After Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros and The Hours, we're getting used to three-in-one movies, with their overlapping stories and fluid sense of time. But Belgian director Lucas Belvaux may have broken new ground with The Trilogy, a set of three films that will screen at the Orpheum over the next three weeks. The individual films are On the Run, An Amazing Couple and After Life, although not necessarily in that order. (Belvaux has said that the films can be watched in any order; this is the one arrived at by American distributors.) Another interesting variation on the three-in-one theme: The films, although they take place at the same time and share characters, even selective scenes, represent three different genres. On the Run is a thriller, An Amazing Couple is a comedy and After Life is a drama. Just wrapping their minds around that should keep cineastes at the coffee house until long past bedtime.
The rest of you may simply want to check out the films on an individual basis. They certainly hold up as individual films. At least, I think they do. The truth is, I was so engrossed in the connections among them that I failed to notice how well each film stands on its own. And having seen them all now, I can't erase what I know. That's one of the pleasures of watching the entire trilogy -- this cumulative effect that occurs as characters that were relatively minor in the previous film become major characters in this one, only to be pushed aside in the next one. "It began with a theoretical question," Belvaux has told The New York Times. "What is a secondary character?" Apparently, a secondary character is a primary character with fewer lines. Or, as Stanislavsky's dictum put it, "There are no small roles, only small actors."
In On the Run, the actor is Belvaux himself, his boyishly handsome face taking the edge off what turns out to be a cold-blooded killer. A political revolutionary who just escaped from prison, Belvaux's Bruno has some scores to settle, and this brings him into contact with characters who will pursue their own storylines later -- in particular, Agnes (Dominique Blanc), a morphine addict whose husband, a cop, has been supplying her with drugs for years. But On the Run is mostly about being on the run, caution giving way to desperation giving way to panic. Like Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, it's a police procedural told from the perspective of the perp, except that this perp would like to bring about the overthrow of society or, barring that, the death of the drug dealer who ratted him out. Notice the drug connection. Bruno saves Agnes from an overdose. She, in turn, provides him with a safe place to hide.
That would be a chalet in Grenoble owned by Cécile (Ornella Muti) and Alain (Francois Morel), the primary characters in An Amazing Couple. What's amazing about this couple is how oblivious they are to the truth. Each thinks the other is having an affair, which causes him/her to act suspiciously, which only confirms the other's suspicions. And before you can say "Molière," we're in a bedroom farce, complete with slammed doors and slapped faces. Not a particularly funny farce, mind you; Belvaux keeps things tamped down so that the movie's tone will match up with that of the other two movies. But the look has changed -- lighter, brighter. And there's actually dialogue this time, On the Run practically qualifying as a silent film. Although Belvaux once suggested that An Amazing Couple be seen first, it's tempting to think of it as comic relief, a chance to catch our breath before tackling...
...After Life, which brings back Agnes and her husband, Pascal (Gilbert Melki), for a grueling look at an addictive marriage that's going through withdrawal. Lurking in the shadows, Pascal pursued Bruno in On the Run. In An Amazing Couple, he trailed Alain on behalf of Cécile, whom he seemed to be falling in love with. And in After Life, we see why he's straying: Agnes has become a ghost, dependent on her daily fix. When that dries up, because the drug dealer Bruno seeks revenge on is pressuring Pascal to shoot first and ask questions later, she becomes a ghost with a bad case of the shakes. Belvaux uses a lot of handheld camera to capture the jittery horror of going cold turkey; and Blanc, as Agnes, spares us nothing, scratching at her face as the morphine dissipates in her brain. The result is a movie that seems to be taking place in a different galaxy from On the Run and An Amazing Couple.
Maybe that's what movie genres are, galaxies where the constellations are constantly rearranging themselves. But it's hard to believe Belvaux set out to make a point about the shifting nature of movie genres, or about the primary importance of secondary characters. What seems more likely is that he's interested in parallel lives and parallel realities, the way we all share this world while existing in little worlds of our own. Krzysztof Kieslowski pursued a similar idea in his Three Colors trilogy, where the individual films both went their own ways and fell in line as part of Kieslowski's master plan. Life's so much more complicated than the average movie gives it credit for. And whenever a director succeeds in capturing some of that complexity on the screen, as Belvaux has done, attention must be paid -- so much attention, in this case, that you may want to bring a pad and pencil along to jot down some notes.