Issue 73 (2021)

Anna Melikyan: The Three (Troe, 2020)

reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews © 2021

troeThe two opening scenes in Anna Melikyan’s The Three stand in electrifying contrast with one another. The first fixes the camera on the back of a woman’s head as she speeds through urban streets on a motorcycle, the rattle and hum of the bike piercing the viewer’s ears. This woman is electrifying.

The next scene captures a man tying a golden trophy in the shape of a bird around his neck as he walks into the Neva River and slowly sinks below the surface. The process of his drowning is as quiet as the joy ride is loud, but equally gripping for the viewer to watch him slip deeper under water. The meditative sound of bubbles forming around him and the beautiful blue of the water is so inviting that one almost forgets the man may be sinking slowly to his death.

These two worlds collide when the woman from the motorcycle pulls the man from the water, comforting him as he gasps for air and passes out. The tension builds further when the viewer discovers the man has been transported to the woman’s apartment where he lies sleeping as she launders his river-soaked clothing and examines his passport, her eyes revealing recognition, confirming that this man, Aleksandr Sashin, holds some sort of public fame. Aleksandr wakes the next morning, dazed and confused, ogling the exposed breast of the mystery woman sleeping next to him. The first voiceover of the film, presumably narrated by the anonymous woman, prompts the audience with a question, “Love at first sight…what do we do when we experience it?” In the next scene, the man is in a train bound for Moscow, slinking into his apartment as his beautiful wife delivers a self-help seminar via the internet.

troeThe love triangle, anticipated by the film’s title, is established. While the viewer anticipates all of this energy coming together to drive a passion-filled plot, the rest of the film is marked by a slow and unsatisfying dimming of the film’s electric beginning. Fans of Melikyan’s other films, marked by engaging characters and thought-provoking and offbeat narratives, will be particularly disappointed with this film, which lacks either of those features. Noting his disappointment, Meduza’s film critic Anton Dolin (2020) notes, “Three is a target so easy that it isn’t even interesting to shoot one’s critical arrows at it.”

While the film’s plot lacks the expected emotional crescendos and steamy tension of a satisfying love triangle and the characters’ emotional depth is minimal, the impressive acting skills of Viktoria Isakova, Konstantin Khabenskii and Iuliia Peresil’d manage to keep the viewer engaged. They work hard to breathe life into their characters, but can only do so much with the script crafted by Melikyan and Evgeniia Khripkova. In addition to the excellent acting, Nikolai Zheludovich’s camera work stands out as exceptional and it is not surprising that the one award the film received at the 2020 Kinotavr festival was for cinematography. He brings a bohemian warmth to Veronika’s leaky St. Petersburg apartment that stands in contrast to the sleek coldness of Aleksandr and Zlata’s impressive Moscow loft and captures well the continuous theme of water that permeates the film: flowing in rivers, pouring from the sky, dripping from roofs, running from sink taps and raining down from shower heads.

troeOf the three protagonists, Aleksandr (Khabenskii) is the character most explored. The audience learns he is a beloved, though aging comedian and host of the nightly talk show “Night Flight with Sashin.” The show opens with a montage of Aleksandr sliding down the body of a buxom cartoon stewardess, bouncing on her breasts and landing on stage after slipping over her red spiked heel. His nightly monologue is marked by crass, sexist jokes about infidelity and men’s voracious sexual appetites and culminates in him swatting the bottom of an animated version of the stewardess, “Klava,” as she struts away after offering him a beverage from her bar cart. While his show is all about ogling the female body, Aleksandr’s own body is marked as being vertically challenged, fit, but with the softness that comes with middle age and topped with a bald spot that his wife tends to nightly with creams while he hides on stage with a toupee.

Aleksandr’s wife, Zlata Iampol’skaia (Isakova), is a tightly wound, glamourous Muscovite psychologist, host of regular webcasts and publisher of the self-help book, “I can and I will: There is nothing you can’t do if you set your goals correctly” for women looking for love. Comfortable in what she assumes is her happy marriage and seemingly unbothered by her husband’s nightly comedic shtick, even though it stands in opposition to the platitudes she delivers to her audience about the tenets of healthy relationships. The only thing she seems to be lacking is a child to complete the family idyll, something she is trying to remedy by visiting a sleek fertility center. She eventually goes as far as to fake a pregnancy in an effort to maintain her marriage, revealing only later in a letter to Aleksandr that she has known herself to be infertile her entire life.

troeThe third point of the triangle is Veronika Gushchina (Peresil’d), a free-spirited and meditative St Petersburg tour guide and poet. She relishes St Petersburg’s cold and rainy weather, spending her time staring at the city from her garret apartment with a leaky roof. Her daughter is studying in Oxford and the two are close, talking regularly on the phone. Aleksandr is so inspired by one of her poems that he reads it on air, securing her a book deal to publish a collection of her works.

