It's not necessarily terrible when documentarians get personally involved with their film subjects. It's questionable, for instance, whether Michael Apted would be able to persuade the stars of his remarkable 7 Up series to keep returning for new films decade after decade if he hadn't forged a personal relationship with them, and Steve James certainly wouldn't have made Stevie had he not shared a past connection with his subject. But while filmmakers who explore their friends' lives may gain unique perspectives and unprecedented access to those lives, they also have to make difficult choices: Is their first responsibility to their friends, or their viewers?
In her documentary Three Of Hearts, director Susan Kaplan stays silently off-camera; if she struggled with objectivity, she keeps that to herself. But such a conflict would explain the film's formlessness and its significant missing pieces. Kaplan was a high-school acquaintance of Steven Margolin, a man first seen in Three Of Hearts as part of a stable, long-term three-way relationship; he and Sam Cagnina were already a well-established couple when they begin actively seeking a woman partner. They found one in Samantha Singh, and the three built a life together. Half of Three Of Hearts is a rosy portrait of their 13-year "trinogomous" relationshiphow it developed, how it functions, what their families think, and how they deal with outsiders. Kaplan's production notes report that she and her family became extremely close to the trio during filming, and her initial documentation of their unusual setup is as tasteful, positive, and politely unintrusive as any friend could ask for. Which is why it all seems disingenuous when the relationship disintegrates without warning, and Kaplan's happy paean against conformity becomes a far more personal he-said/she-said/he-said squabbleespecially given that Kaplan's notes admit that she knew the relationship was troubled, but none of that trouble appears onscreen.
Weirdly, the messy breakup puts a personal edge on Kaplan's film that wasn't present during its happier segments. As it grimly observes asset arbitration and its subjects' attempts to reconcile themselves to their collapsed ideals, Three Of Hearts is as fascinating as any close look at love's entanglements and disappointments. In particular, the contrast between what the three partners profess as their beliefs in the mid-'90s, when Kaplan began filming, and how they retroactively revise those beliefs today, is as sadly telling about human nature as anything Apted has put to film. But at the same time, Three Of Hearts seems like an unwieldy mating of two films: one a glossy documentary about the fictionalized perfection that three lovers and a director wanted to believe in, and another about the all-too-human truth.