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Friday, May 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Jeff Shannon
Mention the word "trilogy" and most people think of "The Lord of the Rings," "The Matrix" and "The Godfather" linear epics presented in order, forming a grand, chronological saga necessarily viewed in the intended sequence.
Such is not the case with actor-writer-director Lucas Belvaux's audacious Belgian/French production of "The Trilogy," a tripartite exercise in style and overlapping narrative that delivers on its promise ("three films, three genres, three genre films") while allowing viewers to experience each film, and their cumulative dramatic impact, in any random order. The result is a curious phenomenon: Whichever order you choose, however arbitrary, ultimately seems like the "best" way to experience the whole. (Each film also can be viewed without the others, albeit with somewhat diminished effect.)
In France, the films were released "from light to dark," taking viewers from comedy, to thriller, to melodrama. Following the British release sequence (where the films were labeled "Trilogy: One," "Two" and "Three"), the U.S. distribution pattern presents thriller, then comedy, then melodrama. ("On the Run" opens today, "An Amazing Couple" next Friday and "After the Life" May 16.)
Having viewed the films in that order, it's hard to imagine them any other way just one indication that Belvaux's ambitious experiment is a rousing though somewhat qualified success.
***½ "On the Run" plays today-Thursday and May 16 (117 minutes).
The thriller, "On the Run," is the most successful as a stand-alone experience, setting up an intelligent cat-and-mouse game between French police and Bruno (played by Belvaux himself), a radical leftist who escapes from prison and returns, still bursting with revolutionary zeal and threats of domestic terrorism, to the Alpine city of Grenoble, where he'd been arrested 15 years earlier.
He gets some reluctant help from former accomplice Jeanne (Catherine Frot), now a married schoolteacher with little tolerance for Bruno's outmoded politics. But Grenoble flic Pascal (Gilbert Melki) is hot on his trail, aiming to redeem his faltering career as he tends to his morphine-addicted wife, Agnès (Dominique Blanc), who is also a teacher at the school where Jeanne works. After a chance encounter (or is it?), Agnès arranges for Bruno to hide in a chalet owned by another school colleague, Cecile (Ornella Muti), whose role in this drama remains temporarily vague.
This is no globe-trotting, idiotic Vin Diesel action flick. Taking at least some stylistic cues from "Le Cercle Rouge" and other low-key French thrillers, "On the Run" is sharp, fast-paced and eminently logical. Bruno's near-capture, on several occasions, is avoided through his own ingenuity and the resourcefulness of Belvaux's tightly wound screenplay.
Without spoiling anything, the ending strikes a perfect note of fatalism à la "The Wages of Fear," casting Mother Nature as the great equalizer of us all.
*** "An Amazing Couple" plays next Friday-May 16 (100 minutes).
The comedy, "An Amazing Couple," shifts focus to Cecile, who suspects her hypochondriac husband, Alain (François Morel), of infidelity and hires Pascal to snoop out the truth.
Boosted by Morel's subtly hilarious, hangdog performance, the film offers a cunning blend of door-slamming farce and whimsical marital love story, simultaneously grounded by the gravitas of "On the Run" and enhanced by the events that follow in "After the Life."
*** "After the Life" plays May 16-20 (124 minutes).
The melodrama, "After the Life," has Pascal juggling his pursuit of Bruno with his emerging love for Cecile and the ongoing dilemma of his wife's addiction, which he safely maintains by procuring high-grade morphine through his underworld connections.
While it functions independently as a sad, ultimately moving portrait of a deeply codependent couple, the film also emerges as the most richly resonant of "The Trilogy," delivering subtle revelations that have surprising, retroactive impact on the events and relationships established in the other two films. (For instance, we discover how Agnès came to be wandering the streets, where Bruno rescues her and is rewarded with sanctuary.)
With three schoolteachers forming its narrative nexus, it may seem at first that "The Trilogy" relies too heavily on coincidence, but the interconnected plots develop with sensibly organic progression, and the character relationships aren't the least bit contrived.
Internal logic is Belvaux's greatest strength, and he seems to know just when to repeat a scene in its proper one-two-three context, trimming or expanding dialogue and action to serve whatever genre he's working in. You may witness the same scene twice, or even three times, but they're viewed from entirely different psychological perspectives, each informing the other in a feedback loop of accumulating detail.
Belvaux is justifiably proud when he observes (in an articulate press-kit interview) that each film "contaminates" the others, but if there's any drawback to this cross-pollination, it's that these films, strictly speaking, are not independent entities. Each film is satisfying by itself, but taken together they are revelatory and uniquely engaging. As he intended, Belvaux can rightly refer to a "fourth" film in his trilogy the "virtual" film in each viewer's mind, formed by the trilogy's connective tissue.
As a result, "An Amazing Couple" cannot be a full-fledged romantic comedy because it must inform the darker content of "On the Run" and "After the Life." There's a whiff of compromise due to structural obligations and generic bleed-through, but it's a small price to pay for the overall pleasure of watching characters blossom, fully realized, with surprising dimension and growth. (Pascal, for instance, seems like a downtrodden loser until "After the Life" reveals the complexities and conflicts that lend him sympathetic appeal. With the meatiest roles, Melki as Pascal and Blanc as Agnès dominate the trilogy's uniformly excellent cast.)
Like proverbial ripples in a pond, the films in Belvaux's "Trilogy" strike each other and send shock waves in outward directions, contributing to the stylistic zeitgeist that informs "Amores Perros," "The Hours," "21 Grams" and similar exercises in shifting perspective.
Propelled by disparate, generically appropriate musical scores (all by Riccardo del Fra) and cut by three different teams of editors, "The Trilogy" isn't a new idea (citing a literary example, Belvaux acknowledges basic similarity to Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet"), but it's a dynamic execution of a challenging cinematic strategy.
Jeff Shannon: email@example.com
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