Three's Company

Three of Hearts is flush with compassion, intelligence, and humanity

Yes, the title's a problem. Three of Heartswas a 1993 romantic comedy starring Kelly Lynch, Sherilyn Fenn, and William Baldwin, a distasteful clunker that traded on male titillation with lesbians and bisexual women. Worse, the poster for the new Three of Hearts is achingly similar to that of its predecessor, sharing even the angles of the three tilted heads. Thankfully, the mimicry stops there. This Three of Hearts, a documentary about two male partners who decide to bring a woman into their relationship, is really something — an intimate, honest film with plenty of food for thought.

Sam Cagnina and Steven Margolin met early in life, when Steven was 19 and just beginning college. (Sam was in his mid-twenties.) They began a relationship; three years later, they were going strong. That's when Sam made a suggestion that, for many of us, would indicate a sharp right turn: "Wouldn't it be great to bring a woman into the relationship?" Both men had dated women, and Sam felt "something missing." Steven, skeptical, nevertheless agreed to try it out. He didn't think it would work, but he knew it'd be fabulous if it did.

And that is the movie's central, complicated question: Wouldn't it be great, a threesome? To which this reviewer initially responded: Are they kidding? Aren't these men acquainted with the inherent instability of a relationship among three people? Didn't even one of them have two best friends in junior high school and, ultimately, feel betrayed and abandoned by them both? Haven't they found it difficult enough to negotiate the needs and desires of one person? They didn't, it seems, and they don't. "I really love the feeling of monogamy," Sam says, "but with more than one person." It sounds like a Zen koan, but you see what he means: He wants exclusivity with two people instead of one.

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The first woman Sam and Steven tried was interested only in sex, whereas the men wanted a relationship. The second fell in love with Sam but not with Steven. For a while, Sam bed-hopped, but eventually Steven asked him to choose, and Sam chose Steven. (All of this occurred before director Susan Kaplan began to film.) Then, four years later, Sam met Samantha at work in a restaurant. They became close friends, and he invited her into his relationship with Steven. The film opens several years after that, when Samantha becomes pregnant with the triple's first child.

The movie brings us into their lives, showing us how it all works. And it does work. Sam, Steven, and Samantha are a threesome — a supportive, loving entity that looks in every way (except the obvious one) like a good couple. They speak tenderly about each other, celebrate milestones, bicker, cook together, sleep together, and share pet- and childcare. They even work together, at the wellness center they've created, which seems like tempting fate. But it works for them — "This has been the happiest relationship of all my children so far," Sam's mother says — until it doesn't.

Part of what's so interesting about Three of Hearts is that conflict is generally glossed over until, finally, it becomes too big too ignore. That's so common a problem in relationships that it's helpful to see on the screen, and to watch three thoughtful and intelligent people go through it. In the beginning, for example, Samantha hides her relationship from her parents; as far as they know, she' s only with Sam. When the men propose marriage to Samantha, the legal ceremony takes place at Samantha's parents' house, with Steven nowhere in sight. To him, there couldn't have been more wrong with the wedding. His illustrating detail is the fact that Samantha's suit, on loan from her aunt, was four sizes too big. What he doesn't say is what he must have been feeling: anger, jealousy, and betrayal, surely? Among other things.

Of course, polyamory (a word that doesn't get a single mention in the film) has its supporters and practitioners, and none of them is likely to be surprised or enlightened by Three of Hearts. Those who choose conscious non-monogamy deal with its issues and questions all the time. But anyone who's interested in how relationships work (and don't) will be transfixed by this film. It's far less about being a member of a ménage à trois than it is about being a human being in search of the things that humans search for: comfort, companionship, joy, fun, and love.

In the end, Three of Hearts is a quiet movie about three people living their lives and coming into increasing consciousness about those lives. Why did they choose what they did, when they did? How did it serve them then? Does it serve them now? Who are they really, and what do they really want? If this kind of contemplative self-exploration is your cup of tea, Three of Hearts is essential viewing.

 
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