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TANGLED TRIOS SIX THREESOME STORIES FOR THE PRICE OF TWO

THE ROMANTIC threesome has long held a special place in art films, especially in those of the French, where the trinity is indeed holy. Despite the many deservedly celebrated contributions of France to Western culture (including their films), I believe that this particular notion belongs in the Bad Idea Hall of Fame, along with their inexplicable fondness for mimes and Jerry Lewis.

People are complicated, and if life in these United States is any indicator, the process of getting two people to bond has become too complicated for us to manage. The very idea of trying to get three people to merge is really too appalling to contemplate. (Maybe it's time to promote the concept of the "onesome" as part of a back-to-basics movement for the start of a new century. The all-important catchy slogan could be found in the poet Philip Larkin's line that "sex is too good to share.") But for those who remain enamored with the idea of a threesome, have I got a deal for you. Two recent video releases each offer three stories that revolve around threesomes. That's right, six threesomes for the price of two. Think of it as a midsummer cinematic special.

Eric Rohmer has been offering up what he calls his "morality plays" for decades now, and "Rendezvous in Paris" continues his obsession with the dynamics of what happens between men and women. There are those who feel that his films are little gems of subtlety, nuance and sophistication, while others credit them with providing about the same degree of excitement as watching paint dry. I personally enjoy Rohmer films, primarily because they're so peaceful. They're full of warm images of buildings and streets that seem to embrace the people who inhabit them, streetscapes that have clearly been designed by and for people who look upon everyday life as an art. If much of American "carchitecture" looks to you like the end of civilization, you might enjoy the soft textures and gentility of Rohmer's films, despite the fact that absolutely nothing ever seems to happen in them.

The absence of a plot, coupled with a visual richness that is impossible to adequately put into words, make Rohmer films excruciatingly difficult to write about. In fact, I have a theory that any reviewer who's assigned a Rohmer film is probably being punished for some reason by his or her editor (honest, I rarely have a third martini at cocktail parties, and I never would have told that how-many-editors-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-light-bulb joke if I had known that she was his wife).

The difficulties involved in writing about Rohmer films have not, however, kept many reviewers from expending many words on the deep symbolic structure of them, but every time I hear the word "symbol," I'm reminded of the time I brought a friend to a relative's funeral. It was a traditional Requiem Mass, with a full choir singing in Latin, rich vestments, bells, incense and all the accompanying ritual. My friend, who was unfamiliar with Catholic rites, was utterly captivated, and at a certain point asked me what was symbolized by the fact that the widow sat barefoot in her pew, and I had to reply that it symbolized that her feet hurt.

"Rendezvous in Paris" is diminished slightly, I think, by its short-story format (Rohmer's really more of a distance man) and by its attempt to be contemporary (its lovers all fail to connect), but it remains vintage Rohmer: a crystalline idea (in this case, three crystalline ideas) wrapped in a visually appealing package.

Hal Hartley's "Flirt" is a clever bit of filmmaking that presents the same story three times in succession, with different settings, different atmospheres and different actors interpreting the same script. It is an intriguing, if somewhat academic, exercise, which reminds us how many ways there are to tell a story. It will be appreciated by those who would enjoy watching an automobile being assembled or disassembled, a film for those who enjoy the experience of process. Those who prefer to set their gaze upon an end product should look elsewhere.

The story revolves around a melancholy love triangle. The first version is set in New York City, the second in Berlin and the third in Tokyo, and it soon becomes clear that the flirting suggested by the title has nothing to do with the characters in the film. They are too completely focused on their dilemma for any such indulgence. It's Hartley who's doing the flirting here, with the medium of film and with us, the viewers. The result, like the gentle art of flirtation itself, is pleasantly engaging.

It should be noted that Hartley is not trying to create a "Rashomon" experience, where one event is seen from several points of view, nor is he trying to duplicate the experience of seeing a play by Shakespeare that we think we know well, only to be stunned (yet again) by the variety of interpretations to which his words lend themselves. Hartley's intention in "Flirt" is to show us how the visual elements of a film can alter the nature of a story. He succeeds in his intent, revealing a painful truth about film for those of us who also love words: that words are secondary to images.

There is one important instance, though, where words do take precedence in "Flirt." There is a scene in each of the versions of the story where the pivotal character in the love triangle poses identical questions to a group of strangers. In the New York City segment, they're men in the bathroom of a local bar; in the Berlin segment, they're a group of construction workers on their lunch break, and in the Tokyo segment, they're a group of women in the holding cell of a jail. What distinguishes these scenes is that the strangers' responses to the questions are the only lines that change in the different versions. Their responses, like the choruses of classical Greek drama that they are clearly emulating, stand out for their uniqueness and provide that particular scene in each version with considerable resonance.

I much preferred the version of the story that is set in Tokyo. The characters are dancers, who often appear in white body makeup and stylized costumes so that it has a decidely ritualistic feeling about it, which is enhanced by an ethereal musical score. The two people I watched this film with, though, just as clearly preferred the other segments, which underscores the fact that Hartley has told three distinctly different stories despite having used virtually identical scripts.

One final note of warning: Though the jacket of "Flirt" uses sexually suggestive photographs, potential viewers should be advised that this is not a sexually titillating film by any means. Like "Rendezvous in Paris," it's a film that revolves around ideas.

FLIRT 1996, R, 85 minutes, Columbia TriStar Home Video (in release)
RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS 1995, no rating, 100 minutes, French with subtitles, New Yorker Video (in release this week)

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