M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

For a modern filmmaker, it seems like you've got to make a trilogy to be taken seriously. From Lucas' endless Star Wars to Kislowski's Tricolor to The Matrix to The Lord of the Rings, the beat goes on. With ambitious simplicity, Belgian filmmaker Lucas Belvaux called his oeuvre just that, Trilogy, though its components' drab names — On the Run, An Amazing Couple, and After the Life — suggest that Volumes I, II, and III would perhaps be more apt (especially since Belvaux owes Tarantino, more on which later). Or how about Thriller, Farce, and Melodrama? Because, you see, the three films do not follow one another chronologically, nor form a disjointed series linked by a common motif; they are, in fact, one story, where each turn of the plot is complemented by a linked episode and thus regarded from different angles — and each installment is shot in a different key (at least in design). So perhaps instead of a formal trilogy, what we have here is a six-hour Rashomon — or, closer yet, Pulp Fiction, which employed a similar technique.

In France, the first installment released was An Amazing Couple, a flimsiest farce imaginable; the US distributor chose to opevn with On the Run, a hardboiled thriller, considering it to be a better hook for the audiences. I agree; but then I could never understand the French obsession with Jerry Lewis, either. The director himself claimed in an interview that it really doesn't matter, which sounds disingenuous; one would imagine that if you plan a six-hour project, it does matter what the audiences see first. Still, as a thriller, On the Run works moderately well. After a successful jailbreak, Bruno Le Roux returns to Grenoble, a picturesque town at the foothills of the French Alps (they held the Olympics there once), and does what a jail escapee is supposed to do: dodge the police, punish traitors, reward the mother of a friend killed in the jailbreak, and find an old supporter. The crucial difference here is that Le Roux is not your run-of-the-mill bank robber; he is a leftist radical in the Red Brigade mode who is vainly attempting to deal the establishment one last knockout blow. Alas, Jeanne, the only comrade he can trust, has no desire to risk her middle-class family life for the happiness of the masses. The only person who gives him shelter is Agnes, a morphine junkie whom he saves from a beating by a dealer. There's a slight problem in that Agnes is married to Pascal, the grim detective who is breathing down Bruno's neck; yet she sets Bruno up in a mountain chalet that belongs to her friend and colleague Cecile. Now Bruno faces some rough choices…

Belvaux himself plays Le Roux with impassive functionality — a silent type, as good with a makeup kit as he is with his right uppercut, his gun, and his explosives. (Perhaps too good with the latter, raising the question what PLO/IRA camp he got his training in.) He knows perfectly well how to act at each juncture, but the Big Picture eludes him: no one cares about the battles of yesteryear. As I said, it is a perfectly competent thriller. Suspense Level: Orange. It's fine for a late-night movie, but not a must-see to travel all the way downtown for.

The second film, An Amazing Couple, is a total contrast, not only genre-wise, but execution-wise as well. It seems that while Le Roux was dodging the cops, another life was going on: Cecile (in whose chalet he was hiding) suspects her husband Alain of infidelity and asks Pascal, the same grim-faced detective, to tail Alain to find out the truth. We know the truth: Alain has to undergo a minor surgery, which he faces with an hypochondria worthy of Woody Allen, including his fear of telling his wife about it. His secretiveness and her suspicions combine in a by-the-numbers farce, which, uh, is not that funny. The only reason we are watching is to spot the scenes in which "the amazing couple" cross paths with Le Roux. This makes the whole film an exercise in futility: Ornella Muti (Cecile) is still gorgeous, but her acting has not improved, and in no way are these rich couple's concerns comparable to the life-and-death dilemmas of the couple in On the Run.

Thus you attend the third installment, After the Life (announced as a melodrama) with apprehension: will it be more like Part Two or Part One? More importantly, you want to see if this jigsaw puzzle makes more sense as a whole than each of its parts taken separately. The answers are yes, it's more like Part One, and yes, it does make more sense as a whole. Here, center stage is taken by the marriage of Pascal the detective and Agnes the junkie. Supplying his wife with drugs, fighting blackmail from the local crime boss (who refuses him morphine unless Pascal delivers Le Roux, who has his own score to settle, etc), tailing the hapless Alain, AND falling in love with Cecile (Ornella Muti does NOT age, thank God) — poor Pascal has his plate full, and perhaps the role is too much for the brave Gilbert Melki whose handsome fashionably stubby face suggests a successful downtown gallery owner. As for his wife, Dominique Blanc does a credible job of showing the minute-by-minute pangs of withdrawal, but the whole subject takes a disproportionate chunk of screen time and seems a bit passé after the glamour of Trainspotting. We are supposed to muse on the mysteries of the human heart — what really holds this couple together? While, thus framed, their marriage is more dramatic than that of Alain and Cecile, is it worth our time, taken on its own?

Probably not, but that's the nut — the Trilogy's real import lies in the way the three separate installments fall together, in the way not one of its characters knows the whole thing. Yes, some of us are living a thriller, some a farce, some a melodrama, and Belvaux skillfully reminds us of the intricate way these genres are interwoven in everyday life. But is this really the stuff of a Grand Project that should take up six hours of our lives? Perhaps we should be thankful that Belvaux is still enough of a viewer-friendly filmmaker, and not some French academic type, who would have a fourth story — that of a viewer's life in between those installments. That would be truly unbearable.

Distributor Web site: Magnolia Pictures
Movie Web site: The Trilogy



(Photos: © 2004 Magnolia Pictures. All rights reserved.)