Reviewed by Rhea Cinna
Patrice Leconte is a director who has created some of the most charmingly honest, while not necessarily realistic films to grace the screen in the past decades. Even with such a track record, it would be difficult to expect a faultless film and yet, The Man on the Train is, very nearly, just that. The film is centered around two main characters, each vividly brought to life by two iconic, if very different figures of French entertainment. Jean Rochefort, a highly versatile veteran actor and long time collaborator of Leconte, plays Manesquier, a retired literature teacher living in a small town in France, who meets and offers a glass of water (and later lodgings) to Milan, a stranger who had just gotten off the train in his town, played by rock star Johnny Halliday.
The initial meeting of the two characters is casual and coincidental, but it so happens that they both find themselves in the waiting room of great events in their lives. Manesquier and Milan are as different as could be. One has a definite air of danger around him and the other is a sociable, talkative inhabitant of a quiet, monotonous little town. Even the music that marks Milan’s early appearances is reminiscent of Ennio Morriconne’s spaghetti western scores that accompanied lonesome wandering heroes. In some ways, Milan resembles Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, if only in their vague atmosphere and the fact they have both reached an age when gun-fighting isn’t a suitable occupation anymore.
Manesquier can’t escape the genteelness of his life — even when he tries picking a fight in a bistro, after some hesitating claims that starting a fight would mean starting a new life, he happens upon one of his former students, and the tension of the situation is dissolved into pleasant reminiscence.
The décor is adequately chosen to reflect the two characters — while Manesquier lives in a somewhat ruined bourgeois manor, lit softly and warmly by old lamps, the scenes depicting Milan’s interactions with his gang are photographed in a sharper, blue-hued light and take place in harsher settings.
With an assured and, at times, endearingly tongue-in-cheek direction and solid acting, the film would probably have succeeded even with a lesser screenplay. But it’s the well-paced, wittily dialogued script that transports the film to a higher level. Some might accuse the film of being self indulgent, and certainly, it does not shy from engaging its characters in existential musings, but it does so with the kind of aplomb reserved for films that rise well above the realm of petty melodrama.
Milan speaks very little, in typical quiet, mysterious guy manner, but it becomes obvious that little by little he learns to enjoy the mellow charm of Manesquier’s life and to appreciate his unlikely companion. With lines like: “apart from needlepoint, I have all the skills of a well groomed, early 20th century young woman”, spoken when Milan walks in as he’s playing the piano, it’s hard not to get caught up in Manesquier’s amusingly self-ironic antics.
Not that everything about the film is light-hearted fun. On the contrary, not deeply beneath the light-hearted entertainment of dialogues is a self-reflective nostalgia and a mixture of understanding of one’s life with the desire to break away from it into a tentative do-over. Neither character deceives themselves about their situations, knowing very well what they are facing but choosing to enjoy the brief experiment, and, for as much as possible, to carry on ignoring the events of the coming Saturday. Milan remarks, when trying on a pair of slippers: “I’ve been living the wrong life”, not long after Manesquier had tried on the leather jacket Milan had left behind in his room and acted the part of Wyatt Earp in the mirror. The bond the two forge over the course of the few days spent together consists of a mutual understanding and appreciation, as well as some well-meaning jealousy. Milan’s exchange with Manequier’s old mistress shows how protective he has become of him, whereas Manesquier’s repeated attempts to dissuade Milan from moving ahead with his plan feels as natural as it is touching.
The conclusion of the film, meaningful as it may be, is far less important than the getting there, or rather, the living with the being there already. The two separate as unceremoniously as they have met, after their lives intersected and even changed a little over the course of their meeting. The would-be hovers somewhere in the air as they both follow their pre-drawn paths.
Rhea Cinna is film critic for The Missing Slate.