Director: Paul Haggis
Writer: Paul Haggis
Stars: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody
Third Person draws us into a mythic realm of healing fiction where a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist deftly flays open the human darkness of a loss of trust in oneself – a loss no less relevant today than in ancient Greece where Asklepios, god of medicine, created drama in Epidaurus to heal the sick in body and heart above a labyrinth of snakes.
Forgiveness of oneself can be as elusive as forgiveness of another. If you have ever experienced the umbilical cord of trust being cut, have ever been thrown into the depths of despair and emotional confusion wrought when fate delivers a blow to your belief in yourself or in someone you love, you will not only see but feel deeply the dilemma of finding a way that is dramatized in Third Person. It’s not simply outside events that fall apart but one’s inner world that can slip on its own weakness, heralding a psychic disaster that requires healing. If there’s a path to forgiveness, Third Person offers a chance to find one. It’s a film for adults only.
The title sets the tone to watch relationships as a third person might, like a parent hovering above a child with so much vigilance and so little control. In the beginning, a coin drops into water setting off a cascade of ripples, one wave affecting the next but without clear definition of impact. We’re not just going to see Third Person with our eyes. We’re going to feel and sense another presence, like the pull of a undertow beneath the surface.
The way Third Person is put together – three stories of three couples in three cities – requires attention. As the film unfolds, visual and verbal clues link characters together without regard for physical location to illuminate the complications of one man’s tormented inner world. A bold leap from simple narrative to intra-psychic exploration occurs when a note written in one city becomes a note is taken in another. Hardly a cinematic gimmick, a shift in perspective from outer to inner is clarified. To grasp the depth of the human dilemma, we must simultaneously look within ourselves while we track who’s crossing whose path on the big screen. After leaving the theater, questions will no doubt remain about the exact relations of characters because the facts intensely involve personal interpretation. Did his mistress really come naked to his door or is his muse rousing him from a sleep of complacency? Which characters remain? None or one or two? Angst hangs heavy when innocence is lost. Which ripples fade, which ones persist? Maturity lurks in discovery.
Ostensibly, the principle current in Third Person is the plight of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction novelist (Liam Neeson) who is spiraling downward, producing ever less compelling novels since his first won the coveted prize. He’s facing the proverbial blank page, writer’s block. Well heeled and used to the good life, he’s holed up in the suite of a fancy Paris hotel and has just summoned his mistress to join him, presumably to break the cold spell and light a fire under him. She (Olivia Wilde) certainly looks the part. Never too skinny or too rich, she’s the woman who can disappear on a dime and keep a man running after her even when she’s asleep. A gamer from the get-go, she won’t escape the noose of insecurity wrought by betrayal that holds the center of this film. But that comes out later, much much later. For the time being, she’s a man’s dream and a man’s worst nightmare – completely irresistible. When he pulls a tiny red lace dress out of a shopping bag as a surprise present, we can’t wait for the scene in which she will wear it.
A good-looking man (Adrien Brody) wearing, ostensibly, a fancy Italian suit is on the phone covertly referring to a con he’s just pulled off. To pass time in Rome, he wanders into a bar where the bartender doesn’t speak English, makes an ass of himself and falls head over heels into a scam. She (Moran Atias) is wearing a red dress that links, by color, one woman to the other in the Pulitzer Prize novelist’s story but we don’t yet know how. She has, ostensibly lost her eight-year old daughter to a pimp and needs money to get her back. When he picks up her purse, left behind when she rushes out of the bar, he’s clearly into her up to his neck and we won’t know why until the end of the film. He’s got money, but not as much as she thought he did. He wants something, but not what she thinks he does.
While the man in his faux Italian suit is being led down the back alleys of Rome, another tricky situation is unfolding in New York City that also involves a mother (Mila Kunis) who’s lost a child. Possibly a druggie, she’s been divorced by a renowned abstract painter (James Franco) who has custody of their young son and is legally denying her visitation rights. His wife’s lawyer (Maria Bello) wears a white suit linking her, by color, to the Pulitzer Prize author’s wife (Kim Basinger). The painter is a self-righteous egoist who epitomizes the kind of judgment with a capital J that feeds insolent condescension and violent reactions. The egoist is brought to his knees by a gesture from his son that kindles a feeling of humility beyond his ability to imagine until it happens. By this time, judgment and forgiveness are mortal enemies wreaking havoc on each human soul in the film. The path to understanding and empathy lies hidden, blocked and contained by the proverbial blank white page, the empty computer screen in front of the novelist.
