Note: This review continues where last week's review of "An Amazing Couple" left off.
. . . whereas "After the Life" has, at last, the confidence and heft of a real movie. A straight-up drama and thus the only film in "The Trilogy" not forced into a genre straitjacket -- suspense thriller ("On the Run") or farce ("An Amazing Couple") -- "Life" is also the finest of the three. This isn't a coincidence.
If you've made it a point to see these three films in the three consecutive weeks they've played, congratulations on your stamina (and congratulations to the Brattle for coming up with the best return-customer gimmick since Dish Night). That said, there's no real reason "After the Life" should go third: Director Lucas Belvaux has stated that his parallel films can be watched in any order you like. But saving this coolly pain-stricken tale of romantic sacrifice and betrayal for last does have its benefits.
The most startling is the transformation of Pascal (Gilbert Melki), the brooding Grenoble police detective who finally assumes center stage after two films spent lurking on the fringes. In "On the Run," he was the implacable nemesis of escaped terrorist Bruno (played by the director); in "An Amazing Couple," he was hired by Cecile (Ornella Muti) to tail her errant husband, Alain (Francois Morel), and ended up seemingly obsessed with both client and quarry.
"After the Life" takes place during the same few days as the other two films, but as soon as we see Pascal riding a cable car down into some private hell, we know this isn't the corrupt jerk of before: He seems purified by sorrow. "On the Run" established that the cop's schoolteacher wife, Agnes (Dominique Blanc), was a closet junkie, and in this film we see how her addiction has warped their marriage into something almost passing for normal.
Pascal regularly procures his wife morphine to keep her from scoring heroin off the street; he drops the packet on the kitchen table while Agnes corrects papers, and she mutters a grateful "merci," as if he has picked up the dry cleaning. He puts away her works after she has shot up, tucks her into bed when she nods off: Enablement has rarely been this tender or this touching.
The facade cracks. After Bruno kills Pascal's drug source, the town's top mobster (Patrick Descamps), who's also on the escaped leftist's payback list, wants him dead. He offers the cop a deal: Shoot Bruno before he can be arrested and Agnes can have all the morphine she wants. Until then, cold turkey.
This is the martyrdom Pascal has been waiting for. He refuses the mobster's offer and doesn't tell his wife why the drugs have dried up, instead throwing his energies into tracking Bruno while helping Cecile out with her little problem. "After the Life" agonizingly details Agnes's withdrawal and its effect on her marriage's shaky foundation. "Can you stop me suffering?" she implores her husband. "No? Well, go then."
She forms a brief, perversely gentle bond with Bruno, but this is a love story about two people who know each other almost too well: Pascal and Agnes are the real amazing couple of these films. The cop's passion for his wife is so devout that the scene from "Couple" (replayed here) in which he confesses his crush on Cecile no longer makes any sense. Agnes, for her part, stands revealed as the central character and object lesson of all three movies: the "normal" woman whose secret life is in a genre her friends don't even suspect.
"After the Life" is shot in tones of blue and is graced with a delicately sad chamber score by Riccardo del Fra. I have no idea if it stands on its own -- Belvaux's "Trilogy" is the cinematic equivalent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, where watching each film irrevocably affects the ones yet unseen -- but I suspect it does. If you have committed to the entire project, on the other hand, this chapter leaves you not only with a sense of completion but of an ascension to a hard-won grace.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.