A trilogy that doesn't rely on swordfights

Just when we knew what a modern movie trilogy is supposed to be, along comes a series actually called "The Trilogy," which breaks every pattern the "Lord of the Rings" and "Matrix" pictures so carefully follow.

Written and directed by Belgian filmmaker Lucas Belvaux, it doesn't divide a single narrative into three consecutive sections, the way recent trilogies - and classics like the "Godfather" and "Star Wars" series - famously do.

Instead it tells three separate stories in three different genres, all set during the same time period and featuring a set of overlapping characters.

This poses the interesting problem of how the films should be shown in theaters. Should it be a single moviegoing marathon, or a triple feature with three admission prices, or three separate pictures with different opening dates?

Mr. Belvaux has chosen the last of those options. The first picture, "On the Run," opens in New York Friday, with "An Amazing Couple" following next Friday, and "After the Life" starting Feb. 13. Expect a similar pattern as "The Trilogy" fans out across the country.

Critics are being asked not to review all three movies together, so I'll focus on "On the Run" here, adding my opinions on the others when they open. I have already seen the whole shebang, though, and I can testify that it's certainly ambitious, even if it its dramatic grasp doesn't always equal its cinematic reach.

While he's been a successful actor for almost 25 years, Belvaux has made only a couple of movies before now. It's quite an achievement when a near newcomer to the director's chair manages to craft three independent yet related pictures, not only directing but also writing the screenplays and acting in all of them.

"On the Run" is the thriller of the bunch. Belvaux plays Bruno, a violent political activist who breaks out of jail, then skulks around looking for old cronies to help him set up another subversive attack on society. Things get complicated when he befriends the drug-addicted wife of a policeman who badly wants to capture him.

Belvaux tells this seamy story with great energy, and gives an all-stops-out performance in the leading role. Also fine are Catherine Frot as Bruno's former girlfriend and Dominique Blanc as the addict. The only real problem is the finale, which ends the plot without finally coming to terms with Bruno's complexities. In all, it's an unusually quick-witted thriller that rarely relaxes its grip.

Still to come are the comedy "An Amazing Couple," about a loving wife, her hypochondriac husband, and humorous hi-jinks by two couples snooping on one another. The last movie, "After the Life," is a melodrama wherein Bruno's nemesis falls in love with a close friend of his drug- dependent wife.

As a trilogy, Belvaux's work recalls Kryzstof Kieslowski's renowned "Blue, White, Red" series, which also told separate stories with occasional characters wandering from one to another, and also had a comedy as the centerpiece. (There too, the comedy is the weakest link.) It also loosely recalls Whit Stillman's wonderful '90s films "Metropolitan," "Barcelona," and "The Last Days of Disco," linked by Chris Eigeman's superb seriocomic performances in all three.

Belvaux's series is more tightly knit than these, though, and if one part doesn't please you, another probably will. That makes it an attractive item(s) for adventurous audiences.

Not rated; contains sex, violence, and drugs.

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