In almost every movie there are characters that hang at the edge of the story, embroidering the scene, supplying distraction, perhaps even pushing along the plot. Sometimes, because the stars and the story aren't holding your attention or because that's exactly what the filmmaker wants to happen, your attention drifts to these characters. Idly, you wonder about their pasts, where they're headed after they walk out the door and whether they'll be back later with a gun, a girl or as part of the deus ex machina. Sometimes, you can't wait for them to go; other times, you can't bear for them to leave.
Much of the pleasure to be had from Lucas Belvaux's "The Trilogy" — the French filmmaker's three separate, contemporaneous and intimately related features — is that it allows you to follow not just one or two characters, but an entire cast as it moves from one story to another. Belvaux shot the films three years ago, with the same actors in front of the camera and the same cinematographer behind the camera, over a period of almost six months in Grenoble, in southwestern France. Afterward, working with three separate editing teams, he gave final shape to an undertaking that, he has said, occupied him for nearly a decade. The results are the thriller "On the Run," the romance "An Amazing Couple" and the melodrama "After the Life."
Conceptually fascinating if somewhat cinematically anemic, "The Trilogy" works best when the features are watched in rapid succession. I saw all three in the space of a week, but I wish I'd seen them closer together, in part because by the time I got to the third film, I had become fuzzy on some details introduced in the first. When the cop, Pascal Manise (Gilbert Melki), walks into a bar in "After the Life," I couldn't remember if this was the same bar that the fugitive, Bruno Le Roux (Belvaux), had been lurking around in "On the Run." I figured it out fairly quickly and by then, I also realized that this act of remembering — of putting together the pieces from the different films — was actually more important than whether it was the same joint.
We first see the bar when Le Roux enters to greet its proprietor, a man with whom he clearly shares a past. A prison escapee, Le Roux — who's on the run for reasons best discovered by watching the first film — is one of those taciturn tough guys that the French mint like one-cent Euros. He doesn't talk much, and when he does, the words have the force of an accusation. The first and strongest feature in "The Trilogy," and clearly made under the influence of Jean-Pierre Melville (Belvaux visually quotes the late auteur's brilliant thriller "The Red Circle" at least twice), "On the Run" reveals its secrets slowly and with coy deliberation. The storytelling has the quality of a striptease, so that by the end of the film, Le Roux looks radically different from how he appears at the start.
French comedy doesn't travel as easily as French thrillers, at least for some of us, which may account for my aversion to the second film's strained whimsies. Here, the story revolves around the long-married Cécile (Ornella Muti) and Alain (François Morel), who are indulging in the kind of absurd misunderstanding that generally occurs only in French movies: He thinks he's dying, she thinks he's cheating. Unlike films one and three, which take place mostly under the cover of night, "An Amazing Couple" unfolds principally in the blazing light of day. The characters are similarly sunny and bright, prone to a lot of overly busy bustling hither and yon. It's all terribly twee and often irritating — a poor approximation of the delicate, witty chamber piece at which an old master like Eric Rohmer excels.
Things improve with the third feature, "After the Life," a dark, often bleak look at unquiet desperation. This time, the focus is on the cop, Pascal, and his drug-addled wife, Agnès (Dominique Blanc). Watching junkies screaming for their fix tends to get very tired very quickly, but Blanc holds the screen with furtive intensity. Like most of the principal characters in the other films, Pascal and Agnès are living secret lives and nurturing deep-seated lies. Belvaux reveals the extent of those lies and the ways in which the characters keep their true selves hidden piecemeal, adding layers and shadings with each consecutive film. Although Belvaux has divided the three features into separate genres, taken as a whole, "The Trilogy" essentially works as a meta-mystery about the riddle of life and the enigma of human nature.
Belvaux has explained his decision to work in three separate genres by posing a question, "What could be more cinematic than the notion of genre, given that [genre] is based on the idea of showing the world from a chosen angle." Putting aside the notion that non-genre films are less cinematic than genre movies, the comment raises the question of how movies make meaning. A musical may indeed show the world from a different angle than a gangster film, as Belvaux suggests, but it's also true that Steven Spielberg's period drama "Catch Me If You Can" offers a remarkably similar worldview to that of his far darker science-fiction thriller "Minority Report." If nothing else, Belvaux's trilogy proves that when it comes to good movies, genre is never as important as where the filmmaker puts the camera.
"On the Run" opens today; "An Amazing Couple" opens next week; "After the Life" opens in two weeks.
'The Trilogy' MPAA rating: Unrated Times guidelines: Adult language and themes, including violence and drug use Catherine Frot...Jeanne Lucas Belvaux...Bruno Le Roux Ornella Muti...Cécile Costes Francois Morel...Alain Costes Dominique Blanc...Agnès Manise Gilbert Melki...Pascal Manise A Patrick Sobelman/Agat Films et Cie/ Diana Elbaum/Entre Chien et Loup production, released by Magnolia Pictures. Writer-director Lucas Belvaux. Cinematographer Pierre Milon. Sound Christian Monheim. Continuity Renée Falson. Set design Frédérique Belvaux. Costume design Cécile Cotten. In French with English subtitles. Running times: "On the Run," 1 hour, 57 minutes; "An Amazing Couple," 1 hour, 40 minutes; "After the Life," 2 hours, 4 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall.