Thursday, June 09, 2011

Tom Tykwer's 3 & menage-à-trois

I remember meeting Terry Goldie a long time ago, perhaps in 2005. An openly gay man and an academic who teaches at the York University in Ontario, Canada, he was in Pune for a short visit and I was asked to show him around. While travelling in the city on an autorickshaw, which he loved, we talked about many things. One of the subjects was gay marriage, which was recently legalised in Canada. I asked him if he knew any gay couple who got married. He said he did not, but he had heard of one couple who was seeking divorce (which was but quite natural. Divorce is the next step of a marriage, whether gay or straight).

Then he told me his theory. For Terry, marriage is always between man and woman. A woman is needed for a man for the family to be complete, if nothing else, to continue the cycle of procreation, which is also very important. But, if a gay man gets married, he would not only live the life in a lie, he would also betray his wife, I had told him. Not necessarily, Terry had said. The wife can accept her husband’s homosexuality and accept his escapades outside the marriage. In time perhaps, the wife and the lover can live together, in harmony (Remember the song from Casablanca: “Woman needs man, and man must have his mate...”).

The idea sounded too much like a wishfulfilment, an utopia, and too simplistic.

Now, after seeing Tom Tykwer’s new German film Drei (3 in English), I remembered Terry, and realised how his theory is catching on. For, Drei proposes the same idea, a happily-ever-after-threesome relationship.

A forty-something couple, both well-placed and settled in their careers, are drifting away from each other, and eventually fall in love with the same man, helpfully called Adam. Inevitably, as the film comes to an end, they find out about it and about each other. The wife also finds out that she is pregnant, perhaps with Adam’s child. She reconciles with her husband, and both go to the lover’s place. Here we have the final scene, with all three of them naked, in bed, with the lover between the couple.

The argument is too easy to be taken seriously. Yet, the film takes itself so seriously that it’s not easy to dismiss it altogether. Apart from dealing with the fluid nature of sexuality where the characters are ready to experiment, the film deals with so many other issues, mortality, for instance, and urban loneliness and ethics, and so on. The film hasn’t been released in the English-speaking world yet and I saw a copy in original German without subtitles, and my German is not good.

Yet, the film makes you think. It is directed by Tom Tykwer who did the brilliant Run Lola Run (1998), Evocative Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), and wonderful but under-appreciated espionage thriller The International (2009) with Clive Owen and Naomi Watts.

The structure and narration of the film is contrived, not doubt, but Tykwer presents the scenes with art-house seriousness, with stupendous photography (the way he shoots the people inside the houses in long shots from outside), and innovative editing. Tykwer offers rationales and time for the husband and wife, Hanna and Simon, to explore the clandestine relationships. To be fair to them, it’s Adam who seduces both. Both try to resist Adam’s advances, Hanna more than Simon (who is obviously curious when someone who’d just met in a public swimming pool offers to give him a handjob, and he enjoys it immensely.) There are shots of Simon being penetrated by his lover and vice-versa, and the lover spending quality time with Hanna.

There is this saying — two is company, three is crowd. Perhaps the film argues that sometimes companionship is not enough, you need an outside agent to spice up your life.

That way threesome, love triangles or as the French call it, menage-à-trois, is not a new thing. It has been a classic storytelling device from time immemorial: the perennial ‘ek phool do mali’ (one flower and two gardener) situation: Two women in love with the same man, two men in love with the same woman. What Tykwer problematises is the ending: the possibility for each of the axis in the love triangle to be happy.

This is a departure, for, formula demands that in a love triangle, one of the persons of the same sex must sacrifice; if there’s two men, one must back out, either die or disappear... you remember all those classic Hindi blockbusters, from Andaz to Sangam (Raj Kapoor, Nagris, Dilip Kumar triangle in Andaz). Death is an easy solution. There are other solutions, self-sacrifice, or introduction of a fourth character from the opposite sex, who would offer comforts to the character who was rejected. In Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2009), two painters, who had gone through volatile crisis in their relationship, come close with the arrival of the third character, Cristina. Once Cristina disappears from the scene, the couple breaks up again. In the French classic François Truffaut’s Jules est Jim, both love Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine, and at the end Jules is left alone.

Closer home in India, marriage is another issue that decides the fate of a menage-à-trois. So, despite her great love, Nandini must forget about Sameer and return to her husband in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

(In Hindi movies, however, the menage-à-trois doesn’t happen concurrently; it’s always one after another. She would fall in love with the other man only when she realises that her lover is dead. And the lover invariably remembers. That, or she is forcibly married off.)

In classic menage-à-trois, the sexual orientation of the characters involved is strictly heterosexual. This is another area that Tykwer problematises. What happens when the players are all open to experimentation? If it is possible, then I would be upset about all those missed chances. What if Devdas could form a household with both Paro and Chandramukhi? What if Vanraj and Sameer could love each other as Nandini loved both?

More on menage-à-trois here
More on Jules et Jim here.
A review of Terry Goldie’s book queersexlife

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