The Math of Love Triangles: Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Trigonometry

By Adam Nayman

The most arresting image in the new BBC Studios series Trigonometry (airing in the US this summer on HBO Max and in Canada on CBC Gem) comes in the fifth episode, when restaurateur Gemma (Thalissa Teixeira), in the middle of a difficult Nordic honeymoon getaway with her new husband Kieran (Gary Carr), goes on an evening field trip to see the Northern Lights. As Kieran sulks back at the hotel, she gazes up at a display that imbues the uncanny sensation—for the character, as well as the audience—of a planetarium-show special effect despite its you-are-there authenticity. As a visual metaphor for a young woman who is trying to “see the light” in response to her fraught personal situation, Gemma’s encounter with the Aurora Borealis is legible and clever, but as filmed by director Athina Rachel Tsangari and cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the shot glows with something extra and ineffable. It’s a little bite of the sublime.

That feeling of an everyday that’s slightly enchanted around the edges—not magic-realist, exactly, but attuned to the possibility of magical-feeling moments—is present in the five episodes of Trigonometry signed by Tsangari, whose transition from cinema to a format succinctly if imperfectly defined as “prestige television” provides an interesting test case for auteurism. This isn’t an example of a distinctive, idiosyncratic filmmaker developing a property for broadcast or streaming, à la Davids Lynch and Fincher, but a work-for-hire scenario closer to Andrea Arnold’s sojourn on the second season of Big Little Lies, with considerably happier and less compromised results. In her features Attenberg (2010) and Chevalier (2015), as well as her superlative fashion-show short The Capsule (2012), the Greek director has honed a style adjacent to the “Greek Weird Wave” with which she has inevitably been identified. Where her increasingly upwardly mobile former collaborator Yorgos Lanthimos became a model transnational provocateur in the Lars von Trier mould, Tsangari has continually privileged intimacy over spectacle, eschewing arm-punching outrageousness in favour of more plausible interpersonal drollery. Contrast the gilded, finicky (and distinctly Kubrickian) claustrophobia of The Lobster (2015) and its luxury hotel of the damned with the tender farce of Chevalier’s self-quarantining, seafaring exhibitionists and the difference is deeper than big budgets and marquee English-language talent: it’s the contrast between precious conceptualism and a real vision of human nature.

Tsangari announces her directorial presence in the first frame of the first episode of Trigonometry, which begins with a synchronized-swimming routine whose stiff, mechanized choreography and carefully curated pop soundtrack (Robyn’s defiant club hit “Dancing On My Own”) recalls the passages of goofy, lip-synced showmanship in Attenberg, Chevalier, and The Capsule (set respectively to Suicide, Minnie Riperton, and America), and there’s also the added auteurist bonus of seeing Attenberg star Ariane Labed in the mix. After a teammate’s errant knee knocks her unconscious underwater, Labed’s Ray floats limply to the surface, an accident that is also an unexpected emancipation. When we see her next, she’s OK but bruised, fed up, and trumpeting news of her early retirement from a sport that, as her parents remind her, took her around the world (and to the Olympics) but has in other respects left her in a suspended state of adolescence, a physically fine-tuned, early-30s specimen without any other marketable skills or a long-term relationship.

The behavioural link between Ray and Labed’s awkward Attenberg protagonist Marina—a younger woman similarly struggling to escape a sheltered life and confront an adulthood rushing up to meet her—combined with the actress’ singularly physicalized acting style, in which control and clumsiness co-exist in a series of elongated gestures, is strong enough to make Trigonometry feel like a spiritual sequel for Tsangari fans. For everybody else, Labed and her girl-who-fell-to-earth affect will simply be a wild card, just as Ray, who begins the series as Gemma and Kieran’s lodger in a cramped London upstairs flat and gradually joins them (or maybe they join her?) in the throes of thruple-hood, is described and depicted variably, and sometimes simultaneously, as an agent of grace and chaos. Another bit of magical reality: retreating to her room to sign her tenant’s lease at the close of episode one, she selects a light-up pen in the shape of a unicorn, a noble, mythical beast that’s also millennial slang for the third vertex in a functional love triangle.

In terms of authorship, Trigonometry has its own tripartite, self-allegorizing aspect. Tsangari joined the project after the script had been written by playwright Duncan MacMillan and his wife, actor and writer Effie Woods (Emmerdale), and untangling the relationship between the show’s visual and linguistic flourishes and symbolism—the unicorn pen; a Jaws-but-hot sequence in which the three protagonists compare physical scars while sharing a bathroom; the name of Gemma’s establishment, the Ampersand Cafe, with its intimations of “plus one”—is a challenging proposition. At its best, the show synthesizes Tsangari’s corporeal methodology—storytelling and character development inscribed on her characters’ bodies and through their movements—with the writers’ swift, literary theatricality. The juggling act between exposition and mystery in sketching the three leads shows a lot of hands working with maximum dexterity. 

