Man on the Train
L' Homme du Train
review by Nicholas Schager, 9 May 2003

Patrice Leconte aims his sights low with Man on the Train (L’Homme du Train), a trifling drama that combines humor and resignation without ever rising above its overtly modest designs. The director, whose body of work lurches between inspired passion and wit (The Girl on the Bridge) and ponderous moralizing (The Widow of Saint Pierre), takes the middle route with his latest, the story of two strangers whose chance encounter offers each man a fleeting glance at a more desirable life. It’s a “the grass is always greener on the other side” fable about opportunities missed, directed with stately competence and featuring two fine lead performances by Jean Rochefort and early-1960s French rock star Johnny Hallyday as the men who discover that they crave what the other possesses. It is also, more often than not, so static and predictably schematic as to lull viewers into a comfortable slumber.

Milan (Hallyday) is a grizzled old thief who has come to a sleepy provincial town with his sights set on robbing the local bank. When, upon his arrival, he buys soluble aspirin from a pharmacy, a cheerful gentleman named Manesquier (Rochefort) offers to provide him with a glass of water at his house. The two retire to Manesquier’s home, a mansion the former poetry teacher inherited from his mother that is maintained like a museum, and one soon understands that Manesquier is one of its trinkets on display, a man whose comfortable, banal life has left him nearly fossilized. Manesquier is buoyant and talkative around his guest, seemingly awakened from his lifelong slumber by the arrival of this enigmatic traveler, whose muteness hints at mystery, his black leather jacket with fringe suggesting danger and excitement. After twenty years eating in the same restaurant, thirty years teaching in the same school, and a lifetime living in the same house, Manesquier sees in Milan the adventurer he always dreamed of becoming, and begins fantasizing about aiding in the robbery instead of undergoing the heart surgery he has scheduled for that very same morning.

The retired schoolteacher’s lavish, financially secure domesticity appeals mightily to the sullen bank robber, whose leathery skin and steely-eyed gravity conveys the hardships of his nomadic life. Milan fantasizes of lounging amongst the luxurious accoutrements of Manesquier’s abode, free to wile away the day doing nothing more than playing the piano and smoking a pipe. Both men recognize what they represent for one another, and it’s not long before Manesquier is introducing Milan to the joys of wearing slippers, while Milan is teaching Manesquier how to fire a pistol. Yet it seems likely that, come Saturday, Milan will have to go through with the hold-up  --  although he momentarily bails on his criminal partners, his lack of money and tangible alternatives make his participation in the crime inevitable  --  and Manesquier will, like the responsible adult that he is, go under the knife.

With the estimable Rochefort and brooding Hallyday as its leading men, Man on the Train pulls off a formidable feat: as a result of its fine central performances, the film engages us for much longer than its hopelessly sappy and sluggish plot should. With his trademark moustache here symbolizing an inability to break free from routine, Rochefort handles his role like an old pro, channeling Manesquier’s timidity and unhappiness through the character’s excitable reaction to Milan’s arrival  --  it is through Manesquier’s newfound energetic moments that we feel the weight of his oppressively dull day-to-day life. Hallyday is given the more reserved assignment, conveying hopeless yearning through studied stillness and inexpressiveness. His Milan is a man whose clothing and cigarettes say as much about who he is as anything coming out of his mouth, and Hallyday  --  a man who looks like he’s carried his fair share of burdens  --  effortlessly slides into the character’s skin. As the film crawls toward its overly convenient conclusion, it’s refreshing to find that Rochefort and Hallyday’s complementary performances seduce us, somewhat against our will, into caring about these unlikely friends.

Leconte interrupts the story’s monotony with occasional attempts at humor, and a couple of them  --  Manesquier’s childlike impersonation of Wyatt Earp in the mirror while wearing Milan’s leather jacket, and his surprising demands during a trip to the barber  --  are effective enough to hint at the better film lurking just beneath this one’s turgid veneer. More often than not, however, this paper-thin film plods along in an inoffensive but unimpressive daze, wistfully showing us the price one pays not chasing his or her dreams. I can’t disagree with such an irrefutable sentiment, but when it comes to Manesquier and Milan  --  two losers who never had the mettle to truly take a chance in life  --  I can’t shake the feeling that these cowardly fools wind up getting what they deserve.

Directed by:
Patrice Leconte

Jean Rochefort
Johnny Hallyday
Charlie Nelson
Pascal Parmentier
Jean-François Stévenin
Isabelle Petit-Jacques
Alain Guellaff
Edith Scob
Riton Liebman
Elsa Duclot
Armand Chagot
Véronique Kapoyan
Maurice Chevit
Olivier Fauron
Michel Laforest
Hélène Chambon
Jean-Louis Vey
Sébastien Bonnet
Sophie Durand
Jean-Jacques Cornillon

Written by:
Claude Klotz

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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