10 great films about ménage-à-trois relationships

Three cheers for threesomes, love triangles and other polyamory mischief in the movies.

Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970)

Consider the words ‘film’ and ‘ménage à trois’ together and images of tawdry erotica may come to mind. Threesomes and group sex have been mainstays of pornography for as long as it has existed, and British sex films of the 1970s often embraced the notion of a young woman spicing up the relationship of a sexless married couple, such as Monique (1970), in which a French au pair does far more for her employers than mere housework.

Ménage à trois relationships can be defined in many ways, from three people living together to form a mutually loving unit, to people reluctantly allowing their partner to take a lover for the sake of saving their relationship, to three people having a purely sexual experience together.

One of cinema’s funniest ménages à trois occurs in the 1970 adaptation of Entertaining Mr Sloane, Joe Orton’s scandalous play in which a nymphomaniac woman and her closeted gay brother vie for the sexual attentions of a young crook. To celebrate its release in a new restored version, we rounded up 10 classic ménage-à-trois movies – not all of which end quite so amusingly for the three characters involved.

Jules et Jim (1962)

Director: François Truffaut

Jules et Jim (1962)

Both director François Truffaut and actor Jeanne Moreau were well established as two of the most exciting talents of world cinema by the release of Jules et Jim, a film that ranks among the finest achievements of both of their careers. She plays Catherine, a charismatic but frustrating young woman who upends the lives of best friends Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre). The three begin an unusual relationship, at one stage living together in relative harmony, before tensions inevitably surface.

Moreau is wonderful as Catherine, playing a very difficult role. Germaine Greer wrote of her performance: “Moreau’s performance is spectacular, but the part can hardly be described as a character. The essence of the portrayal is contradiction and inconsistency. Her behaviour is both inexplicable and unforgivable; the wonder of it is that Jules and Jim forgive it.” Jules et Jim remains remarkably fresh more than 50 years later, despite being very much of its time – it’s packed with the tropes of the French New Wave (freeze frames, wipes, stills) that sought to reinvent the language of cinema, while Moreau became a style icon through Catherine’s trendy wardrobe.

Manji (1964)

Director: Yasuzo Masumura

Manji (1964)

Japanese ‘pink films’ – movies with a focus on sex and nudity – can adapt to every genre. In 1964 Yasuzo Masumura brought his adaptation of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s novel Quicksand, featuring a crazed and delirious ménage à trois, to the big screen, retitled Manji. Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), a bored and lonely housewife, attends an art class and becomes romantically obsessed with Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao, star of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 film Floating Weeds). The two women embark on a passionate affair, but the plot twists into unexpected contortions when the male partners of both women claim a stake in their relationship.

While channeling the aesthetics of classic 1950s Hollywood melodrama – the film breathes the same air as Douglas Sirk’s movies – the intense eroticism blended with an unexpected spiritual turn in the final act make this a one-of-a kind masterpiece. The final sequence, in which the ménage à trois loses one of its members in a brutal but appropriate final act of cruelty, is unexpectedly moving.

Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970)

Director: Douglas Hickox

Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970)

Released three years after Joe Orton’s death, this adaptation of his farce captures much of the subversive essence of his play, a shocking tale of blackmail, nymphomania, murder and depravity. Kath (Beryl Reid) invites Sloane (Peter McEnery) to live with her and her closeted homosexual brother (Harry Andrews). Both siblings become obsessed with the sexy, amoral drifter, and when Sloane commits another crime, an opportunity arises to make their twisted relationship more permanent.

Reid, a comedian whose daring film work, including this and The Killing of Sister George (1968), is rarely given the credit it’s due, is delightful as the wanton, manipulative Kath. Andrews, an actor best known for playing stiff-upper-lip types in war and adventure dramas, is even better. He plays very much against type as the predatory brother, dressing Sloane up as a leather queen’s fantasy when he employs the younger man as his chauffeur. Despite their eccentricities, these three monsters are made for each other. So what if a little blackmail is needed to seal the deal?

Les Valseuses (1974)

Director: Bertrand Blier

Les Valseuses (1974)

This gleefully vulgar and politically incorrect tale follows two loutish men (Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere) who travel around France committing petty crimes and getting laid whenever they can. On their travels, they pick up Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou), who tags along despite their appalling treatment of her. The men’s sexual exploits include a threesome with Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau), an older woman recently released from jail, who adds a welcome dose of poignancy to all the bawdiness.

It’s hard to deny the film’s misogyny. The men are violent towards Marie-Ange, also treating her as a sexual object, and, while many of the jokes are at the men’s expense, Blier betrays an admiration for their macho bravado. But he’s also careful to make sure his actresses get plenty of good scenes – Moreau is heartbreaking, while Miou-Miou is given the funniest scene, where she enthusiastically recounts a sexual encounter that brought her to orgasm, something the two men have failed to do. Blier would make better, more mature films than Les Valseuses (Trop belle pour toi, 1989; Merci la vie, 1991), but this outrageous comedy sounded the klaxon for an exciting new talent in French cinema.

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

Director: Peter Greenaway

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

Following the deaths of their wives in a car crash, twin brothers Oswald and Oliver Deuce (Brian and Eric Deacon) channel their grief through an infatuation with images of decomposing nature, from fruit to animal carcasses. They become romantically involved with the driver of the fatal car crash, Alba (French actor Andréa Ferréol), who lost a leg in the collision and falls under the malign influence of a surgeon, who wishes to exploit her for his own perversions.

