Streaming: the best love triangle films

Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade, starring Juliette Binoche, joins other classics where three’s a crowd, from The Piano to The Favourite

Call it the original triangle of sadness. As much as the mores and taboos of screen romance have shifted over the decades, the love triangle has remained a constant: a problem that screenwriters rarely manage to solve without someone being hurt or worse. Ménage à trois solutions are rare; heteronormative coupledom must usually prevail. And yet our fascination endures with the simultaneously simple and wildly complicated crisis of loving two people at once – rarely depicted with more adult candour than in Claire Denis’s new drama Both Sides of the Blade, now streaming on Mubi.

Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche in Both Sides of the Blade.
Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche in Both Sides of the Blade. Photograph: Publicity image

The story is slender but urgent: radio presenter Sara (Juliette Binoche) is happy in her 10-year marriage to former rugby player Jean (Vincent Lindon) until a chance sighting of her estranged ex François (Grégoire Colin) knocks her sideways, bringing unresolved feelings and suppressed discontent to the surface. What many would film as a soap opera is instead treated by tough-minded sensualist Denis as a study in emotional violence, fearlessly acted by the principals. You don’t especially root for any one side of the romance so much as hope they all make it out alive.

French cinema, naturally, has perfected the form, whether treating lovers as chess pieces in Max Ophüls’s glorious The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), a lavish belle epoque carousel of hearts that loves the game more than it does the players, or stripping things back to the frank New Wave modernity of François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), where the vibrant, free-thinking Jeanne Moreau ostensibly comes between two male pals, though it’d be more accurate to say she’s the locus of their friendship.

Depending on how you tilt it, the love triangle can be played for effervescent comedy or shattering drama. On the latter front, romantic conflict has rarely been as life-and-death elemental or ultimately cathartic as in FW Murnau’s immortal 1927 silent movie Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (free to watch, with ads, on Amazon Freevee), a town-versus-country duel whose very title tips you off as to which pairing is the true one, though it’s no less moving for its preordained conclusion. Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), a searingly erotic fable of abuse and self-liberation, often plays like a silent film transplanted to a more feminist storytelling era, and not just because of Holly Hunter’s mute, haunting heroine. And in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), one dazzling golden-hour composition after another doesn’t mollify the raw feeling driving its rural romance of duplicitous seduction and switched allegiances.

It’s a world away from the fleet, sparkling roundelay of affections in a romantic comedy such as George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1941), where hearts are traded as quickly and easily as casual, witty barbs, and a Shakespearean all’s-well-that-ends-well sensibility tends to smooth over any hurt feelings. Billy Wilder used the formula to put different generations of masculinity in competition – over a perfectly winsome Audrey Hepburn, of course – in Sabrina (1954), with Humphrey Bogart’s crusty paternalism prevailing over William Holden’s flash machismo. The most interesting modern twist on the triangulated romcom, meanwhile, remains My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), in which Julia Roberts’s calculated nuptials-crasher is both heroine and villain, too smart by half for the sweetly dull coupling she’s trying to disrupt.

Julia Roberts’s ‘nuptials-crasher’, right, with Cameron Diaz and Dermot Mulroney in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Julia Roberts’s ‘nuptials-crasher’, right, with Cameron Diaz and Dermot Mulroney in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Alamy Photograph: Maximum Film/Alamy

Queer love triangles, meanwhile, have their own rules and codes – and ought to be considerably more interesting than the drab melodrama of the recent Harry Styles vehicle My Policeman (Prime Video). The underseen German film Free Fall (2013) covers comparable territory – with a cop protagonist to boot – in far more muscular fashion. Sadly unavailable to stream, but on DVD, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) remains the great example of bisexual complexity, while Alfonso Cuarón’s wonderful Y Tu Mamá También (2001), also available only on DVD, uses a multidirectional threesome to open up the world for two young men still learning what they want in life. Finally, Yorgos Lanthimos’s wily, hilarious The Favourite (2018) proves that love triangles can be most riveting when you take men out of the equation entirely, or at least leave them as patsies on the side.

Also new on streaming and DVD

UK Jewish film festival online
After unfolding in cinemas over the past week, this annual feast of Jewish-oriented movies will open itself to streaming audiences from 21 to 27 November. Highlights of the programme include Israel’s official 2023 Oscars submission Cinema Sabaya, an uplifting portrait of a women’s film-making collective, and the stirring gay sports drama The Swimmer.

Jordan Peele’s exquisitely crafted, sleekly cryptic, western-infused UFO puzzler doesn’t have the crowd-pleasing immediacy of Get Out or the startling metaphorical power of Us, but still offers plenty to tease the mind and senses, confirming his status as one of Hollywood’s most essential current genre artists.

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in The Forgiven
Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in the ‘luridly diverting’ The Forgiven. Photograph: Nick Wall

The Forgiven
(All platforms from 21 November)
John Michael McDonagh’s thriller about wealthy Londoners facing the consequences of a hit and run in the Moroccan desert has a 1990s-style travelogue gloss that slightly dulls the political impact of its story – but it’s luridly diverting and excellently played by Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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