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Many writers, musicians, and filmmakers craft what is essentially a series of variations on the same work, so that whichever one is encountered first will forever seem the strongest. But the interlocking movies of Lucas Belvaux’s The Trilogy offer an intriguing contrast: The first one you see will probably seem the slightest. They can only get better—and they do, quite ingeniously. Indeed, watching only one of On the Run, An Amazing Couple, or After the Life cannot be recommended. Making the commitment to see all three, however, will be rewarded.

On the Run opens this Friday, followed by the other two films a week later. The plan is for the first movie to continue so that all of them will play simultaneously for at least a week. As it happens, I saw On the Run last. But according to Belvaux, there is no correct order. In the trilogy’s American release, On the Run has been presented as the first film; in France, the series began with An Amazing Couple.

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The Trilogy gives a new spin to the term “genre exercise.” On the Run is a fugitive thriller, An Amazing Couple a romantic comedy, and After the Life a love-and-the-drug melodrama. Yet Belgian writer, director, and actor Belvaux’s primary goal isn’t to accentuate the tonal differences between the movies. Rather, his emphasis is on interconnections: The central story of each film is a subplot in the other two, so maintaining three totally different dispositions is impossible. Agnès (Dominique Blanc) is still a morphine addict in painful withdrawal even when the focus is on the not-really-so-troubled marriage of Cécile (Ornella Muti) and Alain (François Morel); Bruno (Belvaux) remains a ruthless political revolutionary while he’s helping Agnès; and Pascal (Gilbert Melki) is a rough-edged police inspector whether chasing Bruno, arresting Jeanne (Catherine Frot), or falling in love with Cécile.

The basic links between the characters are actually less contrived than they might initially seem. Agnès, Cécile, and Jeanne all teach at the same high school in the small Alpine city of Grenoble. Agnès’ cop husband, Pascal, parries with drug dealers, supplies his wife with morphine, and joins the chase when unreconstructed ’70s revolutionary Bruno escapes from prison and returns to town. Bruno is the former radical cohort of Jeanne, who is now married and has a young son she desperately wants to shelter. A patent attorney, Alain is the wealthiest of the men; he and Cécile own a chalet that becomes Bruno’s hideout. Unlike trilogy-maker Krzysztof Kieslowski, Belvaux doesn’t reach for long-distance connections: Aside from the prison break that opens On the Run, everything transpires in and around Grenoble.

On the Run is fundamentally the story of a man out of time. Bruno comes home with his revolutionary consciousness intact, but finds that no one else—except the cops pursuing him—wants to take up where he left off. It’s the only one of the films that doesn’t focus foremost on a couple, and it features some striking (and often near-silent) images of solitude. An Amazing Couple concerns a more traditional Gallic film subject: infidelity. When Alain lies to Cécile rather than burden her with the news that he’s going to have minor surgery, he inadvertently deals her another worry: She assumes he’s having an affair and hires Pascal to follow him. For a bedroom farce, the movie is unusually naturalistic, refusing to prolong cases of mistaken identity for maximum mirth. For example, when Pascal tells Cécile that he’s identified her husband’s lover as a younger woman who “looks a bit like you,” Cécile quickly realizes that the cop has spotted Alain with their daughter. The best of the films—and the logical third act, despite the director’s nonplan—is After the Life, which details Agnès and Pascal’s relationship and explains Bruno’s complex associations with both of them. It’s the edgiest and most compact of the trio, yet not without moments that delight in the overall schema.

Though Belvaux has described the films as examples of separate genres, he’s referring primarily to technical issues. On the Run is the most shadowy, An Amazing Couple the brightest, and After the Life is the fastest-moving and most intimate, with handheld camera hovering close to the characters. To help maintain the stylistic separation, the director enlisted a different editor to cut each of the movies, which were, like The Lord of the Rings, all shot continuously. Yet the acting styles don’t change from film to film, and entire scenes play exactly the same way in different episodes. The variation is not on the screen, but in the mind: We know more the second or third time around, and thus can appreciate that when a character asserts understanding of a situation—as Cécile does to Bruno, seeing the entire world through the prism of Alain’s supposed adultery—he is probably wrong. The first time through life, The Trilogy helpfully suggests, you’re just not going to get it.

Indeed, the interlaced tales are powered by several different forms of everyday cluelessness. Agnès, given feral intensity by Blanc, can’t see beyond her next fix. Melki’s Pascal and the director’s own Bruno are impulsive men of blinkered principle, capable of both kindness and extreme cruelty. (A veteran actor, Belvaux cast himself at the last minute, in part to meet the Franco-Belgian co-production’s requirement for a Belgian in a major role.) Alain, his ruefulness incarnate in Morel’s hangdog face, is ensnared in an expanding web of his own lies. And Muti—as striking today as when she embodied one of the great sirens of world literature 20 years ago in Swann in Love—plays Cécile as the perennial romantic, as crazy in love as any teenager.

Belvaux’s films(s) somewhat resemble such shattered-narrative stunts as Last Year at Marienbad and Memento as well as mainstream time-travel flicks including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, whose clunky final section allows its kiddie heroes to relive recent events from a different vantage point. But the director doesn’t depict characters who are profoundly disoriented—or who have a revelatory experience. Generally, they muddle on unchanged or just slightly altered while only the audience has the benefit of expanded comprehension. These movies constitute a story whose final form—to an even greater extent than most stream-of-consciousness fiction—exists only in the viewer’s mind. A remarkably entertaining byproduct of French critical theory, The Trilogy depicts a through-the-camera world in which character determines not only a person’s fate but also his genre.CP