Because its auteur is Belgian, its setting Grenoble, and its stories interwoven, the new trilogy of films from Lucas Belvaux is apt to be taken for highbrow art along the lines of Kieslowski's "Three Colors" cycle. In fact, it's closer to the messier, less philosophical joys of Pulp Fiction. It's not haute but hot—a brisk, fun shuffle of the film-genre deck. The three movies cover the same few days in the lives of the same cast of characters, but each installment has a distinct point of view and style. Ideally, they should be seen in quick succession, so you can savor the connections and disjunctions. (Part one plays at the Varsity Friday, May 7, through Sunday, May 16; part two runs Wednesday, May 14, through Sunday, May 16; part three goes Sunday, May 16, through Thursday, May 20, and we'll review that one next week.)
First up is the thriller, On the Run, a lean, mean genre machine full of paranoid footfalls, abstemiously sparse tough-guy dialogue, swiftly assembled pistols zippered into luggage, paste-on mustaches ripped off, and furtive lurkers scheming in the murk. In its crackerjack opening scene, Bruno (played by director Belvaux) makes a nighttime jailbreak as luminous street signs flash in time with the guards' blazing Uzi muzzles. Bruno was doing decades for Weathermen-style radical violence, and he still spouts vintage leftist swill to justify his blood lust—he's obligated to save the masses via mass murder. He tracks down his erstwhile comrade, Jeanne, who's undergone a Katherine Ann Power/Kathy Boudin makeover, ditching the revolution for the mommy track. Meanwhile, police officer Pascal is hunting Bruno like a Javert who's even gloomier than everyone else in this dour noir. Pascal's got deathbed bedroom eyes. He's as cold as Bruno.
So far, so noir. Then it gets intriguingly quirky. By chance, Bruno rescues a pitiable junkie, Agnès. She's married to Pascal, but her first loyalty is her next fix. She smuggles Bruno to a mountain hideout owned by her luscious dish of a schoolteacher friend, Cécile. Then they're interrupted by the peeved Cécile, and we have no idea what she's so angry about, because her whole affect is un-noir—it's as if she's stomped in from a whole other movie.
Because, of course, she has. Let us leave intact the pleasant suspense that On the Run fairly skillfully generates, let Bruno dangle in pulse-quickening peril, as the pace slows to a moping lope in the romantic comedy An Amazing Couple. Now the tone shifts from James M. Cain to Feydeau.
This time our hero is Cécile's previously unseen husband, Alain, a hypochondriac convinced he's going to die. He keeps dictating revisions to his will into a pocket tape recorder. His paranoia is the inversion of Bruno's: Nobody is out to get him, and he's actually going to be fine.
Alain's attempts to hide his (imaginary) terminal condition convince Cécile that he's having an affair, so she hires cop Pascal to tail him. This time, Pascal isn't the ruthless pursuer, but a vaguely Clouseau-like detective inclined to trip over his own dick. Pretty soon Alain is convinced Cécile is having an affair. And his doting secretary must be against him, too! And his doctor! And what about his friend Agnès and that stranger she's having an affair with?
The stranger is Bruno; so we revisit the scene of Cécile's confrontation at the mountain cabin from her clueless point of view. Bruno creeps out of the scene on cat feet to meet his noir fate, and the farce rolls on its merry way.
As woebegone Alain, François Morel is funny even when he's just standing silent, pouting against the world. His basset-hound eyes and frantic pratfalls do amuse. As Cécile, Ornella Muti's cute tiffs and tantrums keep the creaky farce mechanism cranking out laughs. But there's nothing inherently amazing about An Amazing Couple. Watched on its own, it would linger in the mind no longer than it takes to walk up the aisle out of the theater. What makes it work is the way On the Run's grim scariness leaks over into it, like a whoopee cushion slowly soaking up a bloodstain. And though it's got more gumption, On the Run would seem thin and empty without An Amazing Couple to complicate it. Word is that the third movie, After the Life, which concentrates on Pascal and Agnès' heroin-haunted marriage, further enriches the mix with straight drama.
Don't go talking masterpiece here. Belvaux's feat is just an exercise, clever but never in danger of greatness. But he's got a greatly clever strategy for selling movie tickets. If you watch the first two, I promise you'll want to watch the third.