RATING |

Welcome it as beautiful and meaningful, or curse it as terrifying, but life sometimes seems thoroughly determined by the random and the haphazard, by the unpredictable dance of the universe, the fickle finger of fate.

That, at least, is the world as we encounter it in Three Hearts, an underwhelming, if thoroughly charming, Gallic romance from the accomplished, prolific 68-year-old French writer-director Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen, A Single Girl).

The occasionally moving, emotionally resonant Three Hearts pays homage to that most contingent, electrifying human experience: love at first sight. (The French term, coup de foudre, literally means "thunderbolt.")

The story opens on a bland, unpleasant night in a bland, provincial town, where a bland, if not too unattractive man named Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde) has been stranded. A tax inspector sent from Paris to ply his bland profession, Marc has missed the last train home.

Marc will come to thank his lucky stars. He happens to stop by a bar where, by sheer chance, he encounters a lovely woman who seems undone by melancholy. They are immediately drawn to each other and talk the night away. Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is in turmoil. Her relationship with her boyfriend has gone bad, and her future seems far too uncertain.

The couple end up making love, and promise to meet up again the following week in Paris.

As chance would have it, Marc misses the assignation after suffering a mild heart attack. And, um, as chance would have it (groan), his cellphone has gone walkabout, so he has no way to contact Sylvie.

Seeing his absence as a sign from Fate Itself, Sylvie moves to America with her beau.

Marc never quite gets over her, but he falls in love with an equally wonderful woman named Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni). They marry and begin to build a fine life together until Sophie's sister comes for a family visit. Oops! It turns out, by sheer chance (ahem), that the sister is Sylvie.

Held together by an absurd tissue of coincidences and surprise plot twists that would make many a screenwriter blush, Three Hearts is saved from total mediocrity by its female leads, who include Mastroianni's real-life mother, Catherine Deneuve, as the sisters' mom.

But perhaps the film isn't as simple to dismiss: It leaves behind a nagging feeling, a suggestion there's more to the story than its story.

Look at it again, and it seems clear Jacquot deliberately litters the story with elements that seem to undercut its blather about fate and destiny. That includes the score - from the opening seconds, Three Hearts is accompanied by an oddly suspenseful sound track that seems more appropriate for a Claude Chabrol murder-mystery than a romance.

Is this a clue that the film's hyperbolic handling of its themes marks it as an ironic satire and not a mess of earnest adolescent poetry?

It's too hard to tell, making the film all the more frustrating.

Three Hearts **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Benoît Jacquot. With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Benoît Poelvoorde, Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve. In French with English subtitles. Distributed by Cohen Media Group.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sexual content, brief nudity, thematic material, and smoking).

Playing at: Ritz Bourse.

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