Peter Greenaway’s highly stylised filmmaking isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for those who thrill to his often jaw-dropping compositions, A Zed and Two Noughts is essential viewing. The sadness behind the extravagant imagery and the twin’s relationship with Alba is palpable. The best is saved for last, with an extraordinary final sequence where the two men attempt one final act of release, accompanied by ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ and an uninvited multitude of snails.

Gazon maudit (1995)

Director: Josiane Balasko

Gazon maudit (1995)

The clichéd embodiment of a ménage à trois usually includes a younger woman entering the relationship of a straight, married couple. Josiane Balasko tears apart the conceit in Gazon maudit, also known as French Twist, a fast and furious comedy that recalls Pedro Almodóvar and Bertrand Blier (Balasko is best known for her performance as the unlikely mistress in Blier’s Trop belle pour toi). Here she plays a masculine lesbian who upends the marriage of an unhappy couple, played by Alain Chabat and Almodóvar regular Victoria Abril, seducing the wife and moving into the house.

Balasko’s film is a genuinely subversive farce, goosing the notion of political correctness while simultaneously offering a feminist take on the ideal family unit. The final resolution leaves everybody happy, despite the ménage à trois arrangement existing far from society’s norms. A huge hit in France, it deserves a much greater reputation worldwide.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Director: Spike Jonze

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Any attempt to label the bizarre relationship at the heart of Spike Jonze’s remarkable debut, featuring Craig (John Cusack), a puppeteer; Lotte (Cameron Diaz), his lonely, frustrated wife; and Maxine (Catherine Keener), his sardonic co-worker, will result in failure. Craig and Lotte share their love of Maxine through a portal into the mind of John Malkovich (it makes sense when you watch the film). Does this make Maxine, who is unfazed by the arrangement, bisexual? Is Lotte, who longs to experience life as a man, trans? Either way, the three form a wild ménage à trois, which ends in a manner even weirder than the initial setup.

Being John Malkovich showcases the best work of the cast and filmmakers, not least Charlie Kaufman, for whom the film was his first feature screenwriting credit. The film’s greatest achievement lies in embracing the quirkiness of the story while never letting it tip over into self-conscious whimsy. There are many laughs in the film, but each of the main characters are recognisably human, even as they are thrust into the most surreal situations.

Y tu mamá también (2001)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Y tu mamá también (2001)

The road trip across Oaxaca at the centre of Y tu mamá también, taken between two young men (Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal) and Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a married woman dismayed by her husband’s infidelity, seems destined to end in a ménage à trois. She sleeps with both men separately, and a drunken night gradually edges towards a threesome. On paper, it reads like a crass male fantasy, but Luisa is far wiser than either of her two lovers, and she smartly twists the evening in another direction.

Cuarón’s diverse career has ranged from adaptations of English literature (A Little Princess, 1995; Great Expectations, 1998), fantasy family films (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004) and blockbuster sci-fi (Gravity, 2013), but Y tu mama también remains his most vital work. Its expertly observed scenes between the two men throb with testosterone, and the entrance of a mature woman into the equation makes for a thrilling change to the masculine dynamic.

The Dreamers (2003)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

The Dreamers (2003)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of the novel The Holy Innocents by Gilbert Adair, who wrote the screenplay, is a provocative and erotic drama set in Paris during 1968, the year when civil unrest kickstarted a social revolution. The film, like the book, is peppered with references to cinema, not least in its characters of Isabelle (future Bond girl Eva Green in her debut) and Theo (Louis Garrel), a brother and sister whose intimate behavior shocks an American exchange student (Michael Pitt), with whom they share a close, sexual relationship.

Isabelle and Theo are inspired by the siblings in Les Enfants terribles (1950), written by Jean Cocteau. There are many other nods to classics of French cinema, which work beautifully in the world of the film, and all three leads are excellent. The unexpected conclusion, where one of the trio learns their role in the relationship isn’t as essential as they supposed, is a suitably sobering climax to the dream-like atmosphere that has come before.

I Am Michael (2015)

Director: Justin Kelly

I Am Michael (2015)

The sad, problematic true story of Michael Glatze, the formerly out-and-proud gay rights activist who later rejected his homosexuality, married a woman and became a Christian pastor, is movingly transferred to the big screen by Justin Kelly. The film, which stars James Franco as Glatze and Zachary Quinto as his former lover Bennett, opened BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival in 2015.

Franco sensitively conveys Glatze’s health-induced panic about his sexuality, and his attempts to repress his true self make for a melancholy, touching biopic. Perhaps most poignant are the scenes of Glatze’s pre-conversion life, as he and Bennett invite a third man (Charlie Carver) into their relationship. All live blissfully happily as a non-traditional loving collective. The film effectively suggests that, as unorthodox as the ménage à trois may seem, it’s far healthier than denying your true love in an attempt to conform to heteronormative models. The use of Tori Amos’ ‘Crucify’ over the end credits is devastatingly effective.

Entertaining Mr Sloane is out now on Blu-ray and DVD as part of the Vintage Classics collection, showcasing iconic British films, all fully restored and featuring brand new extra content.

The digital film restorations were funded by Studiocanal in collaboration with the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme (awarding funds from the National Lottery)

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