Showing how three individuals create a family, Three of Hearts underlines how the idea and the experience change over time.
"Sorry we're late!" chirp Sam and Steven, coming home after a day at work. Greeted by their wife Samantha, they wonder, "Did you get the test yet?" Even before they begin explaining, you know: they mean the home pregnancy test.
The beginning of Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Love Story is at once conventional and not. On its surface, the introduction to this happy marriage of three people looks like a scene from a sitcom, the performances bright and the apartment space tight. At the same time, the 2005 film -- which screens 10 May at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with director Susan Kaplan -- is utterly upfront about its status as such.
In framing events and individuals in a storyline, the film makes visible their efforts to make sense, to name themselves and each other, to create a new sort of family. To this end, the documentary offers a series of episodes marked by captions ("Sam's brother") and title cards ("18 months later"). By the time you come to the film's end, and the film thanks Sam Cagnina, Steven Margolin, and Samantha Singh "for sharing the last eight years with us," you feel like part of that us. And not.
Maintaining this set of delicate tensions, Three of Hearts both respects and, to an unusual extent, reveals its subjects. While it's easy to see how they seemed remarkable and compelling subjects for a documentary, Sam, Steven, and Samantha are from the start very aware of the camera, speaking to it and performing for it. Again and again, they describe their situation and what they feel about that situation. As each recalls how they met, and how they decided to live as three, you see snapshots of their younger selves or home movie recordings with visible time-stamps.
These images convey both history and change, expectations and thought processes. "I'd been with Sam for seven years before we met Samantha," says Steven, adding that he'd been with both men and women before that. "It wasn’t a sex that I was capable of falling in love with," he says, "It was a person." For Sam, apparently, coming to a sense of his identity -- and his sexuality -- was more complicated. As he describes his childhood, the film shows a clip of Anita Bryant proclaiming that homosexuals "are not born that way, that they can be delivered through faith and trust in Jesus Christ." Sam reflects, "My mother said, 'I'd beat the shit out of you.' Oh my God," he sighs, "I could never tell anyone what was going on with me." The film cuts here, from Sam in interviewee's repose to a knife, chopping hard: it's Steven and Sam in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Sam goes on, remembering how he formulated the idea to himself: "Wouldn't it be great to have a woman in the relationship, who would fall in love with both of us?"
And so, Sam and Steven narrate, they tried more than once to "bring a woman into the relationship," not quite explaining, "It just didn't work" until they met Samantha. Following some discussion of the prospect, she says, she agreed to try it after she saw Wings of Desire. "This angel who comes down because he wants to experience love," she says, "I think in that night, I did he same thing. I went out there and tried something different."
And yet, all three suggest repeatedly that they were seeking something that was less different than the same... or rather, the same but better. Samantha remembers believing she'd met an ideal combination of men, one who was "reliable" and another who was "funny," and Sam helpfully demonstrates his role as the latter: "You can't call it monogamy, though, can you?" he asks, before conjuring a potential label: "Poly-gamy?"
As they laugh and smile and answer questions, they also have lives (including a thriving chiropractic and therapeutic massage business, set up in an office where all three have roles) as well as changing expectations. For the film's sake -- at least -- they sort through definitions, sometimes to assert their otherness but just as often to insist on their likeness to everyone else. They don't so much resist categories as they reassign them: when Samantha's sister Sabina describes her as a "tomboy" and Samantha calls herself a "princess" ("What woman wouldn’t want that, you know?"), Steven's sister Tami offers her version: "They'd buy her clothes and they'd buy her presents and they'd shop for her and, I mean, really took care of her, like you’ve never seen. And they did they treated he better than most men treat their wives."
Elucidating their choices and goals, Sam and Steven and Samantha begin to see themselves, and each other, differently. They enter into therapy, separately and together. They have a first child, Siena, and then a second, Summit. And as their "trinogomous" relationship changes, as it comes to a plainly difficult end after 13 years, they explain some more. Here the film doesn't change shape so much as it accommodates new separate self-articulations. The camera follows them through a new office (and aptly metaphorical construction problems), a new apartment, a new sense of each other. Perhaps most strikingly, they bring in a mediator to help establish "boundaries" and financial obligations. The camera follows behind as he walks from dining room to bedroom, to deliver conditions and rejections, as the three can no longer sit together in the same space. "I didn’t create this family," he tells them, "You guys did."
As it begins and ends on this note -- creating a family -- Three of Hearts underlines how the idea and the experience change over time. Strikingly, such changes have as much to do with trying to be "like everyone else" as with trying to be "different." Samantha reveals that she at first didn't say anything about the breakup she felt was coming because "I didn’t want to rock the happy boat." And Sam says, "I was trying to be as normal as I could be in the craziness of my life. Was Samantha a way of fitting in? I think there's some truth to that." Some truth, but not all of it. For all the revealing and performing and articulating in Three of Hearts, what seems clearest by its end is that truth is always shifting.