L’ Homme Du Train

aka THE MAN ON THE TRAIN
Movie Review by Stephen Doyle

Starring: Jean Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday, Charlie Nelson, Pascal Parmentier
Director: Patrice Leconte

In an opening scene deliberately reminiscent of a western, a world-weary taciturn stranger named Milan (Johnny Hallyday) steps from a train and enters a quiet town. There he bumps into a loquacious and mannered old gentleman called Manesquier (Jean Rochefort). The friendly old man, a retired poetry teacher, ends up offering the stranger room and board for three nights in his large an ancient house.

It’s a bizarre set-up, seemingly paving the way for a surreal, slightly absurd black comedy. Instead what we get is pure cinematic gold, a film which is wondrous in every way. Exquisite characterisation, fine acting from the two leads, a witty and moving script, exemplary direction, and all framed by a luscious and unique symphonic score. Patrice Leconte, director of RIDICULE, is a filmmaker who has things to say: In this particular outing we are treated to a gentle but persuasive rumination on life, death, and the ageing process.

The film charts the unlikely friendship, which blossoms between the two disparate characters over three days. Both characters realise they have reached a crossroads in their lives. As a close and special bond develops between them, they reveal their fears and insecurities to each other. The surprising revelation emerges that both characters wish they had lead the life of the other. Manesquier yearns for the straight talking hard living life lead my Milan, while Milan yearns for the slipper-wearing, poetry reading cultured life lead by Manesquier. In an affecting coda, a fantasy sequence is played out in which these longings are resolved.

Excitement is widely added to the plot by making the coming Saturday, the third day from their meeting, a defining day for both of them – Milan is to perform a dangerous hold-up in the town bank, while Manesquier is to undergo equally dangerous heart surgery. The script makes us believe in and care about these two characters so much that we look forward to this impending date which form the finale of the film with increasing anticipation.

The character development is superb – right up to the end we are still learning new and striking things about the pasts and personalities of the two main protagonists. In your average Hollywood film, we really are quite lucky to learn anything striking or realistic about a character at all, let alone to be constantly learning new and intriguing things throughout. Rochefort and Hallyday do full justice to their well-written parts. Hallyday does phlegmatic cool very well, a kind of French post-modern Bogart. Rochefort, meanwhile, brings great dignity to his role as well as first-rate comic timing when necessary.

A valuable ingredient is the near-sublime marriage of visuals and music. Pastel Etev produces a rich score, an intentional cross between Schubert and Ry Cooper, which features the unlikely combination of a symphony and a slide guitar. As the ear is soothed by these sonorous tones, the eye is treated to some magical camerawork. As you would expect from the director of RIDICULE, Leconte shoots everything with spellbinding verve, even though it’s actually a very talkative, even theatrical, film. Full credit to Leconte – this is something you don’t realise at the time, only on reflection afterwards.

5 out of 6 stars

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