François Morel in An Amazing Couple
Gilbert Melki and Dominique Blanc in After the Life
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Avant-garde composers of the 1950s, seeking an alternative to the “total organization” of serial music, focused on performance. They abandoned melody and harmony as ends in themselves, and used sound to facilitate a philosophical exploration of time and environment. In John Cage’s Music for Changes (1951), performers tossed coins to determine the order in which score fragments would be played, so that each show was singular. A given composition’s “meaning” might be found in the differences between multiple performances and in the variations made possible by the methodical exploitation of indeterminacy and chance.
Lucas Belvaux’s ambitious Trilogy applies a similar concept to narrative cinema. Unlike a traditional long-form work in which individual movies are viewed as successive chapters, these three are not designed to be seen in any particular order. One could argue that this is a perverse abdication of authorial intention, granting distributors the power to effect a general story arc, but the Belgian filmmaker’s method is more complex.
Over three films (in three genres: thriller, comedy, and melodrama), three intersecting stories — each focusing on a different pair of characters — depict the events of one hectic week in the Alpine town of Grenoble. Each movie unfolds chronologically, repeating scenes and filling in ellipses, offering new angles depending on the protagonists’ limited perspectives. The leads from one film reappear in the others as supporting players; shifts in context transform our understanding of situations.
The structure concretizes The Trilogy‘s preoccupation with myopia, solipsism, and paranoia. A god’s-eye-view of the situation would look something like this: Bruno (Belvaux), an ultra-leftist terrorist with a penchant for bombing government buildings, escapes from prison and returns to enlist the aid of his former lover and confederate, Jeanne (Catherine Frot). But she is now a teacher, married and a parent, and wants nothing to do with Bruno’s outmoded revolutionary ideals. (These two are the central, adversarial couple of On the Run, the thriller.) Bruno is pursued by Pascal (Gilbert Melki), a cop who maintains underground connections in order to supply his morphine-addicted wife, Agnès (Dominique Blanc), with her drug of choice. (Their troubled relationship anchors the melodrama, After the Life.) Agnès and Jeanne both teach at the local high school with Cécile (Ornella Muti), who (in the comedy, An Amazing Couple) convinces Pascal to tail her husband Alain (François Morel) because she suspects the latter of adultery.
The repetitions and evident genre conventions repay careful attention. A characteristic scene from After the Life makes clear how layers of viewing develop. Pascal returns home, empty-handed for the second consecutive evening (the local mob boss has cut off Agnès’ morphine supply because Pascal refuses to murder Bruno). He tells her that he has “forgotten” to score for her, and she reproaches him. “It’s all I’ve thought about for hours,” she says. “It’s not a thing. It’s me. You forgot me.” The scene would be harrowing under any circumstances, but as we have screened the other two films, it disturbs on a deeper level: egoism may be personified most clearly by the addict (Agnès) or the fanatic (Bruno), but neither escapes it. Agnès accuses Pascal of “making me pay for something,” which we know to be incorrect, but the prismatic structure illustrates the difficulty — even the impossibility — of regarding another person’s actions free of self-interest.
In An Amazing Couple, the hypochondriac Alain fears he will die during a routine operation and elects to keep it secret, so as not to trouble Cécile, his wife. She, in turn, misconstrues his bumbling prevarications as evidence of a hidden affair. There’s a pleasantly ironic moment when Alain notices Pascal in a café: not yet aware he is being followed, Alain muses that recognizing Pascal ought to be taken as a good omen with respect to his upcoming operation. Soon after, Alain — the series’ most tiresome character — is convinced that his wife, his doctor, and the police are “in cahoots!” and growing loonier by the minute. His paranoia will inspire the irrational behavior Cécile and Pascal then interpret as evidence of his infidelity. Such misunderstandings keep the farcical motor running, but An Amazing Couple isn’t particularly funny on its own. Rather, it puts a comic spin on motifs treated seriously in the other two films.
Whereas that picture opened first in French theaters, the U.S. release kicks off with On the Run. Consequently, we come to consider Bruno’s prison break — the thriller’s opening sequence — The Trilogy‘s inciting action: a committed representative of the chaotic, Bruno’s very presence in Grenoble seems to instigate the disruptions that follow. His obsessive, eyes-closed assembling of a pistol functions not only as an objective correlative for his own fatal self-absorption, but also as a metaphor for the other characters’ varying levels of (figurative) blindness.
When Bruno hides out in a storage unit — the reductio ad absurdum of Alain Delon’s bare room in Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) — his drop-of-the-hat escapes underscore the futility of his situation. His contradictory actions epitomize The Trilogy‘s method: Belvaux invites us to reconsider, with the benefit of new information or a changed perspective, characters we assume we know. Undoubtedly a sociopath, Bruno leaves a trail of victims in his wake and wreaks havoc on Jeanne and her family, but he also rescues Agnès from a drug dealer’s beating and then saves her life when she overdoses. That the most brutal character proves capable of such generosity is not coincidental. Still, his kindness toward Agnès does not symbolize redemption or any such pat resolution.
Bruno is only one indication of The Trilogy‘s contrast between narrative precision and the essentially open form occasioned by the lack of a proscribed viewing order. The audience, in effect, completes the series by visualizing what Belvaux calls a “virtual film… that no one will have seen but that everyone will remember.” The distributor-determined order in which you encounter the films undoubtedly influences your interpretation, but it is precisely that vulnerability to divergent readings that leaves you free to imagine Belvaux’s “virtual film” — the product of the viewer’s subjective memories, after all — however you see fit.
Arranging them after the fact may be the point, which explains why the individual films aren’t nearly as satisfying as the complete Trilogy. Our growing estimation of Pascal typifies the process. In On the Run, he appears only as a corrupt policeman in the service of Jacquillat (Patrick Descamps), the underworld figure whom Bruno believes to have betrayed him. More integral to An Amazing Couple‘s plot, Pascal nevertheless seems clownish and duplicitous, prolonging his investigation of Alain because of his own growing interest in Cécile. Only in After the Life does he emerge as The Trilogy‘s central character, his ties to the others reconfigured in light of his troubled marriage.
When Agnès decides to kick her habit, Pascal’s initial devastation (he fears there will be no place for him in her new, sober life) gives way to the series’ most emotional moment as they affirm their incontrovertible need for one another. Their mutual loyalty may allow them to overcome the limitations of egoism. The U.S. sequence’s progression from former lovers to suspicious matrimonial partners and finally to tortured commitment lends the entire Trilogy a tone of cautious, hard won optimism.
Would ending The Trilogy with one of the other films alter this reading and promote a different character as the focal point? Absolutely. Strong cases could be made for Agnès or Bruno, and maybe even for Cécile. But the potential for divergent readings enriches interpretation. That the “virtual film” can never be grasped entirely is what makes it so intriguing.