Now that Barbie is out of the way, there’s another film that queers are incredibly excited about this summer. Passages, directed by Ira Sachs, has been causing a sensation since screening at Sundance and the Berlinale earlier this year. I have yet to see it myself, but the film is one of those love triangle movies where introducing a previously unknown third throws everyone’s lives into chaos.
The film follows the lives of Tomas and Martin (played by Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw), whose commitment is thrown into question when Tomas forms a loving connection with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos from Blue is the Warmest Colour). As Martin explores outside their marriage as well, Tomas is forced to contend with elements of the open relationship that he was unprepared to face. Things get both intimate and messy very quickly.
What is it about love triangle movies? Why do these stories have a compelling, can’t bear to look away energy to them? Why are we gripped by watching people try and make impossible choices? Even as a polyamorous person who naturally assumes any partner will often have other partners, I find the dramatic entanglement of characters standing at a romantic crossroads hard to resist.
Love triangle movies are a much-loved genre of mine, so I’m sharing some of the ones I have returned to consistently over the years. Some are funny, some are dramatic, and all are sad sometimes (it goes with the territory of conflicted hearts). Many of them are queer, a few aren’t in English, and they are mostly achingly white – a reflection of the fact that many of my favourite films are from the 90s (partly because that’s when I came of age).
In the past, love triangle movies have often been a chance for stories to seed elements of queerness, sometimes implicitly and occasionally explicitly. Think Johnathon Schaech and Matt Keeslar snuggled up with the object of the combined affections in Splendor, leaving us wondering if they, too, are lovers or metamours. Or Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna overcome with pleasure as their lips finally touch at the end of Y Tu Mamá También.
Passages is rare in portraying a same-sex relationship between men, as that has usually been more acceptable on screen between women (think Imagine Me and You, Bound and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women). However, we could do with a good sapphic love triangle because aside from the sweetly formulaic Crush, such stories with queer women almost always involve a man. And while bisexual visibility is excellent, lesbian love affairs are also ripe for heart-wrenching dynamics like this.
So, here are eight of my favourite love triangle movies, some of which have undoubtedly paved the way for Passages. Do you have a favourite I might not have seen? Comment below and let me know.
For a while, Quebecois actor/director Xavier Dolan was considered the enfant terrible of queer cinema, having produced seven films before turning 30. Heartbeats (Les Amours Imaginaires) was his second, in which he stars as Francis, a close friend of the vintage-clad Marie (played by the sensational Monia Chokri).
Francis and Marie’s connection is challenged when Nicolas enters their lives, an adorable Adonis with the lovable energy of a privileged labrador puppy. Both friends are clearly drawn to this new man and his ambiguous sexuality, who instantly desires to be excellent friends with them both. As this is the era before Instagram taught us to voice our feelings, Francis and Marie fall into an unspoken competition to see who will win Nicolas’ affection.
The style, soundtrack and silent warfare make this one of my favourite love triangle movies. Everything about it transports me back to the mid-noughties, where I can easily imagine my best friend and me forming a bitchy chain-smoking obsession with the same floppy-haired guy. Francis’ highly vocal response to Nicolas at the film’s end is nothing short of iconic.
The polyamorous response to a love triangle dilemma is to ‘date them both’, which queer filmmaker Gregg Araki explores in his update on the screwball comedy genre. This film is a sweet and silly treat in a deliciously styled 90s package worthy of a re-release, as it’s impossible to stream on any platform (except for the YouTube link above).
Not surprisingly, without a social script to go by as this trio forms a relationship, things don’t go quite according to plan, but not in the way you think. 90210‘s Kathleen Robertson plays Veronica, who craves the normative stability missing from her childhood, leaving her ridiculously hot partners Abel (Johnathon Schaech) and Zed (Matt Keeslar) to mourn her loss together.
I mostly enjoy this film because it’s a rare example of non-monogamy having a fun storyline and (spoiler alert) a happy ending. Plus, it stylistically captures the era of my teens, with the supporting cast including Kelly MacDonald in her post-Trainspotting era and Eric Mabius, better known to the queers as Tim in the original series of The L Word.
The Dreamers (2003)
Ah, the blurry, blurry boundaries of youth. Even though this film sets itself against the backdrop of the Paris riots in May ’68, it mostly takes place inside an apartment as three characters on the cusp of adulthood play games with each other’s bodies, hearts and minds. It’s a very sexually explicit film, with everything captured in a lushly atmospheric sense.
Adapted for the screen by Bernardo Bertolucci, The Dreamers centres on a trio of cinephiles: American Mathew (Michael Pitt), who is quickly adopted by French twins Isabelle (Eva Green, in her screen debut) and Theo (Louis Garrel). They invite their fellow film buff to live with them for a month while the sibling’s parents are away. Yet, Matthew quickly realises these twins share a level of physical intimacy rare for family members, which honestly should have been his first and only red flag.
In terms of love triangle movies, this one has the most controversial dynamic, as a new paramour challenges the deep bond between twins. Isabelle doesn’t know whether to be loyal to her brother or her first love, while Matthew feels increasingly sidelined by a connection that often overrides the hierarchy dictated by mononormativity. I suspect all these characters needed a lot of therapy after the way this story plays out.
