It begins like so many other movies. A train pulls into a sleepy small town and off steps a stranger–a strong, mysterious man who will change many lives. You’ve seen his ilk before; he’s a cross between a Camus-style existential hero and a taciturn cowpoke from a classic American western: a good guy who at first seems like a bad guy, or maybe the reverse. He could be Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, William Holden in Picnic, Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West. There are a lot of possible variations here, but you’ve seen most of them before, and when a similarly moody, charismatic character makes the same kind of entrance in the opening of Man on the Train, you think you know what to expect.
But you don’t. Man on the Train starts, like so many intelligent French movies, with a certain set of iconic assumptions (or cliches, if you prefer), but it moves in subtler, more surprising and often delightful directions. As written by Claude Klotz, directed by Patrice Leconte (The Hairdresser’s Husband, Girl on the Bridge) and photographed, in super-wide Cinemascope ratio, by the precise, intelligent cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou, it’s both an example of the Mysterious Stranger in a Small Town subgenre and an affectionate send-up of the same. It’s as controlled and sad-passionate as Leconte’s best work, but smaller, lighter, more playful. (Pascal Esteve’s daring, funny score mixes symphonic tropes, American-folk flourishes, kooky French-comedy phrases and southern gothic blues; it’s the kind of music Sergio Leone might have had Ennio Morricone write for a remake of Picnic.) In a sly way, the film digs into the primal allure of movies–their irresponsible wish-fulfillment aspect, as represented by the relationship between the mythic stranger and the respectable folk who watch him, warily, as he moves through their humdrum lives.
The stranger is a bank robber named Milan (French rockabilly star Johnny Hallyday), and he’s in town (surprise, surprise) to rob a bank. Like a lot of movie bank robbers, he’s a tough but intelligent guy, a Humphrey Bogart-Clint Eastwood character, a man with a code and a desire to finally quit the nomadic, criminal life and live like a civilian. Milan rents a room from a retired poetry teacher named Manesquier (the long-faced, sad-eyed character ace Jean Rochefort, a Leconte favorite). Manesquier figures out that Milan is a dangerous person, probably a criminal, but he invites him into his home because vicarious danger is better than boredom. When Milan isn’t around, Manesquier checks out his rented room, discovering (offscreen) Milan’s three handguns sequestered in a desk drawer and even trying on Milan’s magnificent leather jacket and playacting in a mirror. ("My name is Earp, Wyatt Earp," the old man mutters, surveying an imaginary saloon full of bad guys.)
Milan, no dummy, is hip to his host’s intense curiosity, but he doesn’t seem to mind it. They’re kindred spirits of a sort, super-observant, emotionally walled-off outsiders–functional fatalists. They share a fascination with language, everything from ordinary speech to romantic poetry. One memorable scene finds them discussing the meaning of a line from one of Manesquier’s favorite poems: "Beware the sweetness of things."
"Why is sweetness so dangerous?" Milan asks, Socratically.
"One could get used to it," the teacher replies.
Each man has a date with destiny set for the same day, an upcoming Saturday. That’s the day of the bank robbery as well as the elderly poetry teacher’s elective heart surgery. If this were an American movie, you’d look forward to a mindlessly happy ending, but this is France and the director is Leconte, so the best you can hope for is an elating, slightly baffling existential spiral. (I don’t know about you, but many of my favorite movies end that way.)
Like many heroes of westerns and film noir (two obvious influences on this movie, and on the history of French cinema in general), Milan is more cynical, intelligent and self-aware than almost everyone around him. And yet, unlike many western and noir heroes, Milan has the grace to find his predicament funny. As played by Hallyday–a loping hulk whose closed-off, fist-like face is lit by inquisitive, slightly sad eyes–Milan’s very existence is self-deprecating, both an embodiment and a critique of tough-guy fantasies. He seems to know that he’s a movie character, or a man who is old enough to regret patterning his life after movie characters but too old to stop. Dismissing Manesquier’s prying questions, Milan tells him, "You’ve seen too many thrillers." Later, while dining with Manesquier in a local restaurant, two young punks bump against Milan without apologizing, and he ignores the slight because "one guy can’t take on two, except in the movies."
To put it bluntly, Milan seems at first to be the kind of guy who exists only in movies; ditto Manesquier. But they’re something else, something real and poignantly recognizable: men whose lives have been informed (and perhaps deformed) by pop-culture fantasies they can’t resist.
Man on the Train is a sleek, spare, short film, but it’s also a deep one. Listen closely to the conversations between the poetry teacher and his bank-robber pal, and you’re eavesdropping on the friendship between France and the United States. More specifically, you’re eavesdropping on France (the Manesquier character) and France’s enthralled but distrustful image of the United States (the Milan character), with its supposedly primitive, romantic, violent culture, its reckless freedoms, its irrational allure, as embodied by everyone from Bogart to Elvis to Sam Fuller. Man on the Train is a Cahiers du Cinema buddy movie, but it has a life beyond its own intelligence. It lives and breathes. It moved me. Days after seeing it, I can’t think about it without smiling.
Man on the Train
Directed by Patrice Leconte
JOHNMALKOVICH’S directorial debut The Dancer Upstairs doesn’t quite work, but it’s powerfully engrossing–dark, playful and sometimes cruel, as the best Malkovich performances usually are. Javier Bardem, the out-of-nowhere superstar who animated Before Night Falls, plays the hero, a police captain trying to uncover the leader of a terrorist cult in an unnamed Latin American country. He’s thicker than you remember, and slower, different but equally manly, grounded, lived-in–a Nick Nolte kind of performance. Working from Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1997 novel, Malkovich infuses the story with a disquieting, uncertain mood that recalls one of his acknowledged inspirations, Costa- Gavras. The atmosphere makes more of an impression than the plot, and both are more successful than the central relationship between the hero and his daughter’s ballet teacher. Missteps aside, it’s worth seeing; it could be the opening chapter of a potentially major, but certainly fascinating, directorial career.