Man on the Train, The (L'Homme du Train) (France, 2002) ****
Directed by Patrice Leconte. Written by Claude Klotz. Photography, Jean-Marie Dreujou. Editing, Joëlle Hache. Production design, Ivan Maussion. Music, Pascal Estève. Produced by Philippe Carcassonne. Cast: Johnny Hallyday (Milan), Jean Rochefort (Manesquier). Pascal Parmentier (Sadko), Jean-Francois Stevenin (Luigi), et al. A Paramount Classics release. 90 minutes. Rated R.
A first-rate, unusual picture for discriminating film-lovers. Its director Patrice Leconte (b. Paris, 1947) has a predestined name. "Le conte" in French means "the tale," which fits perfectly a man who has made many yarns (about 24) ever since he began directing, in 1974. The first ones included a lot of comedies or comic treatment of other genres. In 1989 he moved to the forefront of French "auteur-directors" with "Monsieur Hire," then followed up with another hit, "The Hairdresser's Wife" (1990, starring Jean Rochefort.) Then came the splendid, ironical and caustic costume piece set in the Court of King Louis XVI, "Ridicule" (1996, also with Rochefort in the cast.) It was followed by "The Girl on the Bridge" (1999) and "The Widow of Saint-Pierre (2000). Those works, with subjects so different from one another, are by now familiar to sophisticated American as well as worldwide audiences. They placed Leconte on the A-list of directors. Now, "The Man on the Train" gloriously re-reconfirms his status.
The film has two protagonists. Mr. Manesquier (no first name) is played by the legendary Jean Rochefort (age 72.) No last-name Milan (it comes from a spaghetti western) is played by Johnny Hallyday (age 59.) "Hallyday" is a "nom de plume," a stage-name with American references. It was adopted long ago by a young singer who went on to become "the French Elvis" as he adapted U.S. rock 'n roll to France and became that country's most famous and popular pop singer. He has been in several movies, but most of them are unmemorable minor works, unknown to international cinephiles, including me. Here however his presence is impressive, as is his minimalist performance.
American Western movies cast a long yet subtle shadow on "Man on the Train." A mysterious stranger comes to a small provincial French town in the month of November --and things happen. Milan is, in fact, a member of a bank-robbing bunch. He is scouting the place (or, if you prefer, casing the joint) as within a few days the gang will hit a small local bank. Hallyday has the perfect face, strikingly tough looks and a somber mien. He's no talker either. But he meets one, the retired literature teacher Mr. Manesquier.
It is the off-season. There are no tourists. The local hotel is closed. The teacher, who lives alone, generously takes in Milan in the large Manesquier home, a large, ugly-beautiful, partly dilapidated house crowded with genuine artworks as well as kitsch, books and bric-a-brac. There follows a strange but fully convincing bond (not at all sexual) between the taciturn guest and the garrulous host. They discuss life, mostly one-sidedly. It is all seemingly haphazard but real points are made, from the older man's past to his passion for poetry, his love-hate of the music of Schumann, his youth's sex, his enduring affair with a handsome woman, and much else.
This is a duo in which dissimilar values and lifestyles rub off from one character onto the other, in small ways, quietly heartfelt and cunningly humorous. For example, the teacher asks for shooting lessons --with the guest's handguns; the underworld character improvises a strange (yet correct) literature lesson to a schoolboy. There is nothing explosive save, literally, the revolvers. Everything takes place in a minor key.
What we get here is an Odd Couple-- indeed, the Oddest Couple - in a special, novel, clever, very Gallic fashion that's oddly realistic. The camerawork uses beautiful color-coding, wanders about in perfect unison with the talk and with the action, both inside and outside the house. A most effective mix of sights and sounds (they extend to the smallest of supporting roles) is observant, sad and/or funny. What we see and hear runs the gamut of perfectly understandable moods that periodically reach poetic levels, whether dealing with the past, with the inevitable ageing of the stars, or with the little things of life.
The economical descriptions of the town capture with precision certain aspects of a provincial place with its (also odd) mix of dullness and appeal of such places in France. Overall, we must credit the film's director, scriptwriter, cinematographer, production people, composer and all the actors. Connoisseurs ought to delight in the quality and inventiveness of the group efforts.
Contrary to what you might gather, this is not a static work. Nor is the story which the film's publicity seems to depict as two people exchanging personalities. This is not Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train." But in another discreet echo of Westerns, the mysterious stranger in town does catalyze changes.
I will not spoil the audience's pleasure by disclosing or describing anything beyond a minimum. Two random examples among many: an amusing sequence in a café whose noisy clients annoy Milan and Manesquier. The former urges the teacher to assert his personality in macho, authoritarian style, by sushing the disturbers of peace. Which Mr. M. does, only to discover that the noise-leader is a former student of his who welcomes the old man with disarming warmth.
In another sequence set in an art gallery, there appears a gang-member (the multi-talented Jean-Francois Stevenin) who is a drug addict, a gifted amateur painter and a fine critic of art. The way he is presented --in a matter of minutes-- employs a "logical absurdism" that Hollywood could not possibly achieve.
I do wish that reviewers followed the Hitchcock principle of not giving away too much of his films. So I urge the would-be viewers to avoid the many write-ups that detail the story and could take away the joy of surprises--of which there are many, mostly discreet ones.
The tale's imaginative realism has its own brand of clarity although you may be puzzled at the very end by a peculiar double-ending. I must reiterate that this movie is fresh, intelligent and truly original. Smart audiences will definitely enjoy, appreciate, even love it.