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
The problem with having a freewheeling, non-commital, sexy ‘friendship’ with someone that you ‘kind of love’ is that in our mononormative society, one day, someone may come along who convinces that friend to marry them. And that someone may look like Cameron Diaz. What are you supposed to do then?
That’s the premise of this Julia Roberts film, where her character Julianne has only a few days to break up her best friend’s wedding and win him back. Yup, Julianne goes full Vannessa from The Ultimatum because she’s never factored in that Michael (played by Dermot Mulroney) could ever belong to anyone but her. As Rupert Everett observes, in his role as the definitive on-screen gay best friend, “Do you really love him, or is this just about winning?”
This love triangle movie comes into its own because Diaz’s bride-to-be, Kimberley, doesn’t take this challenge lying down. She’s clearly aware of what a threat Julianne is to Kimberley’s future and adopts a ‘keep your enemies closer’ policy by making her the maid of honour. Pure devious chaos ensues, and even though most of these characters are reasonably unlikeable, they somehow manage to charm the pants off you.
Reality Bites (1994)
I was 13 when this film came out, and I remember watching it, thinking, “Ugh, Michael (Ben Stiller’s character) is so gross. Why would she?” Now I watch it, and I’m repulsed by Troy (played by Ethan Hawke). He’s incredibly toxic, especially how he constantly tries to initiate something with Lelania (Winona Ryder) at her lowest moments.
It’s a classic love triangle set-up: the protagonist is presented with two wildly different options and is forced to choose. When I was younger, I thought the ending was wildly romantic, but I see how it is missing a beat (and one of the key characters) from the final scenes. It’s a little jarring because it suggests that the film was never a love triangle story to begin with.
Thankfully, Reality Bites is about more than the story of this trio. It’s about a group of friends struggling to find their way post-college. But honestly, the best thing about this movie is Janene Garafalo, who steals every scene she is in – her style, hair, attitude, sex journal, and how she delivers every line. Vickie is a rare example of a supporting character who isn’t two-dimensional but quite rounded and interesting.
It’s Complicated (2009)
I’m a sucker for two types of romance movies: second-chance love stories and anything that involves people with grey hair falling in love. I guess it’s because I enjoy the reconfirmation that life is long, and so is our capacity to love.
It’s Complicated ticks both those boxes for me as it’s about a divorced couple (Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin) falling into a spontaneous affair a decade after they ended their marriage. At the same time, Streep’s character is embarking on a new romance with her architect (played by a surprisingly timid Steve Martin).
So, while this film is dripping in cis/straight/white boomer privilege, it’s also one of my all-time favourite love triangle movies. Maybe it’s because the cast is so incredibly charming. Perhaps it’s because it’s a rare example of a middle-aged woman having a field day on screen with her sexuality. Whatever the reason, it’s a mildly problematic yet decidedly feel-good watch every time I put it on.
The End of the Affair (1999)
It’s hard enough being in a love triangle with another person, but being in one with god? That’s pretty tough. Such is the set-up of this Neil Jordan film, based on the 1950s novel by Graham Greene. When Maurice (Ralph Fiennes) stumbles upon his neighbour Henry (Stephen Rea) looking miserable in the rain, he assumes that Henry’s wife Sarah (Julianne Moore) is cheating on him again because she used to be Maurice’s lover too.
Set during WWII, you initially assume that the love triangle is between these three characters until Sarah reveals her reason for abruptly ending her relationship with Maurice two years earlier. It turns out her dowdy husband isn’t a factor but instead has to do with a pact Sarah made with a higher power, one that agnostic Maurice finds impossible to fathom, considering the intensity of their love for each other.
This film is beautifully edited because it helps you understand precisely why Sarah made such an unthinkable commitment that she has felt compelled to honour. I also love the heartbreaking yet polyamory-affirming ending, where Henry invites Maurice to live with them. Tragedy often has a way of making us disregard the normative boundaries of love.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
It’s a stretch to describe this icon of Mexican cinema as a ‘love tringle’ movie – a lust triangle is more fitting for the relationship between these characters. Such is the desire that throbs on screen as 30-something Luisa (Maribel Verdú) hitches a ride to the beach with 17-year-olds Julio and Tenoch (played by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, best friends since childhood IRL, hence their incredible on-screen chemistry).
Luisa is a woman navigating a mysterious internal journey, ready to throw caution to the wind and see where it takes her. Her darkness (and the film’s occasional moments of social commentary) are balanced by the joyful teenage horniness of Julio and Tenoch, whose girlfriends have ditched them for a summer in Europe. Put all these three characters in a car, and a journey of lustful chaos ensues.
There’s incredible heart to this film, which is infused through the astonishing skill of the cast and the tenderness of director Alfonso Cuarón. It’s way more than the story of a sexy road trip filled with erotic tensions and confessions. It’s an ode to the transitional moments in life and the complex entanglement of a country’s beauty and flaws.
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