One of the cinematic challenges the filmmakers set up for themselves in making Three was to include only three actors in the entire film. Body fragments of other actors are seen in several scenes, but the three protagonists are the only ones who appear fully. While one would anticipate this would result in a script that developed complete and complex arcs for Aleksandr, Zlata and Veronika, there is only minimal exploration of their interior lives or explanations for their motivations. Internalized transformation is almost non-existent and what little change the characters undergo is banal and unsatisfying.

The film includes a few brief promises that offer insights into more complex issues facing the characters such as negotiating the fading of one’s star power in middle age, probing the reasons a seemingly happy marriage is falling apart, or even answering the question posed, what do we do when we experience love at first sight? Sadly, little depth of engagement is given to any of these. Perhaps the only theme really explored is navigating love at middle age. One of the most authentic and humorous moments of the film comes when Veronika takes an intoxicated Zlata back to her apartment after the two hashed out their differences in a bar. The wife laments to the mistress about all the work it takes to care for an aging husband: constantly monitoring whether he took his (anti-depressant) tablets, dealing with the fact that he is a balding, workaholic and temperamental artist, and having to constantly watch him kiss other women on set “with tongue, not like in Soviet films.” Zlata tries to convince Veronika that such a young, beautiful creature like she is has no need for all this middle-aged dullness. While Veronika remains silent, she seems to pity Zlata, confessing to her that she and Aleksandr have never actually consummated their relationship and taking her the next day to Smolensk cemetery to pray to the Saint Ksenia, a religious figure thought to cure infertility. 

troeThe film muddles through the standard plot evolution of a love triangle with Zlata becoming increasingly suspicious as her husband’s travels back and forth to St Petersburg and protective of his smart phone password. Even after Zlata learns from Veronika that the affair was purely emotional and not sexual, she leaves her husband anyway. Aleksandr also undergoes no personal transformation and, after fleeing to St Petersburg when Zlata leaves him, is abandoned by Veronika who seems to grow tired of Aleksandr’s neediness and neurosis (perhaps a sign she took Zlata’s advice to heart).

The film delivers ambiguous endings for its characters. Veronika herself literally just vanishes from a car she and Aleksandr are in after he hops out quickly to see what is causing a traffic jam. Zlata, the only character with some moderate evolution, receives the most complete ending. Just as she is about to embark on a post-divorce journey of self-discovery in the form of a backpacking and mountain climbing expedition, she discovers that she is pregnant, the result of one last fling with Aleksandr after delivering her prayers to Saint Ksenia. Thrilled by the news, she finds joy in the thought of being a mother, content and seemingly fulfilled by this unexpected miracle.

The film ends as it began, with Aleksandr stepping into a river, this time floating on its surface. While the symbolism of baptism might mark the launch of some sort of new chapter in his life, the audience is given no insight into what it might be and has little investment in even caring. In a dramatic change of tone, the camera begins swinging wildly, undulating between the sky and the surface of the river (an allusion to Oleg Iankovskii’s role in Roman Balaian’s Flights in Dreams and Reality [Polety vo sne i naiavu, 1983], see Chemonin 2020), with no sign of Aleksandr anywhere.

Emily Schuckman Matthews
San Diego State University

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Works Cited

Chemonin, Rodion, 2020. “Vzletaia vyshe eli: retsenziia na fil’m ‘Troe’,”, 4 December

Dolin, Anton, 2020. “‘Troe’—Konstantin Khabenskii, Viktoria Isakova i Iuliia Peresil’d v neobychnom fil’me Anny Melikian o banal’nom liubovnom treugol’nike,” Meduza 2 December

The Three, Russia, 2020
Color, 127 minutes
Director: Anna Melikyan
Scriptwriters: Evgeniia Khripkova, Anna Melikyan
Cinematography: Nikolai Zheludovich
Music: Konstantin Poznekov
Production Designer: Ekaterina Djagarova
Cast: Viktoria Isakova, Konstantin Khabenskii and Iuliia Peresil’d
Producers: Natella Krapivina, Anna Melikyan and Artem Vasiliev
Production Companies: Magnum, Metrofilms with support from Kinoprime
Release date: 3 December 2020

Anna Melikyan: The Three (Troe, 2020)

reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews © 2021

Updated: 2021