There’s some slight chance that I liked The Man on the Train (L’Homme du Train) more than I might have simply because I saw it about 30 minutes after my potentially life-threatening exposure to From Justin to Kelly.
This is just the sort of movie Kelly Clarkson thinks critics are supposed to like; it’s probably even “worse” than that dreaded In the Bedroom, since it’s not in English and you have to read (“What?”) subtitles (“Ewwww!”). And since it’s in French, I might even be accused of a lack of patriotism, but that’s a whole other slab of Camembert.
The fact remains that I liked The Man on the Train — because it has real actors, a real story, a real point and is the work of a real filmmaker, Patrice Leconte. When The Widow of St. Pierre, Leconte’s last film to get a U.S. release, opened locally (two movies have yet to see light of day in the States), I wrote: “Brilliantly acted with great subtlety by a powerful cast, visually striking, hauntingly scored, it is very possibly the most completely satisfying film around just now.” I could just as easily say the same thing about Train. While few films might seem on the surface more dissimilar than it and Widow, they are thematically and stylistically almost identical.
Widow is a romantic spectacle; Train is also romantic (though in a somewhat different sense), but is much more of a chamber piece. The concerns and approach, however, are so much of a piece that another observation from the earlier review is just as apt here: “at once involving, moving, beautiful to look at, and, even better, laced with ironic observations and a sense of purpose.” Train is the work of a singular artist whose films uphold the idea that if you hooked a true filmmaker’s work together, you wouldn’t end up with a series of movies, but with one long film.
The film’s story line isn’t complicated, but the emotions it explores are. The ideas aren’t in themselves terribly original, but the take on them is. That splendid actor Jean Rochefort (Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to film Cervantes’ story) stars as retired school teacher Monsieur Manesquier, whose path accidentally crosses that of a bank robber, Milan (French rock star Johnny Hallyday), when the latter comes to Manesquier’s sleepy little town to case and knock over the local bank. When a pharmacist sells Milan aspirin that has to be dissolved in water, Manesquier invites the man to his home so he can take the medicine. The loquacious Manesquier is glad for the company of the taciturn Milan, immediately telling him all sorts of intimate details of his life — even revealing his early sexual fantasies over a painting of a nude woman.
At first, Milan is both suspicious of and bored by his host, but circumstances force him to accept Manesquier’s hospitality and agree to stay with him. As the two get to know each other, a bond grows — a kind of sexless romance. Each starts recognizing the appeal of the other’s life: Manesquier quickly realizes that Milan lives outside the law — and is fascinated by that fact; Milan, by contrast, is feeling his years, and finds himself envying the old man’s simpler, ordered, cozy, even boring life. This is all delicately sketched in by screenwriter Claude Klotz (who also collaborated with Leconte on The Hairdresser’s Husband and Felix et Lola) and so deftly handled by Leconte that you aren’t even aware that the changes in each man are happening until they are well underway.
It all starts ever so slowly with Manesquier finding Milan’s guns and fringed leather jacket and pretending to be a Wild West desperado, while Milan becomes what Manesquier calls “the type of man who plans” by thinking ahead and buying two loaves of bread rather than one. Their crossover finds its fullest expression when Manesquier horrifies his barber by wanting a more “modern” haircut (“Something between ‘fresh out of prison’ and ‘world-class soccer player'”), while considering growing a goatee. At the same time this is happening, Milan is shaving off his goatee, and finds himself standing in for Manesquier by playing tutor for a student Manesquier has forgotten. Similarly, it’s only late in the film that the significance of the “coincidence” that both men have appointments at 10 a.m. on Saturday (Manesquier to have open-heart surgery; Milan to hold up the bank) becomes clearly a matter of a shared fate.
Yes, in many ways, you’ve seen it before, this idea of a life suddenly examined late in the day before (from McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt). Yet Leconte makes it truly his own. There’s a sense of irony in a teacher who can only measure his accomplishments by noting “30 years a teacher and not one child molested” and a bank robber who has spent his life playing at being a misplaced desperado; there’s also a sense of fatality. As the film climaxes in a brilliant series of cross-cut events — and a beautifully enigmatic finale — you realize you’re witnessing the work of a master at the height of his powers. Don’t miss it.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke