Heavenly Ménages à Trois

The other night I watched “Days of Heaven” for the millionth time. That’s an exaggeration of course, but it is one of my favorite movies and I went through a period when I would watch it every time I was bored or in need of inspiration. With a new print screening at the Film Forum in New York, it was time to see Terrence Malick’s near-perfect film again and again immerse myself in its tragic love triangle.

Bill (Richard Gere), a factory worker, leaves Chicago to work on a farm in the Texas panhandle with his sister (Linda Manz) and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), who poses as their sister to avoid gossip. When they learn that the farmer (Sam Shepard), who has taken a liking to Abby, is terminally ill, they decide to stay on when the other seasonal workers have gone, seizing an opportunity for a more comfortable life. Abby marries the farmer and the foursome live heavenly days until the triangle barely supporting them crumbles, pushing all three characters toward tragedy.

Terrence Malick is a brilliant writer and director whose breathtaking compositions (captured by über-DP Nestor Alemendros, who won the 1978 Oscar for the film), patient editing style and signature narration—Manz’s childishly innocent, funny and insightful narration is a masterpiece in itself—but let’s be honest: As far as subjects go, there are few situations—in art or in life—that are more loaded with potential for drama than the love triangle, a plot device that has generated many movies great and small.

Most common is the simple story of a nice guy/girl who’s torn between two lovers: the wrong one, who likely has certain compelling attributes like parental approval rating or a real job, and the right one a.k.a. the soul mate, who likely lives right under Guy/Girl’s nose but goes sadly unnoticed as Guy/Girl is busy being dazzled by Mr./Ms Wrong. Think: “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Sabrina,” “Reality Bites,” Bridget Jones’ Diary.” Or alternatively, Soul Mate stumbles upon Nice Guy/Girl’s path unexpectedly, subsequently messing up plans often matrimonial in nature: “The Wedding Planner,” “Arthur,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “A Room with a View.” If this is a romantic comedy, which often it is, generally all’s well that ends well and Nice Guy/Girl winds up in the arms that are destined to hold him/her until death do they part. And mean/stupid/boring Mr./Ms Wrong runs off with someone suitably mean/stupid/boring—or into a hole all by his/her lonesome where he/she probably belongs.

Then again, some of the more interesting love triangles aren’t so warm, cuddly or predictable, often involving cheating spouses. In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Tomas loves both his wife (Juliette Binoche) and his long-time mistress (Lena Olin). Frederick in “Chloé in the Afternoon” plays with the idea of playing with a nubile young thing only to confirm that he still loves his wife. In “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” a young wife falls for the suicidal brother of her husband, whom she also loves. While generally these situations settle themselves in favor of one or another of the prospective life mates, in some unfortunate cases, when easy excision of one of the triangle’s sides is not a possibility, somebody often winds up dead. See “Unfaithful,” “Diaboliques,” “Deathtrap,” “Amantes.”

And then there are the really interesting cinematic three-way love affairs, those that don’t fit into any particular mold, tapping into the emotions ranging from the jealousy to bliss to homicidal rage that can occur when she loves him but he loves her, or he loves them both, or she can’t decide which one she loves best (the case in “Days of Heaven”). Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons” stars John Malkovich and Glenn Close as bored aristocrats in 18th century France who play with people’s lives as if they were hamsters in a habitrail, often through the art of seduction. Close shudders with glee, for example, when Malkovich beds a blushing bride-to-be (Uma Thurman) whose fiancé she once loved. She licks her lips, too, when he prepares to seduce a devout married woman (Michelle Pfeiffer)—but can she handle it if her partner in crime and in bed falls in love?

Other atypically appealing love triangles include “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the poetic soldier with a warm heart and enormous schnoz whose heartbreaking story has been depicted again and again, most famously by Gérard Depardieu (and by Steve Martin in the comically uplifting version, “Roxanne”). Cyrano loves Roxanne, but she yearns for the fine-featured Christian, who woos her with letters written by none other than Cyrano. Nobody wins in this triangular tale where nothing is as it appears. Lessons are learned in “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” in which two teenagers (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) embark on an adventure with a sexy older woman (Maribel Verdú) that leaves their friendship forever altered. And in what is often considered the greatest triangle of all, François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” which also has best friends falling for the same girl, the Bohemian lovefest must inevitably and tragically come to an end—as do the days of heaven.

What makes Malick’s vision as powerful as Truffaut’s is the compassion we feel for all the characters involved. Nobody is wrong—they just act from the gut and the heart. And there is no clear wrong man or right man for Abby. Both are handsome and kind and both adore her. So who does not empathize as Bill watches his Abby marry another man? Or feel the farmer’s rage when he witnesses a kiss between Bill and his wife that is far from brotherly? And what about the girl caught between them, who is not given a point of view so much as providing the emotional catalyst for a violent, almost primal battle between two very different men—one gentle, one rash, one rich, one poor, both passionately in love with her? How can we not feel for this woman who pledges eternal fidelity to another man at the behest of her lover, only to find herself falling a little bit in love with the one who provides for her? With no reasonable resolution in sight, what heart does not ache as three people in love hurtle themselves toward inevitable doom?