Hugely ambitious and, for the most part, decidedly impressive, this trilogy, in which three stories are handled in three entirely different cinematic styles, unfolds over roughly the same time frame and features largely the same characters. “On the Run” is an economical, fast-paced thriller; “An Amazing Couple,” a character-driven comedy; and “After Life,” a somber drama. An exceptional achievement for little-known Belgian director-writer-actor Lucas Belville, the three films pose an immense marketing challenge, because, although it is possible to see “On the Run” as a self-contained pic, the other two only really work in the context of the 335-minute whole; though they could be viewed individually, they would be very much diminished if this were the case. Further festival exposure is a given, but it will take a bold distributor to take a chance on theatrical release for the trilogy. Ancillary should be potent among lovers of French language cinema for years to come.
Belvaux, who started his film career as an actor (he was featured in Claude Chabrol’s “Madame Bovary”) has made two modestly well received films before this epic undertaking, which involved 22 weeks of principal photography in and around the city of Grenoble and then a lengthy period of post-production. Except for the editors, credits are mainly the same for all three films. In addition to the basic complexities of the project, Belvaux has repeated scenes from one film to another but in different styles; for example, a scene that plays as comedy in “An Amazing Couple” comes across as drama in “After Life,” though the dialogue and actors are the same. Framing and lighting are, however, distinctly different.
Although the Toronto Film Fest catalog gave the three films the overall title of “La Trilogie,” these words never appear on screen. Further, the suggestion that the pics can be seen in any order is misleading; for maximum enjoyment, the three should be viewed in the order listed above, and as close together as possible.
“On the Run,” a very lean thriller, is a portrait of an obsessed psychopath at war with society. It begins with a literal bang as Bruno Le Roux (played by the writer-director) breaks out of the prison in which he’s served 15 years of a life sentence for his membership in an armed wing of a left-wing revolutionary movement, the Popular Army. Escape sequence is dynamically directed, with the camera placed in the getaway car that careens through the nighttime streets until stopped by a police road-black, whereupon all hell breaks loose.
Making it to a hideout in Grenoble and clinging to a ’70s mind-set, Bruno is determined to continue the fight against capitalist society, and to avenge his fallen comrades-in-arms.
But most of his former associates are dead or behind bars, and the others are either unwilling or untrustworthy. He seeks help from former radical Jeanne (Catherine Frot), but she’s now a mother and schoolteacher.
Another former contact is local crime boss Jaquillat (Patrick Descamps). Years earlier, Bruno and Jaquillat had been allies in a bank robbery, but now Jaquillat’s drug dealing is seriously constrained by the massive police presence as the manhunt for Bruno continues. It’s in Jaquillat’s interests to finish off Bruno. An alliance between Jaquillat and local cop Pascal Manise (Gilbert Melki) makes things even more dangerous for Bruno.
Whatever ideals Bruno might once have had have been distorted by imprisonment and suffering. Bruno is now willing to kill for the most casual reasons — he’s turned into a psychopath with nothing to lose. However, he finds an unexpected ally in Agnes (Dominique Blanc), Manise’s junkie wife. Bruno helps her when she is attacked by a street dealer, and, without really knowing who he is, she finds him a place to stay, in the chalet owned by her friend, Cecile (Ornella Muti).
The major achievement of this tautly constructed manhunt film is its economy. Belvaux directs with a lean intensity, keeping dialogue to the minimum. He’s a consummate storyteller, and his depiction of this spiral into hell and oblivion is filmmaking akin to the later work of Jean-Pierre Melville in the subtle shifts of its depiction of the world of a lonely, desperate man and the uneasy alliances and inevitable betrayals that surround him.
Belvaux is excellent as the fugitive whose devotion to Marxism once sustained him, but who comes to realize that the cause he fought for has passed him by.
Fluid camerawork, a resonant music score and tightly wound editing combine to produce a superior suspense film with a conclusion that is somewhat reminiscent of the final acts of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and of Joseph Losey’s “The Criminal.”
