Lucas Belvaux is in London to discuss Trilogy – three films, in three different genres (One is a thriller, Two a comedy and Three a melodrama) which follow an interlinking group of characters and stories. He is little known in the UK, but all that is set to change: as director, writer and star of Trilogy, Belvaux has created one of the most intriguing cinematic experiments in recent memory.

Multi-stranded narratives are increasingly common – even Richard Curtis is getting in on the act – but it is the cross-pollination of the genres across the same story, and the subsequent shifts in perspective and mood, which make Trilogy distinct. I had read that Belvaux’s interview manner was a little brusque but, even with the language barrier, the presence of a translator and the proximity to his lunch break, he talked generously about Melville, terrorism and the logistics of a project that proved even more of a challenge than he could have expected.

Stuart Henderson: Had you always planned on a trilogy, or did you start out with one film in your mind and expand from there?

Lucas Belvaux: From the beginning it was a trilogy, the point of departure being an explanation of supporting characters in movies, you know? Sometimes you see a supporting character that works, sometimes they don’t work. The successful ones are those that have the potential to be a leading character in a film that hasn’t been made – that was the initial theory behind everything. And then the idea came to me to experiment with this by making several films in which you have the same set of characters, and the supporting characters in one film are the principal characters in another; to really examine the life elsewhere of these supporting characters. Then the question comes of how many films to do. Two isn’t enough because you only have two opposing points of view, but three immediately deepens it without getting into the logistical issues of doing four or five or six films. So three became the optimum number to make.

And how did you go about shooting? Were these three separate, consecutive projects or did you just have one longer shooting period?

No, no, it was a very long shoot. There were two timeframes: the long-term planning of the film, in which all the films were mixed and everything was interconnected, and then the short-term, the day by day shooting of the movie, and in that nothing was mixed. For example, if you arrived at a location where there were scenes which passed in all three films, you would shoot an entire sequence for one film and then reshoot the entire sequence for the next film and so on.

I watched the films in 1-2-3 order, the order in which they will be released theatrically here, but I understand that in France they were released 2-1-3. Do you have a preferred order for the films, or are you happy for people to decide for themselves?

The principle from the beginning was to give freedom to the viewer. These are three films which have been made and all that’s being done is that an order is proposed but nothing is obligatory: you can see one film or two or all three, you can see them in whatever order you like, it’s up to you. But, if you choose to see only one film, you’ve paid the ticket price and you’re entitled to a complete film experience. So it was important equally that the films would be individual complete experiences. In France there is a preferred order, but the whole thing is that the viewer can enter into the same spirit of experimentation in which the films were made. You know, it’s in complete contrast to the character of Bruno who would be inclined to impose the sequence on people and put a gun to their head to make sure they saw it that way.

So why is 2-1-3 your preferred order?

The order in which they were shown in France was initially conceived because in writing the whole thing I had some kind of mental picture, and, if you like, this became the meta-construction of the films. But then, when the films started showing at festivals, because the screening schedules were so busy, people often couldn’t see them in that order and so what happened was that people’s perceptions of the events change according to the order in which they saw the films. There’s a kind of richness in that, which comes directly from the viewer.

What’s striking about the experience of seeing the three films consecutively is that at certain moments, the mood of one film can affect the mood of the film you are currently watching. Was that an effect you were seeking to generate?

It was something I became very aware of when creating it. There were times, I understood, when the genres would have to cross over, and sometimes scenes were rewritten to fit the rules of the genre. And those rules very often relate to what’s forbidden. What cannot be included often defines the genre: you can’t have suffering in a comedy, or too much light in the melodrama or too much levity in the thriller. Inevitably I was aware there would be a certain amount of cross-fertilisation of genres, but I had to control it carefully so that genres weren’t contaminated to such an extent that they were essentially rendered generically confused, silent.

Also, when you have shared sequences, the length of those sequences has to be considered, depending on what genre’s being served. If having it play longer generates more comic effect, then it will play longer. If on the other hand cutting it shorter has more comic punch then that would be the way the scene plays out. And so it goes with the scene in the café when Pascal, Cecile and Agnes meet, which is longer in the melodrama, shorter in the comedy. The rhythms of each genre dictate the editing of the shared scenes. It’s a question of what you keep in and, more importantly, what you must keep out.

These are quite specific variants of each genre that you’re dealing with. ‘On the Run’, for example, is obviously not a thriller in the Hollywood mould; rather it seems more a policier in the manner of Melville. Was he one of your key inspirations here?

Yes. Melville certainly was and has been an influence, but one could say the same about Bresson, specifically with On the Run. In fact there’s a very good book, written in the 60s or 70s, Melville on Melville, in which Melville is quoted as saying that he’s fed-up of people saying he is Bressonian, and countering ‘No, no, it’s Bresson who’s Melvillian.’ So there are certain correspondences between those two film-makers. Melville is cited by a lot of filmmakers these days because of the look of the anti-hero – the white shirt, the black tie, the smart suit and everything – but what’s interesting about Melville is what he tells us about the human condition; the anxiety of the killer, the implications for both the killer and the victim when the crime in question is committed, and also the preparation involved. Not having someone walk in the room and ‘bang’, that’s it. If you’re breaking into a room there’s a real anxiety, you need to find the right key and so on. It’s those human details which interest me about Melville.

What was the motivation for making Bruno a terrorist rather than some other kind of master criminal?

It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time, this situation of the period, in French history in particular, of direct action and violence and terrorism in a political sense. It’s a situation that hasn’t been resolved in France or treated with any depth in cinema or elsewhere. I wanted to examine the human side of this character – why he did what he did and why he continues to do it. How can a democracy be a democracy but still throw up this kind of character? And to examine all the different implications which have remained unexamined from this period, through this character who is still very active and still believes in what to us now seem very extreme points of view, without denying the humanity of that person.

What struck me very much after the World Trade Centre attack on 11th September was that the people who carried out the attacks were described as cowards. Now you can call them crazy, you can call them obsessed, you can call them mad or whatever, but you can’t really call them cowards because they just threw their lives away for something they believed in. And while I don’t support them, one can’t deny their humanity by calling them cowards. That just avoids the debate and to do this provokes violence which creates this circular situation. So it’s much more interesting and urgent to examine this than to do the story of a hold-up merchant.

Was it your intention from the outset to take the role of Bruno yourself?

Originally the role was written for a French actor, Antoine Chappey, but for financing reasons, I had to find a Belgian actor for the role. But this Belgian actor I found had signed a contract for a television series, and he was obliged to return to it if they asked him to. He thought he could get out of it, but three weeks before filming was due to start they called him back and he couldn’t break the contract. Three weeks to go and I’ve lost my lead actor! So I thought to myself, I’m Belgian, I’m an actor: I’ll do the role myself.

After such an ambitious undertaking, will your next project be smaller in scale?

Yes. Every project has its own identity and makes its own demands on how it should be realised. The pleasures of the Trilogy were the challenges that came in dealing with such a large project. But my next project may make different demands to do with lightness and speed and brevity. And that’s because it will have its own life, its own identity, and it’s important to follow that.