One of the first scenes in Paul Haggis’ Third Person, shows a woman enter a cab in downtown Paris and hastily change her clothes in the backseat as the driver lasciviously looks on in the rear view mirror. Flashes of a lace and skin are seen as she adroitly and gracefully puts herself together for someone she is obviously eager to impress.
It is revealed that the woman is Anna (Olivia Wilde), a young author, who has arrived to meet her lover and mentor, Michael (Liam Neeson). When she saunters down the hallway before knocking on his hotel room door, she looks nervous and eager, but that quickly fades when he opens the door and she greets him with a cold, calculated and ungrateful, “You flew me here on points?”
That smoke and mirrors theme - where characters say one thing, but feel something entirely different, where appearances mask true underlying emotions and where one’s outside appearance is paramount – is the driving force behind the film.
“All these people are in denial of things they can’t face and the whole movie is about that,” Haggis explained while sitting beside one of the films stars, Hafia native Moran Attias, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier this week.
“We never come to a relationship, as a pure, exposed, naked being. There is always a projection of something,” Attias added.
Haggis credited Attias for sparking the idea for the film. After wrapping up his 2010 feature The Next Three Days, she approached him about doing a multi-faceted story on love and relationships. Specifically, how every relationship we enter into has another third party force exerting control and, sometimes, even sabotaging that relationship.
“Every relationship, there’s always a third party. It could be your work, your art, your parents, your ex, yourself, your own demons,” she said.
Haggis, then, went one step further and added the element of an emotionally numb writer (Neeson) who only feels through his characters as the film’s anchor. “You really don’t feel a thing. You love love, it’s people you don’t have time for,” Michael’s wife, played by Kim Bassinger, says accusingly. So far removed is he from his own feelings, that he even journals in third person.
At its core, the film is about three interlocked and complicated love stories set in three of the most beautiful cities in the world.
In Paris - Michael and Anna, two ambitious authors who are engaged in a cruel dance of love and one-upmanship.
In Rome – Scott (Adrian Brody), an American businessman who hates all things Italian, but is captivated by Monika (Moran Attias), a Roma who gets him entangled with debt she owes to some very seedy and dangerous Italian mobsters.
In New York – Rick (James Franco) and Julia (Mila Kunis) are fighting a very contentious custody battle that turns from bad to worse.
And, as anyone familiar with Haggis’ first Oscar winning screenplay Crash can guess, these three disparate plots converge, collide and coincide.
The romantic cobblestone alleys of Rome, charming cafes of Paris and chaotic streets of Manhattan certainly make for a glamorous veneer and backdrop to how cruel we can be to people we purport to love.
The film sports an impressive ensemble cast and everyone is in fine form. Olivia Wilde, though, stands out as the emotionally tortured and broken Anna. She manages to make her character appear both cold and vulnerable; confident yet unsure; aloof and yet sensitive all at the same time. It’s a performance that would seem like a schizophrenic mess in less capable hands, but she manages to make it work.
Kunis, too, is impressive as a frazzled mother who is desperately fighting back visitation rights to see her child after being accused of doing something reprehensible to him.
It is interesting that most scenes take place in hotel rooms. Anna and Michael conduct their love affair in a posh Parisian suite, Kunis works as a housekeeper in a Manhattan hotel and Monika and Scott shack up in a run down hotel room outside Rome’s city limits. This implication that all of the characters are transient, lost souls floating through an abyss is mesmerizing.
However, as a viewer, one can’t help feel a little bit cold. What are we supposed to take away from this? Is this really love? If so, perhaps it would be best to sit this one out.
There is a scene where Michael’s editor critiques his new book and says that the first one was revolutionary and everything he churned out afterwards deteriorated in quality. Of his latest offering, he bluntly says that the novel consists of “random characters making various excuses for your life.”
“Why do you think I wrote that line?” Haggis chuckles, when asked if that line came from pressure he felt from his peers after winning an Oscar back to back for Crash and Million Dollar Baby.
“Every writer fears that they’ve done their best work at the beginning and they’ll never be as good. Is it true? No. But do I think it’s something worth exploring? Absolutely,” he said.
While Third Person is not a mishmash of “random characters,” it is, unfortunately, like its protagonist, too cold, too calculating to be warmly embraced.