Stephen Arnell

The art of the love triangle: from Conversations with Friends to Closer

The art of the love triangle: from Conversations with Friends to Closer
Conversations With Friends (BBC 3)
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The BBC3/Hulu 12-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends (2018) comes hot on the heels of the success of Normal People (2020) – the author’s second work (2018).

Normal People surprised some with its graphic but sensitive depiction of sex but won over even older viewers (well my mum liked it) due to the finely drawn characters and convincing acting by the two leads, relative newcomers Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal.

Indeed, for Edgar-Jones, Normal People has provided a calling card with producers, leading to her being cast in comedy-thriller Fresh (2022, Disney+),  true crime drama Under the Banner of Heaven (2022, FX) and upcoming adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing.

Perhaps the same will prove true for newcomer Alison Oliver who plays main character Francis. Conversations with Friends continues the Dublin college setting of Normal People, this time exploring the romantic entanglements of two female students and the thirtysomething couple they befriend. In addition to Oliver, it stars Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) and Jemima Kirke (Girls). 

Love triangles have been a feature of cultural narratives from Biblical times (Jacob, Leah, and Rachel) to the present day (Charles & Diana), with the most famous that of the doomed relationship between King Arthur, his Queen Guinevere and Lancelot.

Unsurprisingly, cinema has long sought to exploit the plot possibilities of the ménage-à-trois – here are ten examples, some more successfully realised than others:

Blithe Spirit (2020) NOW, Amazon Rent/Buy

Despite an all-star cast, you can understand why theatre director Edward Hill’s version of Noel Coward’s 1941 stage play was relegated to be released as a Sky Cinema Original.

Everyone overacts in the tale of bumptious script writer Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) whose well-heeled life gets up-ended when medium Madam Arcati (Judi Dench) inadvertently brings back his deceased first wife (Leslie Mann), to the consternation of current spouse Ruth (Isla Fisher). A promising premise – but the comic potential fails to land.

At least Mann isn’t lathered in the luminous green make-up worn by Constance Cummings as the spectral Ruth in David Lean’s 1945 version of the play. 

Indecent Proposal (1993) Amazon Rent/Buy

Even at the time of release, Indecent Proposal’s conceit that Robert Redford’s (then a well-preserved 57 years old) billionaire John Gage would need to shell out $1m for an evening with Demi Moore’s real estate agent Diana Murphy struck audiences as a tad unbelievable..

Moore goes ahead with the deal, mostly to bail out her cash-strapped husband David (an overacting Woody Harrelson) – with predictable results.

Redford’s character is revealed to be not that bad a chap, despite his warped view (or not) on what money can buy.

The film, or more accurately Jack Engelhard’s edgier 1988 novel, was translated into a London stage musical last year; back in 2018 there was talk of a movie remake.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) won critical praise for his adaptation of Milan Kundera’s Cold War novel chronicling hanky-panky amongst the Bohemian (sic) set during the Czech Prague Spring of 1968 and subsequent Soviet invasion.

Prague brain surgeon Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) enjoys a carefree time with no strings attached lover Sabina (Lena Olin), but his life changes when he meets Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a waitress in search of intellectual, sexual and artistic stimulation.

Kaufman ventured into similar territory in 1990’s Henry & June, which detailed the goings on between writer Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer) his wife June Miller, and similarly nookie-fixated scribe Anais Nin (Little Birds).

The Fortune (1975) full movie available free to watch on YouTube, Amazon Rent/Buy

The first of two films directed by Mike Nichols on my list, this largely forgotten 1920s set comedy about two bumbling con artists vying for the affections of a sanitary towel heiress.

The film flopped, despite Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson playing the scammers, with Stockard Channing (Grease) as their mark.

The picture is patchy at best, and the decision to inflict on Nicholson a curly perm was distracting, as (perhaps intentionally) in the movie he bears a distinct resemblance to Larry of The Three Stooges fame.

He handles the comedy better than Beatty, who signed on for another flop comedy with a big-name co-star (Dustin Hoffman) in 1987’s box office disaster Ishstar.

Nicholson teamed up with Marlon Brando the year after The Fortune for the enjoyably unhinged western The Missouri Breaks, which has since gained a cult following.

The same can't be said for The Fortune.

A Perfect Murder (1998) Amazon Rent/Buy

Last in a lubricious quartet of Michael Douglas pictures that included Fatal Attraction (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), and Disclosure (1994), director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) radically updates Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) for the late 1990s.

