Man on the Train
The story is simple; so simple, in fact, that in other hands than Patrice Leconte's it would be a cliché. Two men, each nearing the end of the road, meet and spend a few days together before - well, perhaps the journey is more important than the end. Johnny Hallyday, Europe's sexy rock star of the 1960s, now aged into a thicker body and a bluntly ravaged face, is the man on the train. He is a bank robber named Milan, come to join his partners in a small provincial city, where in a few days they will take out the bank. He meets an old, retired teacher, M. Manesquier (the gentle and beautiful Jean Rochefort), who also faces a crisis: he will undergo a major surgery on the same day.
Because the town's hotel is closed for the winter, Manesquier invites Milan to stay at his elegant, empty old home on the outskirts of town. The two men talk, they each are intrigued by the other; Manesquier finds Milan's pistols and imagines himself as a wild Wyatt Earp, while Milan asks him for his slippers because he has never worn slippers in his life. (Leconte gives us a nice in-joke: while Manesquier tries on Milan's leather jacket a photo falls out of the pocket; supposedly of Milan as a young man, it is of Johnny Hallyday as a rock star.) There is an elegiac quality to Leconte's direction of these scenes that warms us; we are enchanted to be present, to be taken into their lives.
Each man takes on something of the other. Manesquier has Milan teach him to fire a gun. And he has his barber cut his hair 'something between a man just released from jail and a world-class soccer player.' Milan is at home alone when a tutoring pupil of Manesquier's shows up for his lesson in Balzac's novel "Eugenie Grandet," a book Milan has never heard of, much less read. But he finds a way to teach the boy something profound about the book and its meaning.
This is a film of moments and gestures; we have a good idea where it will go, but we are entranced by each moment of the getting there. And Leconte is not unsophisticated in his direction; he has lit his interiors with a sepia tone, using shadows rather than light to define his people. He even dares a post-modern trick: The camera shows Milan waiting for his confederates to come pick him up. The car arrives, Milan gets in, and the car vanishes. Where other directors would have the car pull out of frame, Leconte simply removes it.
The film is not at all hermetic, though. There is a girlfriend, and a sister, and each has something to add to the texture of the film. But fate cannot be denied, or even postponed; and the film slides into its dual climaxes. Here I was reminded of Tom Tykwer's masterful ending to last year's "Heaven," which I cannot give away without spoiling both films. But if you know either one, it will illuminate the other.
Hallyday is a rough actor, with little subtlety and no ability to find ambiguities or overtones in his lines or persona; but he fits the bill here as the hard man willing to learn, even if only a little. Rochefort, on the other hand, is a master of the complexities of life; we see it in his softly rounded voice, a voice that understands better than you or I what life is all about. He does not hog the screen but we cannot take our eyes off him. He was to be the Don Quixote of Terry Gilliam's aborted feature, and we see what he might have done with that role had he not backed out when shooting started.
In 1959 the filmmakers of the French New Wave - Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and the others - broke away from what they called 'the well-made film.' But as we see from the recently rereleased movies of Jean-Pierre Melville and, now, Patrice Leconte, there is always a place - even an honored place - for the well-made film.