“An Amazing Couple” is a completely different experience. Alain (Francois Morel) runs a small hi-tech engineering company; he is married to teacher Cecile, and they seem to be a blissfully happy couple. But Alain has come to the conclusion that he’s terminally ill. A chronic worrier, he’s convinced that some minor symptoms which he’s experiencing are the beginning of the end. Alain decides not to tell his wife the bad news. So, on the night she holds a surprise birthday party for him (attended by Agnes, among others), he goes to see his doctor, a family friend, and makes a lame excuse for this late return home that makes Cecile instantly suspicious.
Cecile seeks help from Pascal, who agrees to follow Alain to see if he’s meeting another woman. When he does, indeed, see him embrace a young woman (Raphaele Godin) in a city park, he thinks the mystery is solved; but the girl turns out to be Louise, the daughter of Alain and Cecile. Cecile then considers the possibility that Alain is having an affair with his secretary, Claire (Valerie Mairesse), but when Agnes asks her if she can borrow her chalet for a few days because she’s met a man, Cecile immediately assumes that Agnes is her husband’s secret mistress.
But by this time Alain has come to the conclusion that Cecile is hiding something from him. The two begin to lie to each other and suspect one another as their paranoid delusions escalate. “An Amazing Couple” has a droll premise (with a basic plot not unlike that of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day starrer “Send Me No Flowers”) which unfolds rather in the style of an Eric Rohmer film. The briefest of the three pics, it’s also the least successful, suggesting that this kind of character-driven comedy isn’t the genre with which Belvaux is most comfortable. Still, there are delightful sequences and ideas and the film carries a great deal more substance and resonance when placed alongside the other two in the series.
Camerawork is softer and brighter here, the editing more relaxed. The character of Bruno, who was center-stage in “On the Run,” is seen only briefly, and introduces himself as Pierre.
“After Life” is a dramatic tale of the moral dilemmas of a not-too-honest cop played out against a background of a manhunt. Pascal supplies his wife, Agnes, with morphine provided by Jaquillat, the local crime boss; Agnes was addicted even before the pair met. But the prison break-out of terrorist Bruno Le Roux, and the certainty that he’s settling old scores in the Grenoble area, has made Jaquillat a worried man. He attempts to blackmail Pascal into killing Bruno on sight, using the supply of morphine as a lever.
Pascal refuses to co-operate, but he can’t tell Agnes why his supplies have suddenly dried up.
As a result, she trawls the streets in search of a hit, which is where she meets, and is helped by, the fugitive. He takes her back to her place to tend to her injuries after a street dealer beats her up, and Pascal, coming home, sees them together; however, he doesn’t make them aware of his presence, and deliberately lets the fugitive slip through his fingers.
Pic builds to an emotionally-charged and suspenseful climax, with the lives of these tormented, deeply flawed, characters changed forever.
“After Life” provides answers to a lot of the unanswered questions i
n the earlier films. For example, in “An Amazing Couple” we’re unaware why Cecile is so angry with Agnes for asking if she may use the chalet; but now her motives become clear. The repetition of scenes are given whole new meanings because of the additional information now available to the viewer.
This was a device also used by British director Christine Edzard in her 1988 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” which was divided into two films with the story told twice but seen from the perspective of different characters.
The magnificence of Blanc’s performance as the addicted Agnes becomes very clear in this third film, and much more substance is provided to the character of Mekli’s Pascal; he seemed to be an unfeeling manipulator in the first films, but here we discover the full extent of his love for his wife.
Also, the true nature of Jeanne’s relationship to Bruno and the other women becomes clear in the third film. The violent gun battles and confrontations of “On the Run” take place off-screen in “After Life” — only the results of the fugitive’s rampage are shown.
Tonally quite harsh, “After Life” is yet another very different kind of cinema experience from the other films, with camerawork and music more austere than in “Couple,” less intense than in “Run.” It certainly wraps the trilogy on a very powerful, emotionally draining note. It’s refreshing to see the precision and audacity with which Belvaux and his excellent cast succeed in imbuing the increasingly familiar story with completely new angles, insights and nuances.
Without doubt, Belvaux’s bold concept and accomplished execution mark his trilogy as one of contemporary European cinema’s most interesting experiments in some time.