An acclaimed stage actress, Teixeira inhabits Gemma’s flinty self-sufficiency and underlying sexual-identity crisis without crowding out ambiguity or humour. (Gemma’s avowedly queer, except, to her and her friends’ surprise, when it comes to Kieran.) Carr, who showed up on Downton Abbey and played a vicious pimp in The Deuce, chips away at Kieran’s saintly urban-paramedic persona to unearth the insecurity of a man perpetually unsure of his partner’s preferences. Labed, meanwhile, is tasked with playing an obscure object of desire who’s unknown even to herself, and the highest compliment that I can pay the three of them, individually and as a unit, is that at any given moment they all seem believably turned on by and terrified of one another in endless configurations, less a sitcom-style case of slow-burning will-they-or-won’t-they than an anxiously horny evocation of the inevitable.

As its title suggests, Trigonometry has its measured and mechanical aspects, and in TV, where “good” writing is often commensurate with (and indistinguishable from) heavy-handed calculation (see also the fifth, generally excellent and yet somehow unsatisfyingly deliberate season of Better Call Saul),such on-the-nose obviousness is an occupational hazard. One possible artistic solution to solving material that’s been laid out too neatly is to power through it so the design blurs in real time, but it’s not right to give all the credit for the show’s sense of headlong momentum to Tsangari or Williams. MacMillan and Woods have a knack for screwball dialogue in a contemporary vernacular, and thanks to the actors—especially Teixeira as the hyper-verbal Gemma—the occasional over-articulation seems to belong to the characters, as if they’re trying to talk themselves out of (or through) problems more easily fixed through body language. There’s also a generally nice sense of timing that’s partially a matter of editing, but also evidence of the writers’ will and patience, of craftsmanship that’s aware enough of clichés and conventions to mostly sidestep them, or else strategically lean on them as the sturdy, long-standing crutches that they are.

“We’re good people,” Kieran insists to Gemma at another point during their honeymoon, as if trying to convince her—and himself—that their mutual attraction to Ray and shared hope that it be reciprocated isn’t a selfish proposition. He’s right, and while, like most solid long-form storytelling, Trigonometry is enjoyable because its featured people are so appealing—attractive, funny, and flawed in ways that almost always countenance empathy rather than alienation—there’s maybe something a bit too Teflon about its contents. This timorousness is tied not to the frank, full-frontal adultness of its content, but to a reluctance to really get messy with its subject matter in a way that a feature film, unbound by the requirement to keep people watching for multiple episodes (or seasons), could do. At the same time, a show whose creators and creative personnel so evidently care about their characters and possess the skill to make us feel likewise is a rare and impressive thing—maybe not as scarce as a unicorn or as awe-inspiring as the Northern Lights, but worth seeking out all the same. 

Cinema Scope: Can you talk about the origins of the project and your involvement in it? 

Athina Rachel Tsangari: Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell, who founded House Productions, called me saying that they were developing their first series and asked if I’d like to read it. It was not in my cards to direct TV, but I liked the story and the writing. A “chosen family” between a bisexual woman, a 30-year-old teenager, and a fragile man who suffers from PTSD…in fast-paced dialogue…I went to London and met with Trigonometry’s writers, Duncan MacMillan and Effie Woods, to spend some time going over the script and see if we’d be on the same page. It turned out that we were all big fans of screwball comedy, and the idea was to take that genre and apply it to a contemporary couple, or I guess in our case thruple.  

Scope: How did you adapt your directorial style for a television series? 

Tsangari: I’m happy that you see a part of me there. When you do television, there isn’t really much time to think as a director. It’s all so irrationally fast. One of the reasons I did it was to learn how to work at such a pace. And to work not only within the robust writing of the script, but with that mysterious space in between. The script is non-stop dialogue, hitting narrative beats and plot points left and right and upside down. So how does one serve this, while transcending it cinematically? I asked Sean Price Williams to come on board as our cinematographer, as my sensory accomplice. We could use the camera like another character. It would always be moving, and always reacting, instead of just documenting or “describing,” a frightful TV canon. The mise en scène code had to be about witnessing bodies trapped in space. My films are quite still and composed, and here I wanted to introduce a bit of chaos. We’d shoot entire scenes without cutting, just keep moving with the flow. The actors would never be sure if they would be onscreen or offscreen, and this created an interesting energy. It was like a marathon dance that would start in the morning and go until evening, uninterrupted, except for lunch break. Five to eight scenes a day. It was exhausting, but we soon found our rhythm.  

