Tom Tykwer’s 3 eschews convention to tell the story of how three sophisticated people fall for each other. There are no meet-cutes or heartfelt romantic declarations. The characters in 3 are intelligent and flawed people, capable of joy when they surprise themselves. A lot of sex happens in this movie, but Tykwer does not use sex as a punch line or a plot complication. In fact, there are few discussions of orientation or identity. Through intricate editing and sumptuous cinematography, Tykwer intriguingly suggests such entanglements are more about biological mutation than they are about love.
Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper) are mostly happy. They’re both around forty and live in Berlin, each with interesting jobs. Lately, Simon cannot get Hanna on the phone, and their new-found independence suits them, at least until Simon gets diagnosed with testicular cancer. Now when he calls Hanna, she’s out with Adam (Devid Striesow), a medical scientist. Simon has emergency surgery on the night Hanna first sleeps with Adam, and while she’s there when he awakens, he’s ready for other people, too. At a swimming pool, Simon and Adam have an anonymous sexual encounter – Simon’s first with another man. The two affairs unfold concurrently – Adam is unaware Simon and Hanna are together – at least until the three realize what is happening.
Spoilers are immaterial for an impressionistic, cerebral movie like this. We know Hanna and Simon will learn about their respective affairs with Adam. The journey is what matters here, and Tykwer’s filmmaking matches what his characters are feeling. When Hanna and Adam chat at a party, the slowly zooming camera matches their tentative intimacy. The first scene with Adam and Simon is trickier since creates a new kind of exposure for him. Tykwer and Striesow underplay the scene, making it all about body language and deliberate eye contact, so we understand how Adam seduces Simon. Aside from a scene where Simon tells Adam he isn’t gay, Tykwer shows little interest in simplistic categories. He sees sex as a chance for heedless joy, and genital pairings are incidental to chemistry.
The actors are quirky without being twee, and each one gives a uniquely affecting performance. Rois plays Hanna as a chipper neurotic, one who uses bitter jokes and gruff body language as a defense mechanism. As Simon, Schipper is more sensitive and empathetic. Though a spark is gone during their scenes together, we can see why he and Hanna once made a terrific pair. Striesow, naturally, has a trickiest role, and his physical features are an asset. With an open, friendly face, he’s welcoming without appearing to be a lothario. And once the three become aware of another, the actors avoid high drama and resolutely stay in character. Without being showy, the sensibilities of the Tykwer and his cast are in perfect sync.
From Run Lola Run onward, Tom Tykwer has been a fascinating director to watch. His characters show us through they are through action, whether it’s through a sprint or a tracheotomy or an orgy. With 3, Tykwer’s matures and grows more ambitious. His characters show us not just who they are, but how they feel. Dialog is there to supplement the action and add moments of throwaway comedy, but I bet his movie could be have been equally effective, if not more, had Tykwer abandoned dialog altogether. Wordless or not, 3 is about how science creates the deepest personal connections, and how trust alongside vulnerability allows them to grow.