The Pulitzer Prize novelist’s wife is on the phone at home in New York City. She’s waiting for him, soulfully connected and deeply knowing but essentially estranged from a husband who never takes off his wedding ring. It’s to her that he sends the rewrite of his novel. And it is she who asks, “Does she know?” and leaves us wondering just what and who she’s asking about. Is she asking about his mistress in real life or the one he’s created in his novel? Is the affair over or does she know his grief as well as her own? Has he made peace for himself? Is he ready to come home?
Third Person is not a story meant to be told as a narrative but experienced as a dynamic of forces alive and well within each of us and between us and others in relationship. If the novel at the heart of the film were available to read, personal visualizations would activate the psyche, enlivening the words on the page, and Paul Haggis’ story would become our imaginary story. Third Person lifts hope for a triumph of forgiveness.
When trust is disturbed, a rush to judgment is the least satisfying outcome. Blame blocks observation, seeing what is. “Watch me” says a small boy imploring his father to see him for who he is; “I can’t help watching you” says a man who sees a woman’s beauty as a last chance for forgiveness; “It happened on your watch” is the accusation a man can’t get out of his head when he’s taken his eyes off his son for thirty seconds. “Watch me” the mistress declares, running from the market at the end of the film. “Watch me” lingers in the mind as the exasperated, angry lawyer dives to the bottom of a pool and vaporizes. Is judgment easing as attention is given to the pain?
Loss of innocence can result from deliberate action or by accident. It’s not the cause but the crack that breaks the bond of trust. Whether trust is disturbed in oneself by crossing one’s own conscience or by suffering betrayal with a beloved, the observer who keeps watch will find healing emerging in plain sight. A shoelace tied or a glass of milk unexpectedly delivered can shift the tides of grief.
Third Person lifts our point of view above the personal where we can see the other side, feel the pain and craziness of both accused and accuser. We carry both within us, hear their voices every day. Many forces are at work in the human psyche beneath a wound of betrayal. How do we move beyond the conflict? Third Person resorts to an age-old method, anthropomorphizing emotions and creating drama. The voices of emotions are heard, their faces imagined. Risks are taken and truth revealed until the mythical energy of snakes shedding their skins is aroused and renewal accomplished.
In 2004, Paul Haggis won two Best Picture Academy Awards in one year, one for Million Dollar Baby directed by Clint Eastwood and one for Crash which he wrote and directed as he has Third Person. Here is my review of Crash, A Transformative Experience, published in “Jung Journal:Culture & Psyche”, 2006:
This profile examines the film Crash as a series of allegorical stories that explores the inevitable “collisions” in a mixed-culture society such as present-day L.A. involving race, class, religion, and gender, which are transformed into an unexpected path toward healing society’s false divisions. These conflicts are presented in terms of Jung’s idea of conjunctio — the coming together of extreme opposites that activates elements buried deep in the psyche, something like the transformative power of the alchemical clash of opposites. The opposing drives that set-up these types of conflicts are an individual’s desire to create boundaries in order to maneuver through their increasingly bewilderingly complex society, and the personal, social, cultural, and spiritual needs for the growth and wisdom that comes from crashing into — and overcoming — the prejudices and false projections that we create in an attempt to protect ourselves from a feeling that our lives have slipped out of control.
And here is my closing paragraph from that review, reflecting upon Crash as a film like Third Person, a mirror bringing human nature to light for moral consideration.
“Allegories leave morals in their wake. To the naked eye on a cold dark night, soot and sparks from a car set on fire to mask a murder look the same as snowflakes announcing a miracle. No one’s bad all the time; no one’s good all the time. The best also can be the worst, failing to love and failing those who love them. The worst can also be the best, coming through when least expected and making a magnificent difference.
Perhaps miracle and tragedy are not separate matters but integral, part of a larger totality that supports us all — and we would do well to include “the other”, heed the wisdom. Is Los Angeles a big city symbolic of a mystic center where the tendencies of evolution and involution reside? Is Crash illuminating an ancient dynamic for modern times in its revelatory stories?”