Scope: You talk about the moving camera, and there are also a lot of medium-to-long shots in there, showing off the characters and their bodies. A lot of character information is conveyed through physicality, like when they’re all comparing scars together in the bathroom. It’s shorthand for their backgrounds and their vulnerabilities… 

Tsangari: They all have scars already, and they also keep getting hurt. They’re all wounded people doing the best they can to heal one another, negotiating societal norms and taboos. I find them moving in their modesty, confusion, their courage. They fall in love in spite of themselves, and the wonderful thing is that they don’t chicken out. Unlike the threesome paradigm, they all simultaneously decide to be together as one. There’s drama there that doesn’t necessarily have to be played out as actual drama, capital-D ’n all. I approached our characters’ tender, panicked awkwardness as a lexicon of gestures and glances. You know, when we’re nervous, and we keep talking and we just won’t shut up, and we keep moving our hands uncontrollably, and fix our eyes on our shoes, and we spill our drink on someone’s shirt, and we profusely apologize thinking, “Oh I’m an idiot, an idiot!” 

Scope: Can you talk about the casting, and about the differences in working with Ariane Labed, whom you had already worked with, and the other stars? 

Tsangari: Ariane had to become a synchronized swimmer in three weeks. She started rehearsing with a team coached by British Olympic athletes. By the time we started shooting, she managed to perform all the routines you see in the series, except for two shots. She’s a great Method actor, though she doesn’t agree with me when I tell her that. She enters everything fully, no questions asked. 

There’s a Gemma in Thalissa and a Thalissa in Gemma: rebellious, stubborn, generous, yet vulnerable. Gary I think had the show’s most difficult role as Kieran. How do you play a guy in who has a relationship with two very strong women without him being either sleazy or greedy? He balanced it by his natural sensitivity and emotional intelligence. 

Scope: Screwball comedy has always been about class and society, and I feel like Trigonometry has a social dimension, not only in terms of the racial make-up of the characters—these two people of colour infatuated with a white European—but also the interracial aspects of Gemma’s family life, and the economic precarity of her café. Can you talk a bit about how you wanted to tackle the idea of “reality” in the show?

Tsangari: The racial make-up of the entire ensemble cast was built in Duncan and Effie’s script. This is London, after all, or any other contemporary metropolis for that matter. One shouldn’t have to “tackle” it in 2020: it’s simply and unapologetically The Reality. It’s not presented as pedantic or exoticizing in the script, and that’s one of the main things that drew me to it. What the trio recognize in each other is that they’re all outsiders. Our casting director Shaheen Baig was crucial in bringing to auditions multifaceted, diverse actors who lent themselves to their characters, and I’m talking about the entire cast of 50-plus roles. Trigonometry’s underbelly is class, gender, race, sexuality, urbanity, but its heart and liver is a love story. Of camaraderie, of kinship. 

Scope: Trigonometry has a wonderful sense of place, which obviously comes from shooting in the middle of an actual city, but it’s also woven into the production design: the flat with the café downstairs speaks to the lack of boundaries or distance in their lives, not just between each other but between work and privacy… 

Tsangari: I saw the apartment as a battlefield of eyelines. The apartment was a set at Ealing Studios, and the café was a really lucky find: it was an old pub that actually led upstairs to an apartment. It was really fun to piece that space together, in a real neighbourhood that was walking distance to where things happen in the story, like the town hall where Gemma and Kieran get married, the bridge on the Thames where Ray meets her date…It’s not an extravagant series. We had a rather modest budget, but we had a dedicated, resourceful team led by genius producer Imogen Cooper, a total trooper. Duncan and Effie’s script stems from British realism, yet with a wicked sense of comedic timing. My first instinct was to transpose their London universe to liminal spaces. In my films, space is my most important concern after working with actors—it’s what I try to anchor things in. So you have the city, the flat, the café, the hospital, the ambulance, the swimming pool, the call centre, the airport, and then “Finland,” their even more claustrophobic escape: all primordial spaces representing the foundations of the characters’ lives, but from which they’re exiled, or in which they’re trapped. How does it feel to be in urban enclosure, in existential lockdown? And how do you break out? Questions that only a week after our Berlinale premiere ceased being metaphors. 

Scope: There’s definitely a sense of claustrophobia in the wedding episode, which is a tour de force in terms of the cinematography and staging—everything is swift and mobile but also the frame is detailed front to back, filled with people and background activity. It feels like the stylistic highpoint of the show. 

