A Trip Through Parallel Reality: Patrice Leconte's "Man on the Train"
by Scott Foundas
The man from the train appears in the town, seeming to have blown in with the early-evening breeze, as weathered as the leather jacket that flaps dutifully around his solid frame. His name, unknown to us at this point, is Milan. When he moves, his graceful strides are accompanied by an outlaw's surf-guitar twang. The shops in the town are closing up and rolling down their shutters. It's November here, and the tourists are as scarce as they are during the peak tourist season. It is a town that time and excitement have all but passed by, just as Milan is merely passing through.
There is another man, a man of the town, who is anything but weathered, who has never stepped outside without an umbrella in hand and sensible shoes on his feet. Called Manesquier, he is a former schoolteacher -- specifically, a teacher of poetry -- and he has continued to work as a private tutor even in his retirement. This is his pattern. He is not merely passing through. There is in fact every possibility that Manesquier has spent his entire life up to now without ever once leaving this place, as stagnant as his surroundings.
Patrice Leconte's magnificent new film, "Man on the Train," imagines a chance meeting between these two men and how they might try on each other's lives for a while, the way one might slip into a borrowed jacket or wear-in a new pair of slippers. It is a movie about the paths not taken, about all the other more romantic, more exciting lives we might have lead in some parallel reality, had only this thing or that not held us back. It is, in short, a movie about our private, innermost fantasies made manifest for a brief, shimmering moment, that moment being the one right before death.
For "Man on the Train" is, finally, a study in growing old, in realizing that there is less time to come than has already passed. Milan and Manesquier are played, respectively, by Johnny Halliday (the legendary rock-and-roller sometimes called the "French Elvis") and Jean Rochefort (the great character actor who has worked several times before for Leconte, most memorably as "The Hairdresser's Husband"). And the film revels in their wrinkled, rumpled grandeur -- Halliday, still with his cowboy stubble and intimidating stare; Rochefort, with his droopy refinement and delicate manner -- just as the actors seem positively giddy at having been cast to play their own real ages. Two performances to revel in, and to set beside Michel Piccoli's equally masterful turn in "I'm Going Home."
The men first see each other in the town pharmacy and then again on the street outside. Milan has bought water-soluble aspirin for a headache, but has no water with which to take them; Manesquier, in his perpetual good-neighborliness, asks Milan back to his home for a drink and a rest. Later, when it becomes apparent that there is nowhere else in the shuttered-up town for Milan to stay, Manesquier invites him to spend the night or, for that matter, as many nights as he would like. Some company, after all, is hardly an unwelcome thing in a place like this. So, a strange friendship is born, between two men who have nothing in common save for the fact that they are both relics of a sort, human artifacts from some bygone era.
By now, you will have rightfully guessed that Milan has not happened upon this place merely by accident, that he has a "job" to perform here. You might also have guessed that Manesquier, being a man who has spent countless time watching rather than doing, is quick to deduce the nature of his boarder's visit and, rather than being terrified, finds himself oddly excited. You might even have guessed a delightful scene in which Manesquier asks Milan to teach him to fire a gun, in return for which Manesquier will teach him the words to a poem he has longed to know in its entirety. But if you think you know where we are going, that "Man on the Train" will become some caper about Milan and Manesquier teaming up to pull off a feat of geriatric derring-do (a la "Going in Style" or "Tough Guys"), you are confusing the film with its sub-par Hollywood remake yet to be made. Nothing in "Man on the Train" is nearly so expected.
The supreme pleasure of "Man on the Train" springs from its simultaneous clockmaker's precision and pickpocket's efficiency. 90 minutes in and out, with nary a drop of fat on its bones, and yet the film also sports a bejeweled elegance, each scene an exquisitely hand-cut stone placed in a setting of delicate filigree. This is nothing new for Leconte, who has been at work for two decades now compiling a whole string of films on the subjects of voyeurism and intractable obsession, so clean in their storytelling and so striking in their character insights that they are like a sickle swathed through the thick of so many jumbled, uncertain movies. Which is to say nothing of Leconte's visual gifts -- he has a particular talent for shooting in widescreen -- or his indebtedness to a nearly bygone tradition of commercial genre films made with supreme personality and authority. These are movies that Hitchcock or Nicholas Ray might have made.
After a screening, the fine critic Peter Rainer informed me that there is a theory circulating among some viewers of "Man on the Train" that the Milan character doesn't really exist in the film's physical universe, that he is but a projection of Manesquier's beautiful mind. It's an interesting assumption and one wholly consistent with the themes and ideas of the movie. But it's a testament, I think, to Leconte's supreme filmmaking gifts that you can have Milan both ways -- as a physical presence and as an imagined figment. Because, like all of Leconte's best films, "Man on the Train" unfolds less as a logic piece than as a sensual dream, alluring on the surface and dangerously perverse just underneath.