In our Krzysztof Kieślowski episode we talked, amongst other films, about the Polish filmmaker’s most famous work, the Trois couleurs trilogy. Yet, for all of the claims of linked themes, and despite being quality films, there isn’t much tying them together save for one coincidence and a very forced coda: they’re a trilogy by retrofitting and colour only. So, to counter that, in this episode we’re looking at another French film trilogy, designed from the beginning to be a series of intertwined stories.
This trilogy, simply, and perfunctorily, named Trilogie is a series of films released in France at the beginning of 2003 (at the end of that year here), written, directed by and starring Belgian filmmaker Lucas Belvaux, set in and around Grenoble, with overlapping and interacting plots and characters: among the recurring characters being a Communist anarcho-terrorist, a corrupt (ish) police detective, a hypochondriac who imagines himself a target of the mafia, and three high school teachers, one a former anarcho-terrorist, one a heroin addict and the other a jealous moron.
The conceit of Trilogie is that the three films are set in the same place and time, but central characters in one episode are secondary or peripheral characters in another (Belvaux wants to know what a minor character is doing when they’re not onscreen), with different perspectives and relationships to the events, and requiring viewing of all three films to piece together all that is happening. In addition, each film has its own style and viewpoint and even its own genre: Cavale is a thriller, Un couple épatant a farce and Après la vie a melodrama. Ambitious, certainly, and we’ll discuss whether we think it was successful, individually and as a whole.
Despite the firm (and, frankly, arrogant) renaming of the films as One, Two and Three by Tartan for both the UK cinema and DVD releases, with the film’s actual name appended as a subtitle, the release order was different in France, and the director himself has said it doesn’t matter in which order they are viewed. However, to keep things straightforward we’re going to stick to the Tartan order for this episode, meaning we begin with the thriller, Cavale.
On the Run
Cavale, or On the Run as it is translated to English, begins with a prison break as Communist terrorist Bruno Le Roux (the director, Lucas Belvaux) is freed from chokey after 15 years by his former comrade Jean Jean. Jean Jean is killed by the police during the escape, something Bruno takes so well you might think he was some sort of uncaring sociopath or something.
Putting this clearly deeply upsetting tragedy behind him, he heads across country to the Alpine city of Grenoble, where he seeks out the person he believes sent him to prison, the drug dealer Jacquillat (Patrick Descamps), and looks up another former comrade, Jeanne Rivet (Catherine Frot), who has given up on the Communist ideals of her youth for a job in teaching, allowing her to indulge her favoured pastime of smoking.
Bruno’s attempts to get to Jacquillat see him cross paths with Agnès (Dominique Blanc), the heroin-dependent wife of Pascal (Gilbert Meiki), a detective assigned to hunt Bruno, and his intervention in Agnès’s altercation with a street dealer sees him gain a useful and unexpected ally.
Le Roux is clearly not a good person, but he’s complex enough (and, crucially, well-written and well-played enough) that he can’t simply be pegged as “total villain”, and Belvaux gives enough air to his character that his beliefs and principles can at least be understood, if not condoned. Similarly, Agnès’s helping of this wanted man plays as reasonable, given the circumstances of their meeting. Whether or not Bruno is simply opportunistic and manipulative or is choosing in this situation to act compassionately is ambiguous, but when set against, for example, his cold-blooded murder of someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, he rings true as a complex human, rather than a disjointedly written character.
Being part of this trilogy, while it’s a rewarding if slightly too-slowly paced watch, Cavale on its own frustrates as much as it entertains: to whom does the mysterious Alfa Romeo belong? Who is Alain, and why does Cécile suspect that Bruno is he? Who turned him in? Of course, if you watch the parts in a different order you’ll have different information at different times, and therefore different questions, but it demonstrates well that it’s really not possible to be fully satisfied with any one part of Trilogie in isolation: you really need to watch the lot.
Talking of not being fully satisfied, perhaps the biggest knock against Cavale is the ending, which more or less comes out of nowhere and doesn’t really fit in. Karma? Bad luck? Cosmic joke? Who knows? It’s fine to subvert the more common comeuppance a character such as Bruno Le Roux would normally be dealt, but I’d prefer it to be done in a less silly manner.
Après la vie, or After Life (not “afterlife”) focuses primarily on the relationship between Gilbert Melki’s Pascal and his wife, Agnès (Dominique Blanc).
If you follow the DVD or cinematic order then you’ll come to _ Après la vie_ last, and it necessarily suffers most from feeling like it’s retreading familiar ground. However, as well as filling in details of Pascal and Agnès’s relationship and their interactions with other characters, it contains new information that clears up mysteries from Cavale in particular, such as the mysterious pale blue Alfa Romeo. It also contains a crucial piece of information that, watched in this order, reveals a truth and undermines another character’s actions, or viewed before Cavale creates dramatic irony.
The most crucial role of After Life is in filling out the character of Pascal. I described him in the introduction as a corrupt (ish) cop, and it’s already fairly clear from Cavale that his biggest wrongdoings are in service of his wife and not personal gain, but this episode gives further insight into his and his wife’s relationship, demonstrating both love and dependence (from both parties), even if Pascal is still clearly quite a tool, and never adequately justifying his use of police time and resources to investigate some man who has been hiding something from his wife. “Ornella Muti is beautiful” or, “I really loved Flash Gordon” doesn’t cut it, especially when her husband has been hiding something from her for the distressingly and painfully long time of “since Saturday”.
Curiously, Agnès becomes less sympathetic in _ Après la vie_, coming across as irrational, unreasonable and demanding, but Dominique Blanc’s slightly dead-eyed, low energy portrayal of her character across the three films makes sense as here she sells the fear and distress that her addiction, and the loss of the dependable nature of both her supply and her husband, cause her. Of course, if you’re the same kind of jackass that the doctor is in this film (“let all the junkies die”) then you’re not going to appreciate that, but while it’s entirely reasonable to judge someone for starting to take drugs (“there are crocodiles”, as Lynda Day observed in an episode of Press Gang on this theme), stupidity shouldn’t come with a life sentence or the death penalty, even though it often does.
While Cavale’s ending is, at best, a bit silly, the ending to After Life is fitting to the title in many ways, as Pascal finds himself in despair as Agnès decides to rid herself of drugs, without knowing that the final dose her husband obtained for her indirectly cost the life of at least one friend and colleague.
It’s hard not to call _ Après la vie_ the least essential of Belvaux’s Trilogie, but I’m sure that’s simply the result of being the last part that I watched, and I still enjoyed it. Depends on viewing order out of ten.
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