Tsangari: Thank you. A third of the episode consists of two single handheld shots. Duncan, Effie, and I had fun constructing these two sequences according to the geography of our actual locations, the wedding party’s walk from Hammersmith Town Hall into Gemma’s café, unifying all the micro-scenes into a live organism. I blocked the wedding “walks” with the whole crew and cast, marking their positions bit by bit, in front of and behind the camera. It felt like a communal celebration, like the rehearsal dinner for their wedding. We rehearsed it, and then next day we shot four takes until we got it. It was exhilarating. Sean manages something I’ve never experienced before: he’s completely present the whole time, he’s right there, but he disappears, even though he’s right in their faces. He establishes a rapport with the actors like a benevolent ghost. He doesn’t give marks to the actors, he goes where they are. Sean with the camera; me with the hand monitor; Piotr Perlinski, the focus puller; Emma Chilton, the boom operator—we all moved together side by side, like a dance, as if we were communicating telepathically. 

In the editing room, I tried to keep up that same energy throughout my episodes. We’d cut where you’re not supposed to cut in television, finding that ineffable energy between the lines. In terms of the look, we used a 16mm sensor for the Alexa, which is why it has that filmic grain, and we colour graded it against video sharpness. We shot mostly with natural light on location, and primarily with practicals in the studio. It was the first time I had worked on a soundstage, and, I’ve got to say, I loved it. I wanted the flat to be porous and malleable, a quotidian adventure. Doors, windows, thresholds, mirrors connecting the housemates’ yearning. Stéphane Collonge, our production designer, did an admirable job. He built floors that creaked, and a corridor around the flat that felt like a romantic promenade for a couple that no longer have the luxury of leisure.  

Scope: There’s a sense of invention and improvisation in the performances, even though the language is very precise. How did you achieve that?

Tsangari: I steer away from self-conscious, tidy acting. What we did was kind of like entering a trance. The cast was so close with each other—people say this all the time, but it was really like becoming a family, we’d go out to the pub, and we’d be on the phone with each other all the time. We strategized together scene by scene, line by line, pause by pause. It makes a really big difference, that little stuff—like when somebody takes a step away from somebody else to say something that’s passionate. That’s what happens when Ray tells Gemma and Kieran she loves them for the first time. I staged that game-changing confession in the middle of an arcade in a bowling alley. The background noise of those crazy machines was louder than her words, and this took the edge off the “drama.” I’m uncomfortable with drama-drama. To me Trigonometryis a screwball tragedy, like all my films. The cast opted not to have an “intimacy coordinator” on the set because we didn’t need one. Ariane, Gary, Thalissa, and Isabella Laughland (who plays Moi, Ray’s friend) were in total command of their sexual “choreography” with one another. It helped that our producers granted us the gift of rehearsals, which rarely happens in television. We didn’t approach sex like it was any different from speaking, eating, crossing a room. 

Scope: Was it weird to cede control of the end of the story—the last three episodes—to a different filmmaker? 

Tsangari: It’s something that doesn’t happen on a film unless you’re fired! I admit that it felt strange to pass the baton after the fifth episode, but at the same time it was a real collaboration. The way they do it a lot of the time in the UK is to pair a more “senior” director with a more “junior” director who takes over for part of the series; that was British-Italian filmmaker Stella Corradi, whom we chose based on a beautiful short she had directed [Little Soldier, 2016], with Ashley Connor as her cinematographer. Sean and I are big fans of her work. Stella is a naturalist director with sharp instinct, and Ashley has a similar camera tactility to Sean’s. We shot our five episodes in what in TV is called Block One, and Stella and Ashley followed up with Block Two (episodes 6-8). This scheduling helped with the cohesion and coherence of the show as a single organism. And then we reconvened in the editing room and cried and laughed together through the bipolar process that editing a TV series is.   

Scope: What have you been watching these days now that you’re finished the show and there is basically nothing to do?

Tsangari: I watched Twin Peaks: The Return again, which I find isn’t just a landmark of cinema, but of human consciousness. Literally a landmark. I don’t know how David Lynch does it, because in some scenes, it could almost be a student film, and by this I mean constructed by someone who doesn’t follow any rules. For example, he doesn’t crosscut dialogue. He waits a couple of seconds on the characters’ faces when they finish talking before he cuts away. He overlays sound effects and music, almost like there’s ten soundtracks at once, and then there will be these stretches of dead silence. There’s something both sublime and subliminal in what he’s doing, where you don’t fully register it at the time—you register it at the end, without knowing it, without knowing that you’ve incorporated it all. You’ve become a filter and a cypher for his uncanny. He makes whatever is happening outside the screen disappear. What a magician. 

And the dialogue! Coffee and donuts and meditation and cigarettes and mantras, the Red Room, the Black Lodge! His lexicon for life. His images, too: something as simple as the framed photo of a girl with an ambiguous smile has become an iconic ideogram. It was cathartic to revisit the Lynchian purgatory in the midst of quarantine. It was like going into a trance. 

Picture Shows: Gemma (THALISSA TEIXEIRA), Ray (ARIANE LABED), Kieran (GARY CARR) – (C) House Productions – Photographer: Mark Johnson