Douglas takes the role of failing Wall Street financier Steven Taylor (the Ray Milland role in Hitchcock’s movie) anxious to get his mitts on wife Emily’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) inherited millions whilst stitching up her ex-con turned outside artist lover David (Viggo Mortensen, standing in for Robert Cummings) for the deed.

As in the original, things don’t go according to plan.

A Perfect Murder is an enjoyable enough thriller, with just enough twists to through the viewer an occasional curve.

Sabrina (1995) Amazon Rent/Buy

Sydney Pollack’s polished remake of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) was a superfluous affair, but on its own terms is an agreeable enough watch.

Briefly, grouchy millionaire Linus Larrabee (Harrison Ford) finds a May-December romance kindling when he unwittingly falls for his chauffeur’s daughter, the vivacious Sabrina (Julie Ormond) who in turn has longed for Ford’s playboy younger brother David (Greg Kinnear).

Ford was a young-looking 53 when the film was released, roughly the same age as the visibly haggard and ailing Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 movie.

Audrey Hepburn (who played the title character) was 24 when Sabrina was shot; Julia Ormond 30 in the remake.

Ormond was hotly tipped for film stardom and was featured in two other big-budget Hollywood films in the mid-1990s (Legends of the Fall and First Knight) but never really broke through, although she has worked steadily since, starring in BBC1’s Gold Digger in 2019. She is currently the lead in umpteenth Walking Dead spin-off The Walking Dead: World Beyond.

During the filming of the 1954 movie, Bogart famously feuded with co-star William Holden (David Larrabie) who had to restrain himself from punching out the older actor after jibes about his well attested heavy alcohol intake, good looks (Humpf called him ‘Smiling Jim’), dyed blonde hair (for the role), acting skills and then romantic relationship with Hepburn.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) Amazon Rent/Buy

The polyamorous relationship of Wonder Woman creator Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), his psychologist wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and research assistant/mutual lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) caused a scandal, resulting in the three being booted from their respective academic posts.

After a cheeky visit to Charles Guyette’s fetish-themed New York lingerie shop, Marston is inspired to create the comic book character Wonder Woman – with the help of his two female companions.

Marston also developed the first lie detector and originated the controversial DISC theory of emotional/sexual behaviour (Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance) managing to fit a lot in before his early death at the age of 53 (cancer, not exhaustion).

The Dreamers (2003)

Akin to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Dreamers also takes place in the revolutionary year of 1968, this time during the Paris student protests.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci throws incest into the mix when American exchange student Matthew (Michael Pitt) falls in with haute bourgeoisie wannabe insurrectionaries/cineaste twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel).

In homage to the Nouvelle Vague, iconic French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows) appears as himself.

The picture is based on author Gilbert Adair’s 1988 novel The Holy Innocents; Love and Death on Long Island (1997) and A Closed Book (2010) have also been adapted into motion pictures.

Casablanca (1942) Amazon Rent/Buy

Michael Curtiz’s evergreen classic remains a reliable watch for a Sunday afternoon, with Humphrey Bogart’s iconic turn as cynical anti-Nazi turned bar owner Rick Blaine.

When former flame Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) rocks up with new husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) in tow, Bogie must decide whether to help the pair flee to safety.

Charles Bronson (of all people) starred in 1980’s Cabo Blanco, a loose remake of Casablanca.

Unsurprisingly, critics were not kind.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, in 1983 David ‘Hutch’ Soul starred as Rick in the short-lived NBC prequel series Casablanca with Hector Elizondo as Vichy policeman Captain Renault, magnificently essayed by Claude Rains in the original movie.

Further rubbing salt in the wound, the late Leslie ‘Dirty Den’ Grantham played Rick in Rick’s Bar at the Whitehall Theatre in 1991. The run ended after six (mercifully) short weeks.

Closer (2004) Amazon Rent Only

Mike Nichols returned to the subject-matter of his earlier pictures (Carnal Knowledge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) with an adaptation of Patrick Marber’s popular stage production, itself a present-day riff on Mozart's opera Così fan tutte (1790) and Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde.

Marber pretentiously strives for profundity, channelling playwrights Mamet and Pinter.

The star cast of Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and Clive Owen (who was in the original stage play at Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre in London in 1997) helping to maintain interest in their mutual bed-hopping in what Rolling Stone writer Peter Travers described as 'four attractive actors doing decidedly unattractive things.'

On the lighter side, there is one darkly amusing scene where Jude Law’s Dan cons Larry (Clive Owen) in a cybersex chat room by pretending to be Anna (Julie Roberts). All this as Mozart plays in the background as an ironic ‘contrapuntal’ counterpoint.

Conversations with Friends debuts on 15 May on BBC3 and BBC iPlayer.