It is probably futile to give André Téchiné‘s The Girl on the Train the top-pick spot of the week. It’s been relegated to one matinee a day at the Fine Arts Theatre because of the Asheville Jewish Film Festival and will be gone come Friday, making your chances of catching it somewhat slim. However, this odd little movie is far and away the most interesting new offering in town.
That The Girl on the Train is fact-based is deceptive. Yes, there really was a girl in Paris who made up a story about being mistaken for a Jew and consequently being the target of an attack on a train. And it did turn into a media circus before it was exposed as a lie, after which it turned into a different kind of media circus. But Téchiné‘s film isn’t all that interested in these facts in and of themselves. Indeed, most of the media attention is almost relegated to background noise—even an announcement that the girl in question has been given the “support of the president” is little more than a footnote. What then is the film interested in? It’s interested in trying to understand why people do what they do—without ever claiming that it does know.
Téchiné‘s film is divided into two very different parts: “The Circumstances” and “The Consequences.” The first details Jeanne’s (Emilie Dequenne) life to the point of her big lie and the second what the aftermath of it is. But it’s more than that, because the film has a fairly large cast of characters—all of whom have circumstances and consequences of their own. There’s Jeanne’s mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve), whose home is also a daycare center (it’s an unforced irony that Jeanne lives in a daycare center). Her circumstances include taking care of her unfocused daughter, but the consequences of her earlier life are such that she has an “in” with someone who will become important to Jeanne’s situation: famous Jewish lawyer—and Jewish-rights activist—Samuel Bleistein. He too has circumstances and consequences, as do his son, his son’s estranged wife and his grandson. Similarly, a young man, Alex (Mathieu Demy, real-life son of Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy), with whom Jeanne becomes romantically involved, also has his own set of circumstances, which in part will lead to the consequences of being involved with Jeanne.
At bottom, the film is more about people’s circumstances and consequences than anything else—and while it invites the viewer to draw conclusions about these people and their motives, it never offers any conclusions, never suggests that it knows more than the viewer. Depending on your outlook, that will either be refreshing or it will be disappointing.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film—apart from the unanswerable question of why Jeanne does what she does (compounded by why everyone in the cast does what they do)—lies in the fact that absolutely everyone is aware of the fact that Jeanne is an inveterate liar. She just isn’t very good at it. And yet while knowing this, everyone in her circle—from mother to lover to boyfriend to Bleistein—ignores or willfully overlooks her lying, inadvertently setting the stage for her ultimate lie. It’s a fascinating sort of case history wrapped in a tapestry of character studies. It may not entirely satisfy you, but it will almost certainly intrigue you. Not rated.