With its romantic torment and beaucoup cigarettes, "3 Hearts" is a très Gallic affair. As the smoke thickens, the vise tightens around a triangle involving sisters of opposite temperaments, played to agonized perfection by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni.
Benoit Jacquot, director of the indelible character studies "A Single Girl" and "Farewell, My Queen," goes for the operatic in his latest feature, taking synchronicities and missed connections to the straining point and beyond. The overwrought plot mechanics are exasperating, but the lead actresses' exquisitely modulated performances get under the skin.
Benoit Poelvoorde plays the unlikely linchpin of the love story, middle-aged tax inspector Marc. He and the mysterious Sylvie (Gainsbourg) fall hard for each other during a nightlong encounter in a provincial town after he misses his train. They walk the empty streets until dawn, exchanging intimate observations but nothing so prosaic as their names, occupations or phone numbers, even as they plan to meet in Paris in a week's time.
A medical crisis thwarts the rendezvous, and the would-be couple's lives continue on their separate, ennui-laden courses — until director Jacquot and co-writer Julien Boivent bring them back into each other's orbit. Only the audience knows that Sophie (Mastroianni), Marc's new love interest, is Sylvie's devoted sibling. Marc's love for her has a more conventional trajectory, dishonesty and all.
Ratcheting up the foreboding, Jacquot's stylistic choices make the story's secrets look as foolish as they are all-consuming. Marc, who might be bent on self-destruction, inspires no sympathy. As the women's mother, Catherine Deneuve (Mastroianni's real-life mother) wordlessly speaks for the audience when, catching Marc in her knowing gaze, she makes him flinch.
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity, thematic material, smoking throughout; in French with subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.