This Valentine’s Day column is about a new vision of love.

Can it be a coincidence that the last two French films I’ve seen, French Twist (Gazon maudit) and Café au lait (Métisse) end with the transformation of the traditionally tragic or melodramatic love triangle into a triangular utopia? At the end of Mathieu Kassovitz‘ film, the café au lait heroine, who has just given birth to a child, is flanked symmetrically by her black-Moslem and white-Jewish lovers (the latter played by Kassovitz himself), either of whom might be the father (cleverly, we hear the baby cry but it is not shown). After many fights and squabbles, the two men have become the best of friends, linked by their common bond to their mistress. Josiane Balasko‘s film is more complex. The triangle again has an attractive woman at the center, but the other two spaces are filled by her (formerly unfaithful) husband and her lesbian lover (played by Balasko herself). In order to cement the triangle, the lover gets the husband to give her a child, so that all three pairings in the triangle are represented. What is more, the film forbears to end on the obvious triangular shot avec bébé, but shows the husband making friends with a male homosexual, suggesting the next step in a utopian expansion.

The two works that can be said to inaugurate the triangular utopia are, on the literary front, Marguerite Duras‘ masterpiece Le ravissement [ravishing/ecstasy] de Lol V. Stein (1964), and in the cinema, Truffaut‘s Jules et Jim (1961). Duras’ achievement is the more profound. Lol, jilted by her fiance on the night of her engagement, forms a new triangle by seducing the lover of an old friend who had witnessed her earlier discomfiture. Lol’s aim is not to break up this couple, but keep it together under her control. Duras teaches us something new about the triangle of mimetic desire: that the position of the rejected woman, the excluded other, is the most stable and lucid, the position of the novelist herself–an idea sketched out in her 1962 short novel 10:30 on a Summer Night (Dix heures et demie du soir en été). But Lol’s triangle is not yet a utopia; the three parties cannot form a community. The lover cannot share with his mistress his strange passion for Lol; the only stable configuration has lover and mistress together in bed and Lol secretly watching (over) them through the window. At the end of the novel, Lol falls asleep in this situation, having reached final contentment, but her satisfaction depends on the mimetic tension of the two others.

In Jules et Jim, we are a step closer to the utopian pattern of the woman loved by two friends, but the whole point of the film is that the configuration is interminably, and terminally, unstable. The series of separations and reconciliations, including notably Catherine’s failed attempt to have a child by Jim (while married to Jules), comes to an end when, following the trio’s chance reunion at a movie theater showing newsreels of Nazi bookburning, the heroine drives with Jim off the end of a ruined bridge. The murder-suicide demonstrates that the triangular community cannot survive an intensification of public violence; Catherine seems to fear that, galvanized by the spectacle, the two men–as so often occurs in 1930s French films–will band together to exclude her.

But today the triangle has become the summum bonum to which the action tends. Café au lait does this in all simplicity, as though all the triangular tragedies of history, from Adam, Eve, and the snake through Oedipus and Hamlet to Molly, Dedalus, and Bloom, had missed the point. At the outset, the black and white lovers are not merely rivals, they despise each other ethnically and socially, but they find communion in their common love. Kassovitz’s film does not show us how the obvious non-father of the invisible baby will retain symmetry with his rival, or how sexual relations will be organized in the new “family.” French Twist is much more explicit: it not only finds a way to link the two odd ends of the triangle but even suggests its future extension. This resembles the philosophy of “free love” we may remember from the first Emmanuelle (taken from a two-volume novel that contained far more “philosophy” than pornography); but the latter required a full-fledged conversion experience, whereas now the utopia seems able to extend itself by effortless contagion like the community of aliens in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.

In the good old days of l’amour courtois, the love of a woman–Dante’s Beatrice is the most glorious example–was a model of the love of God. Yet if we both love God, you and I do not fight, but commune. This makes one wonder why the triangular utopia has not seriously tempted us until now. Surely the answer is that the social order until now has depended on stable families on the one hand and stable social institutions on the other. These arrangements see the triangle as a threat, not only must men pair off with women, they must also “pair off” with each other, join together to avert the danger of woman-inspired mimetic rivalry. This is an obsessive theme in French films of the 1930s, from A nous la liberté to La grande illusion. At the (revised) end of Duvivier’s La belle équipe (1936), husband and lover jointly reject the femme fatale and walk off arm in arm. In the atmosphere of pre-war crisis, male bonding is more important than family bonding, survival comes before reproduction. I think this explains the notorious misogyny of these films better than the usual generalizations about patriarchy, which implies not hostility toward women but their benign subordination to the paterfamilias, as was at least superficially the case in most Hollywood films of the era.

The postmodern dream is to make our understanding of the triangular nature of desire the basis for neither tragedy nor comedy, but neo-romantic idyll. Since desire is always triangular, why not include the three parties in a permanent arrangement? Perhaps we could adjust to the institutional adjustments required, if only the triangle could become truly stable. But on this point Duras and Truffaut are wiser than Kassovitz. The structures created by desire are unstable by nature; once they stabilize, they lose the attractive force that maintains their integrity. As the concluding sequence of Balasko’s film suggests, these triangles tend to acquire new vertices. As one of two lovers of the same person, symmetry requires that I seek compensation elsewhere. The more I accept my rival’s access to my beloved, the less my desire will be confined within the triangular situation.

A less rosy view of the contemporary triangular utopia is found in Chantal Akerman‘s Night and Day (1991). The film begins as an idyllic vision of a couple, but as it progresses, the woman comes to love another as well–a friend introduced to her by her taxi-driving lover, whose work leaves her to wander the Paris streets by night. At the end of the story, however, the woman drops both men; the last shot shows her striding off resolutely–presumably to find a job rather than a man to support her, as has been the case throughout the film. Akerman’s conclusion leads me to wonder whether the triangular utopia–where the woman at the center doesn’t work–isn’t just an adaptation to the middle-class axiom that today it takes two salaries to support a family. With two working “husbands,” a woman can stay home and bring up the kids.

 Yet we know now that all utopias are chimerical; no new social arrangement can conquer the paradox of desire. We can defer it, not expel it once and for all. Beyond the triangular utopias lies this dawning realization, as reflected in a slow swing of the social pendulum back to the traditional couple as the tried and true arrangement for transmitting our culture to the next generation.

The real utopia of love is the couple, but it is one that never reaches stasis. True love includes its mediator within itself; it is both unending seduction and perpetual adoration. Just a thought for Valentine’s Day.