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The hole truth
In Lucas Belvaux’s ‘Trilogy,’ everyone has his reasons
Cavale/On the Run
Un couple épatant/An Amazing Couple
Après la vie/Afterlife
Directed and written by Lucas Belvaux. With Dominique Blanc, Ornella Muti, François Morel, Gilbert Melki, Lucas Belvaux, Catherine Frot. In French with English subtitles. A Magnolia Pictures release. At the Brattle Theatre: Cavale (117 minutes) April 9 through 15, Un couple épatant (97 minutes) April 16 through 22, Après la vie (124 minutes) April 23 through 29.

The interactions of an odd assortment of people over a few days in Grenoble form the material for Lucas Belvaux’s absorbing trilogy, each of whose parts tells a self-contained story. The first, Cavale/On the Run (at the Brattle April 9 through 15), centers on Bruno (Belvaux), a leftist militant who breaks out of prison and resumes his terrorist activities while seeking to avenge his and his comrades’ betrayal. The second, Un couple épatant/An Amazing Couple (April 16 through 22), shows the spiraling misunderstandings between Alain (François Morel), the owner of a small technology firm, and his wife, high-school teacher Cécile (Ornella Muti), who suspect each other wrongly of adultery. The central character of the third film, Après la vie/Afterlife (April 23 through 29), is police lieutenant Pascal (Gilbert Melki), who has turned crooked in order to supply morphine to his addicted wife, Agnès (Dominique Blanc).

Belvaux’s narrative strategy makes the point that no story is ever complete and that telling a story is a matter of what to leave out. Although each of his three tales is self-sufficient, each leaves holes to be filled by the others. Coincidence plays no small part in weaving the stories together. The fact that Cécile and Agnès teach at the same school provides the pretext for Cécile to employ Pascal to spy on her husband; Pascal is also in charge of the police hunt for Bruno, and it happens that his morphine contact is Jaquillat (Patrick Deschamps), the gangster who set up Bruno 15 years ago. Pure chance creates a further critical link among the stories: sick from withdrawal after Jaquillat cuts off her husband’s morphine supply, Agnès ventures out in search of street heroin and is befriended by Bruno, a perfect stranger, when they both converge on a dealer working for Jaquillat.

In each film, the same characters show up under a different light. Cavale portrays Bruno as an idealist driven mad by an isolation that lets him see only masses and classes, not the individuals he feels free to destroy for his cause; but in Un couple épatant, he’s a polite, downtrodden guy; and in Après la vie, he’s the savior who helps Agnès through her withdrawal. The dour, fretful Pascal is a shadowy figure in the first story and a weird annoyance in the second; only in the third does he come into focus as a loving husband who turns desperate as he sees both his wife and his job unravel. Cécile’s refusal to lend her chalet for what she thinks is an adulterous rendezvous is a source of comedy in the second tale but a random, incomprehensible twist in the third. Part of the interest of the films lies in Belvaux’s experimental baring of the devices of genre construction and his linking of genre to character, mood, and distance.

But the films also operate against themselves as genre pieces. Setting the tone for the series, Cavale works as a dark, ambiguous study of people adrift, while falling short as a riveting thriller because of the director’s obliqueness and his even-handedness toward his characters, each of whom is allowed his or her say. Un couple épatant is a bizarre comedy peopled with characters most of whom aren’t funny at all. The most brilliant and piercing moments occur in the third film, in which the director, whose style throughout is fluid, clever, and assured, responds with deep sympathy for the plight of the addict and her provider: the image of Pascal enlacing himself in the arms of the sleeping Agnès is especially poignant.

By staying with the same characters for so long and revisiting the same situations from different angles, the trilogy builds up much fascination. The third film, which depends on this cumulative effect most, also derives the most benefit from it. As missing pieces drop into place, it becomes clear that the strength of the trilogy comes less from the satisfactions of putting the puzzle together (the sort of pleasure afforded by Memento or Pulp Fiction) than from the humor and melancholy with which Belvaux pays homage to the impossibility of reaching a total view of human events.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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