enough as a comedy of errors; but wouldn’t it be so much better if were more than that, too?

3 is unrated.  Although Tykwer achieves his goal of making the various sex scenes evocative and provocative without being prurient or particularly erotic, there are enough of them to make this a solid R.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of 3.