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Human nature and the riddles of life

In 'The Trilogy,' Lucas Belvaux follows not just one or two characters but an entire cast through separate but related films.

April 02, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

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 Cecile (Ornella Muti) and Alain (Francois 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, Agnes (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 Agnes 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.

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