Shot all at once, interwoven like a Persian gabbeh, and released here in an unprecedented three-week sequence, the triple feature that comprises Lucas Belvaux’s The Trilogy is, for all of its structural handstands, surprisingly deep-dish. Going in, the news that Belvaux has fashioned the three films to replay the same dilemmas and intersections in three different genres smacks of almost Kieslowskian hubris. But pretension is the wreckage created by artists who can’t drive their own monster-truck ideas, and Belvaux has a sure, naturalistic touch. More than that, his ambition is both inquisitive about the engine of movie narrative and enjoyably dramatic.
Any “cycle” of films—or, for that matter, any film of inordinate length, from L’Amour Fou to La Commune—is about accumulation, a patience-demanding quality not especially high on American audiences’ hit parade. More Alexandria Quartet than Rashomon, Belvaux’s suite withholds as much as it reveals—often withholds, then reveals. (Caveat lector: Given The Trilogy‘s triangulation, the fallout of review spoilers could be particularly nasty.) Ellipses we presume to be merely a factor in his standard-issue Euro-realism are bridged in subsequent films; questions we wouldn’t think to ask are answered. You don’t even realize until the final film that the three stories are entwined by way of three teachers employed at the same Grenoble high school. All the same, the order in which the three films are being distributed is apparently random—in France, No. 2 came first, and Belvaux has said that any order at all would do.
The first film, On the Run, begins with the prison break of Bruno (Belvaux), but the acid trace of Melville notwithstanding, the three films aren’t genre exercises; with the exception of the second entry’s occasional screwball cutaways, the trilogy maintains a uniform and unobtrusive style. At any rate, each film eventually begins to “be about” the others—or, at least, the series as a whole. Bruno, it takes a while to understand, is no mere felon, but the last of a Weathermen-style radical terrorist group, from whom collateral damage is the acceptable cost of justice. Attempting to evade capture (the details of hidden caches, safe rooms, and righteous outlaw paranoia are subtle and convincing), Bruno inevitably interfaces with Jeanne (Catherine Frot), one of the three teachers, a now married ex-tract writer and Bruno’s old squeeze, who helps him despite the suspicions of snooping cop Pascal (Gilbert Melki, exuding just the right amount of half-lidded, Dane Clark churlishness).
An ethical opportunist in his own way, Bruno interrupts the beating of a strung-out junkie on the street, only to find—or did he know already?—that she is a cop’s wife, and the word is, cut her off. Why Agnès (a chillingly weary Dominique Blanc) has been left high and dry is one of Belvaux’s circular secrets, as is how Bruno knows so much about the city’s drug trade, and who, exactly, is the fat man haunting Bruno’s corpse-strewn crime scenes and communing with Pascal—Agnès’s long-suffering husband.
Bruno has You Only Live Once stamped all over him, but in any case the next installment, An Amazing Couple, practically ignores him. A marriage-French-style tale of rom-com misunderstanding, the movie chronicles the crossed-swords antics of hypochondriac inventor Alain (François Morel) and va-va-vooming teach Cécile (Ornella Muti, positively blossoming in her middle years) as they each become convinced the other is having an affair. Goofy yet dryly creepy in its characters’ neurotic entropy, the movie ropes in Pascal, who consents to tracking Alain (as he hunts for Bruno) and in the process succumbs to a crush on Cécile. Bruno’s and Agnès’s tribulations—occurring simultaneously elsewhere in the city—flit around the movie’s outskirts. Indeed, at its most contemplative, The Trilogy is a stirring and shrewd portrait of lives lived in oblivious parallel.
After the Life, a return to the first film’s brooding tristesse if not its proto-noirish template, doesn’t function as a climax so much as a re-refocusing on Agnès (the third teacher) and Pascal, revisiting earlier scenes (including a pivotal vacation cabin face-off that happens the same way three times, but signifies differently each time) and suggesting that this couple’s tortured symbiosis is the films’ authentic tragedy. (However the viewer’s fugue state is configured, Belvaux admits to preferring this third as the last, but no order is predetermined, the result being three separate potential “texts,” and three individual emotional rhythms of disclosure.) As a rule, cinematic storytelling has achieved operational efficiency by limiting our experience to a single perspective, but Belvaux, like Melville and Melville’s faithful spawn Quentin Tarantino, conceives of his movies as a relay of exchanging points of view. It’s a sublimely humane strategy, more sympathetic to subjective reality than syntactical control. (Fittingly, Belvaux’s offscreen space is eloquently used—more than once, a character will leave the frame and then re-enter at a distance, taking off.) Movies, particularly post-Spielbergian Hollywood product, tend to steer your frame of reference with fascistic discipline. Here, delivered in a shiftable tripartite sequence, is a movie experience you can shape yourself.