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Tom Tykwer comes home, returns to form with ‘3’

Sebastian Schipper is part of shifting love triangle in “3.’’ Sebastian Schipper is part of shifting love triangle in “3.’’
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 7, 2011

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Sometimes an audience can lose sight of a director. Sometimes a director can lose sight of himself. Tom Tykwer’s “3’’ returns him to his native Germany and to the filmmaking that made him a real cause for celebration when “Run Lola Run’’ opened more than a decade ago. Tykwer is still best known here for that movie and has been somewhat adrift ever since, making big projects - “Perfume,’’ “The International’’ - that never really caught on. Away from a large production, Tykwer now seems like a dog off its leash. “3’’ is the most confident movie he’s made. It’s a funny, fearless, suspenseful sex comedy that, in drawing on science and philosophy and art and death, risks accusations of pretentiousness. But, even in its romantic idealism, the movie proceeds according to recognizable rhythms of how some people live.

The film oscillates among three leisure-class Berliners in their late 30s and early 40s - a doctor and TV personality named Hanna (Sophie Rois), an engineer named Simon (Sebastian Schipper), and Adam (Devid Striesow), a reproductive biologist. Hanna has been living with Simon for years, and they’re so spiritually and domestically connected that they’ve begun taking each other for granted emotionally. One night, he’s stuck at work and stands her up for a theater date, so she goes with a colleague - Adam - who both happens to be there and happens to be the very scientist she sparred with during a medical ethics hearing in one of the opening scenes. She winds up smitten with Adam but no less committed to Simon, who one evening meets Adam and, to his surprise, feels the same.

Adam doesn’t know about Hanna and Simon. Hanna doesn’t know about Simon and Adam. And Simon doesn’t know about Adam and Hanna. The second half of the film is devoted to the suspense of where these three will wind up. “3’’ opens with a woman and two men dancing together in a white space that doubles as the setting for the film’s triumphant final image. Their modern dance is the perfect prologue for a movie looking to turn a pas de trois into a kind of screwball (horizontal, kinetic, intellectual). The intercourse piles up. The near misses do, too. So do the ideas. In conflation of all these disciplines, Tykwer expresses affection for them all. This isn’t a dilettante’s movie. It’s a playful thinker’s. Tykwer throws in dream sequences, angelic hallucinations, diseases, a surgery, lots of art happenings, and bristling scientific discourse. Lots of thrusting, jousting, and eruption, too.

Tykwer’s at his best when his ideas are whizzing at you, when he’s broken the screen into a half-dozen floating panels, when his characters’ uncertainty about what’s next equals his audiences’. The fun of “3,’’ the joy of it really, is that it works in different ways with different viewings. There’s enough going on both beneath this movie and on its surface - visually, in the performances, with Berlin as a great geometric canvas for this eddying equilateral triangle of want and need - to reward curiosity as well as gratify skepticism.

No one would be more skeptical of some of this than Hanna, whose beliefs and judgments and certainties Tykwer’s universe laughs at. Hanna belongs to a long line of funny, principled, professional movie women who don’t need to be liked - Hildy Johnson in “His Girl Friday,’’ Jane Craig in “Broadcast News’’ to name two. Rois’s natural, high-wire performance is just as defiant. This is a bold, braying, sexy, unapologetic piece of acting. The 100 things her strangely handsome face can do with a frown deserve a movie of their own.

Tykwer has put science and art, sex and love, life and death, freedom and repression, in the same petri dish to interact with each other. At the same time, he’s reconsidering both the romantic relationship film - Germany makes as many bad romances as Hollywood does - and the social limits we put on sexual identity.

That he’s able to pull this off - to raise a lot questions without lowering your eyelids - is a major accomplishment. Here Tykwer is the graduate student’s Ernst Lubitsch. He’s also the puppet master, just as he was in “Run Lola Run,’’ “The Princess and the Warrior,’’ and “Heaven.’’ The difference is that Tykwer has, in his mid-40s, figured out how to pull the strings without forgoing feeling or hope. He’s ripened and deepened. There’s now eros in his cosmos.

Wesley Morris can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

3 Written and directed by: Tom Tykwer

Starring: Sophie Rois, Sebastian Schipper, and Devid Striesow

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 119 minutes

In German, with English subtitles

Unrated (plenty of sex and nudity, and one shot of a freshly extracted body part)

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