The missed rendezvous: such a potent storytelling device, such a tantalizing chance to imagine what might have been if only Character A had been on time or Character B had waited another five minutes.
“Romeo and Juliet” has a whopper along these lines, and the device works even when not depicted — like between the action of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” for instance. One of my favorites is in “Jules and Jim,” when a missed assignation is a brief plot beat, a mysterious “what-if” in the course of the great aching journey of Francois Truffaut’s classic.
I wonder whether director Benoît Jacquot (“A Single Girl”) might have been thinking of that moment in “Jules and Jim” with his latest film, “3 Hearts.” Here, a missed connection is central to the passionate tale we’re watching; its ripples keep expanding through the rest of the movie.
A tax accountant, Marc (Belgian everyman Benoît Poelvoord), shares a single enchanted evening with Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), after failing to catch the last train back to Paris. They agree to meet in Paris in a week; when they miss connections, they don’t know how to find each other.
It then happens — with fairy-tale logic — that Sylvie goes back to her bewildered boyfriend and moves to America, while Marc meets Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni) and falls for her before he realizes she’s Sylvie’s sister.
The whole thing hinges on chance meetings and charged objects — a cigarette lighter functions like a magic amulet, and also ties in to Marc’s serious heart problems. I liked the story’s reliance on such ancient storytelling tricks — a break from the dull naturalism of most current drama.
Jacquot is something of a stealth director, a quiet analyst of human behavior whose “Farewell, My Queen” (2012) garnered his first proper U.S. release in a few years. He knows how to stage important moments, from the first time Marc sets eyes on Sylvie in a nondescript small-town cafe to a fatal glance the two share across a kitchen table.
The actors are locked in: It’s especially good to see Gainsbourg — having bravely surrendered herself to the brier patch of Lars von Trier’s recent movies — get to inhabit a rather more normal character in such a subtle way. The main cast is filled out by Catherine Deneuve (Mastroianni’s real-life mother), who gives a lesson about what a movie star can achieve with relatively brief screen time.
Like “Jules and Jim,” this film might be mistaken for a romance, rather than a tragedy. But it leaves no doubt that — in French movies, at least — love is a life-or-death matter.
“3 Hearts” (3½ stars)
Benoît Poelvoord unwittingly falls in love with two sisters, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni. Director Benoît Jacquot muses on missed connections. In French, with English subtitles.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter, nudity
Showing: Seven Gables Theater in Seattle.