Film Reviews: Wednesday,May 29, 2003
Man on the Train
Starring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday. Written and directed by Patrice Leconte. Rated R.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
My Life for Yours

Two men contemplate trading places in the overly schematic Man on the Train.

By KRISTIAN LIN

If you’re familiar with the career of Patrice Leconte, you can expect his current film to bear little resemblance to his previous one. The French director’s creative output includes film-noir thriller (Monsieur Hire), fluffy comedy (The Hairdresser’s Husband), sumptuous costume epic (Ridicule), and vérité period piece (The Widow of Saint-Pierre). He’s well established as a jack-of-all-trades, and his genre-hopping has kept him from falling into the gloomy downbeatness that has ensnared so many contemporary French filmmakers — however, it’s also kept him from achieving any sort of mastery.

His newest film, Man on the Train, stars Jean Rochefort as Manesquier, a retired poetry teacher living in a small, comfy French hamlet. One day at the pharmacy, he runs into Milan (Johnny Hallyday), who is newly arrived in town to meet some acquaintances so they can rob the local bank. Milan finds all the hotels closed, and Manesquier puts him up at his house, explaining, “The tourists don’t come here in November. Or July.” A warm friendship develops between the laconic, leather jacket-wearing criminal and the chatty, tweed coat-sporting professor.

It’s pretty clear what’s happening here. The robber envies the teacher’s sedate, literary life, while the teacher is itching for excitement and wants to help with the robbery. Leconte depicts a world in which everyone is trapped in routines, from the store clerk who asks every customer “Anything else?” to Manesquier’s sister with her loveless marriage to Milan’s getaway driver, who speaks only one sentence per day, and always does it at exactly 10:00 a.m. The filmmaker’s dry-as-Cabernet sense of humor keeps it all from becoming too schematic, at least for a while.

The two leads do their part to bring human warmth to this film. Hallyday, the French pop music icon, makes a capable straight man, and demonstrates some slickness in a scene in which Milan lectures one of the teacher’s students on Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet despite having never read it himself. Meanwhile, the wondrous Rochefort brings a lovable twinkle to the professor. He has a scene in which he tries on Milan’s leather jacket and recites lines from western films into a mirror, and displays a healthy vein of self-mockery in his twilight-years wish for an outlaw life. Rochefort has starred in several of Leconte’s films, and the director is fortunate to have found this actor whose old age suits him so well.

In the end, though, everything in Man on the Train plays itself out in a rather uninteresting fashion until the movie’s strange, nearly incomprehensible conclusion, which overflows with unearned mysticism. Whether Leconte is aiming for noble tragedy or life-affirming joy, the mood always seems to come a bit too easily in his films. For all his storytelling craftsmanship, his sense of humor, and his ability to handle actors, he doesn’t have the creative spark of a truly great filmmaker.


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