Third Person is a tentative, huddled title, so elusive I had to confirm it before I began to write. Yet try as I might—and I suspect others have labored in the same pursuit, the author even—I can think of nothing more suitable or convincing. So does this rare and beguiling film deserve such titular oblivion? Is there no way of warning that it is unlike anything you have seen? I did think of other titles—As He Sat Dreaming; Watch Me; The Author Theory—but they may be fanciful, literary, and in danger of giving the game away. At least they offer some hint that a game is being played.
Not that Paul Haggis has a reputation for play. He is one of our most accomplished and successful scenarists. He made a very effective movie out of the boxing stories of F. X. Toole to produce Million Dollar Baby. It won Best Picture, while striking Andrew Sarris as one of the more depressing films he had ever seen. Another Best Picture Oscar came to Haggis for Crash, which he wrote and directed. That seemed very promising in description: a series of Los Angeles stories, kept separate but with binding themes involving accident, race, and responsibility. But the picture turned out to be precious and artificial. It was as if Haggis’s social pessimism was tied up in too neat a bow. You could say that Crash aspired to the feeling you get in some Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson films—Nashville or Magnolia—of the narrative diversity within a city. But Crash felt tidy and disapproving next to the soaring looseness of Magnolia. Anderson and Altman had been exhilarated by coincidence and its discovery. There was innate humor in their point of view. Haggis, by contrast, seemed tight and troubled. Then he made In the Valley of Elah, a meticulously crafted military mystery that never escaped the gloom of Tommy Lee Jones as the father trying to explain the death of his son.
Third Person springs from these roots, though I must be careful in outlining its story, just as you may prefer to go no farther if you plan to see this picture. You should see it. It is a very special film in which the thrill of discovery is vital and exquisite. Imagine three cards on a table: Paris, Rome, and New York. In an expensive hotel in Paris, a successful novelist, Michael (Liam Neeson), is trying to work on a new book. Not long ago he left his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger), and he is now in an affair with the younger Anna (Olivia Wilde), who herself wants to be a writer.
But then, rather as in Crash, the film shifts attention from one story to another, and we go to Rome, where Scott (Adrien Brody) steals designs from fashion houses to sell to rivals, and seems detached from or dubious about any life of his own. One day he goes into a bar and sees Monika (Moran Atias), a fierce Roma woman who is attempting to retrieve her daughter from a cruel trader in kidnapped lives. Scott is drawn to this woman and he begins to give her his money and his help to buy the daughter back. Can her story become his life?
The third situation is in New York. Julia (Mila Kunis) is fighting a custody battle with her ex-husband, Rick (James Franco), over their young son. She was a soap-opera actress once, but she has fallen on hard times and now works as a maid in a hotel. She has a lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello), who is attempting to present her untidy, unpunctual client’s case in court. Meanwhile Rick has become a successful artist and he now lives with a fresh lover, Sam (Loan Chabanol).
A part of me hopes that you are no longer reading, for I am close to spilling the beans. On the other hand, if you are not reading, how are you going to have any sniff of beans to be had? The premature wariness—that this is an international version of Crash—does set in, and Haggis is given to tongue-and-groove fits that can become as airless as chess. So all the situations here are fraught love stories that involve damage or a threat to a young child. But then a faint melody called coincidence appears. It seems that Scott’s deserted wife is Theresa. That is only the beginning of a delicate pattern-making. What emerges gradually—by which I mean slowly and mysteriously—is the way these stories from Rome and New York are material that Michael is working on for his new book, and they are all versions of his unhappy and confused life.
I won’t say the three stories are in balance or given the best chance to work as a unity. In part that is because the Michael-Anna relationship is better written and played with greater vivacity. Liam Neeson seems to have been trudging through a number of mediocre pictures lately, usually about family stress on a middle-aged man. But he is an honest actor and a wry physical presence, and these roles match the public sympathy for him since the abrupt loss of his wife, Natasha Richardson. You can believe he is a real writer torn over a vibrant trophy mistress who is also a would-be writer he is tempted to demolish. She is played with bare-faced panache by Olivia Wilde (bare in other ways, too)—I will only hint that Anna has another aspect to her life, so nasty that, if I were to spell it out, could smack of raw but unexplored melodrama.
The other actors in the film do not match Neeson and Wilde. The Scott-Monika story is harder to believe and Julia, Rick, and Sam seem anemic. Never mind: in the last quarter of the film (it’s a full 137 minutes) a genuine fascination dawns so that you begin trying to think of a new title while wishing that Haggis might have risked a lighter mood. Writers such as Michael can be rascals, but their playfulness is energizing. When it rained frogs in Magnolia, Anderson’s reaction was amazed and fit to laugh. Haggis would have made it feel like a Biblical curse.
The strategy of seeing the stories as attempts at elegance made by a writer who is himself as much the victim of their pain and difficulty as his characters is ripe for comedy, but Haggis doesn’t do comedy. His picture leaves the impression that it is not just a burden to be a writer, it is also morally reprehensible—because the writer coolly, or coldly, sucks on life to steal the elements of his fictions. There is even a moment where Michael is seen quickly typing up anguished words from someone once dear to him to use as publishable dialogue. The film finds this horrible, as you can tell from its tone, and no one can deny the cheating and exploitation in Michael’s eavesdropping on his own life. But it is also human, devious, and comic.
Haggis is entranced by this duplicity and by the two-faced nature of literary creation. He could hardly mount the edifice of Third Person without that sense of humor. Yes, it is hard to juggle the pain of characters with the exhilaration of their creation, though that sensibility thrives in Renoir, Buñuel, Ophüls, Sturges, and even Bergman at times. That would suggest it is not very American, and I fear the agile transition from gravity to amusement sits uneasily in the American imagination. Could a complete American have done the slippage from comedy to tragedy in that very American book Lolita? Yet Nabokov is a master of this playfulness when the process of creation becomes an inescapable subject of the work. I know one other comparable film, Alain Resnais’s Providence, in which John Gielgud plays a novelist. Haggis has not seemed to be working in that tradition. His two other films for Clint Eastwood—Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima—are grim war pictures. What else could they be? Yet Flags does have an ear for the blithe fraud in an iconic incident from history, and Haggis’s last picture before this, The Next Three Days, was a step toward artful contrivance. It was a murder story and a prison-escape picture that turned its own elements inside out. It felt so knowing about screenwriting that it came close to satire or deconstruction. Now Third Person seems like a clear statement of intent. But if Haggis remains convinced that artists are simply chronic betrayers of the real people in their lives, then his films are likely to continue to come out solemn and ponderous.
Third Person has some problems, none as serious as whether it can hold an audience. It reveals an intellect in Haggis and an interest in narrative form for its own sake that is surprising and rewarding. This really is one of the dark-horse pictures of the year. Its deepest feelings are for narrative puzzle and its solutions, so it is some way from the blunt emotional impact usually associated with movie success. See it once; see it twice.
David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Sixth Edition) (Knopf).