They Decided to Have Sex With Other People. Disaster Ensued.
The new HBO Max documentary “There Is No ‘I’ In Threesome,” premiering at Sundance, follows a couple who documented their open relationship on iPhones. And things got messy.
There Is No “I” In Threesome is a documentary about polyamory—specifically, the open relationship shared by its New Zealand director, Jan Oliver “Ollie” Lucks, and his actress-fiancée Zoe Marshall. Through intimate home movie footage of their life together and apart, all of it shot on iPhones for maximum confessional intimacy, it details the ups and downs of their attempt to remain true to one another while also allowing space in their bed for others. That alone makes it a fascinating case study of a unique affair. Yet by its conclusion, what it ultimately turns out to be is something knottier, and more intriguing: a warts-and-all portrait of personal and creative arrogance and narcissism, and the damage invariably wrought by such qualities.
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend before arriving on HBO Max on Feb. 11, There Is No “I” In Threesome begins with Ollie and Zoe at the top of a towering indoor high dive, where they disrobe, strap on GoPros, and prepare to leap. As this sight suggests, their film is a venture of total exposure, just as their impending jump to the pool below is meant to speak to their joint leap into a polyamorous unknown. That Zoe doesn’t join Ollie in taking that plunge, then, proves an immediate tip-off to the trouble ahead. Nonetheless, at least immediately after this introduction, the two seem blissfully happy together, not only as lovers but as artistic partners, the duo radiating joy and adoration as they spend time canoodling at home, goofing off with sex toys, making preparations for their upcoming nuptials (just 12 months away), and discussing the ins and outs of cinematically documenting their experiences.
Ollie and Zoe come across as a well-matched pair, not only perfectly comfortable in their respective skins but in being frank about their sexual preferences and kinks, be it Ollie’s bisexuality or their mounting attraction to swingers parties and S&M playthings. They’re also admirably candid about their hook-ups with third parties, and the way those encounters make them feel. Ollie and Zoe both routinely tell each other (and the camera, including via Ollie’s narration) that their happiness is of paramount importance, and that branching out to be with strangers is a means of accepting that they have different versions of themselves with different partners, that they want to make the most of their youthful bodies, and that this is a temporary situation, destined to end once they have children.
The fact that Ollie and Zoe are in a long-distance relationship contributes to their mutual interest in sleeping around, but There Is No “I” In Threesome empathetically conveys that the reason for the couple’s polyamory has more to do with underlying internal desires than mere geographical logistics. The mystery at the heart of the documentary is why two individuals who are madly in love would want to jeopardize what they have by willingly introducing outside threats to it. Despite Ollie and Zoe’s attempts to provide an answer, no convincing one ever quite materializes, which in turn imparts the impression that they simply believe, per Ollie, that they can “have [their] cake and eat it too”—a sentiment that, in this context, radiates greed and egotism, as if they think they’ve transcended basic human emotional dynamics and cracked the age-old relationship code.
In short, Ollie and Zoe imagine that by being forthright with themselves and one another, they can enjoy the benefits of being taken while also sharing their hearts and libidos with multiple people. As anyone who’s ever been in love knows, this is a near-impossibility, because it’s not how we’re built (both socially, and inherently). And it will thus come as little surprise to learn that a cataclysmic wrench is thrown into their plans when Zoe starts dating—and developing a more-than-casual bond with—theater director Tom. In response, Ollie shacks up with Siobhan, even as he continues trying to maintain his engagement to Zoe. For long stretches they talk a good game, but when Ollie hears about Zoe’s growing fondness for Tom (who knows about Ollie, of course), the hurt and jealousy in his eyes reveals that he may not be quite as progressive as he originally fancied himself.
Ollie shrewdly refers to There Is No “I” In Threesome as a “selfie film,” which gets at its smartphone-filtered formal approach as well as its navel-gazing infatuation with its own creator. Ollie’s confession that he’s most engaged with documentary projects that feature himself as the subject is emblematic of his and Zoe’s belief that their plight is worthy of non-fiction movie treatment. That look-at-me impulse feels intrinsically related to their conviction that they’re capable of fashioning a non-exclusive bond free of the monogamous constraints that shackle everyone else. The result is that their dual endeavors—having an open relationship while producing an up-close-and-personal documentary about it—appear to stem from the same pool of self-absorption and pride.
There’s a big twist toward the end of There Is No “I” In Threesome (not to be spoiled here), and though it complicates one’s understanding of the preceding action, it doesn’t alter the overarching notion that Ollie’s primary problem is that he’s far too full of himself. Still, it’s a testament to the director that self-recrimination finds its way into the finale, thereby lending the film a measure of genuine honesty that’s missing from most of Ollie and Zoe’s commentary about being free, exploring themselves through promiscuity, and their ability to maintain true love—and establish a permanent life together—without monogamous commitment.
In its closing revelations, There Is No “I” In Threesome doesn’t veer into conservative one-size-fits-all sermonizing so much as it accepts that the very nature of true love—the way it makes us feel, and clarifies who we want to be and how we want to live—is generally incompatible with polyamory. Whether that’s because of innate instincts or cultural programming is a question left unanswered by this engaging doc, but it’s a fact that, more often than not, makes threesomes (and other such unconventional arrangements) a recipe for potential romantic disaster.