America may not be ready for André Téchiné’s superb new movie The Girl on the Train. To judge by the audience’s gasp at the film’s Lincoln Center world premiere last year, Téchiné’s signature interest in how race, class and sex intersect remains shocking. When screenwriter Jean-Marie Besset revealed that The Girl on the Train’s plot was based on New York’s famous 1985 Tawana Brawley affair, here transposed to contemporary France, the middle-class spectators’ anxiety suggested that the Brawley rape case’s issues were still discomforting—even 20 years after Spike Lee memorialized the case with Do The Right Thing’s wall of graffiti declaring: TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH.
Téchiné always explores the Rashomon relativity of “truth” but with particular emphasis on the emotional and experiential differences that put characters in conflict. Again focused on contemporary youth, Téchiné observes a skateboarding white Parisian girl, Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) reacting to a personal calamity with a ruse that draws her single mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve), a family friend Samuel (Michel Blanc), the national media and even the President of France into her confusion. The turmoil begins with Jeanne’s deception that she was attacked on the subway by black and Muslim youth who mistake her for being Jewish.
Instead of a banal lecture on bigotry, Téchiné offers a complex, sophisticated moral view. Dividing the story in two parts—Circumstances and Consequences—Téchiné and Jean-Marie Besset (who first presented the story as a stage play in Paris with timely domestic relevance) describe a multicultural, multigenerational France still sorting through issues of immigration and sexual identity that also distinguished Téchiné’s earlier films Les Innocents, Wild Reeds, Changing Times and The Witnesses.
Resisting a tabloid, pseudo-topical approach, Téchiné importantly identifies how Jeanne’s ruse got out of hand due to a media eager to exploit potential race sensationalism. This must be a global problem but Téchiné’s real concern is deeper: the complexities and mysteries that motivated Jeanne, propelling her out of iPod-wearing subjectivity into manipulating a political flashpoint. Besset subtly critiques the media’s racist insensitivity in the Brawley case (there must be local French parallels) while precisely depicting a young age group’s political naiveté.
Jeanne, like Brawley, is an innocent, yet typifies a generation without social or historical grounding. She falls in love with a young wrestler, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), also from a broken home, who hustles through life with more guts than sensitivity. Hiding desperation and vulnerability behind arrogance, he appeals to impressionable Jeanne. Their Internet courtship is one of Téchiné’s first amazing tropes: The laptop images of their instant messaging resemble hallucinatory projections; their boy-girl needs merge into cyberspace ephemera. It evokes kaleidoscopic solipsism like the teenagers’ in Wild Reeds yet perfectly expresses today’s spiritual distance and disconnect.
This anxiety is suggested by the film’s motifs of hurtling commuter train and rollerblading propulsion. There’s hysteria even in the family life of Louise’s Jewish friend Samuel, who tries uniting his globe-trotting son, his daughter-in-law and grandson (Jérémie Quaegebeur), a precocious young isolate like Jeanne who’s unenthused about his upcoming bar mitzvah. The anxiety of family tradition—a constant Téchiné theme—matches the difficulties of our post-colonial civilization. This truth is only a thread in the story’s fabric but it’s visible through Téchiné’s masterful storytelling. No other filmmaker is as fleet or more probing. Characters spin through his story with their own complexes and disturbances that sometimes mirror each other and sometimes just excite our fascination and sympathy.
In Téchiné’s brisk narratives, momentous events fly by—as in a great scene where Jeanne watches WWII atrocities on TV and cries, not simply about genocide but for her private despair. She links world misery with personal turmoil, equating past racism with current racial conditions. As The Girl on the Train’s story shifts, ideas multiply, images move—like improvised life. It’s a remarkable movement of thought far beyond the non-discourse that American media has on race—since the Brawley affair and especially in today’s ultra-solipsistic, “post-racial” Obama era.
Téchiné’s social consciousness has often explored the mix of European and Muslim cultures in mostly Catholic Western France. Here, he bests American social dramatists by addressing the issue without using obvious ethnic focus. (Bleistein’s urbane daughter-in-law bluntly advises, “Try to avoid invoking the whole Holocaust trauma. That makes us seem immune to other people’s suffering.”) The Girl on the Train embraces the depth of other people’s suffering the way David Lean did in filming E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. It examines how racism is manifested—derived from internalized insecurity, personal self-absorption and societal fear. Yet its center is a proverbial instance of romantic heartbreak.
Like the heroine of Morrissey’s song “Black Cloud,” Jeanne’s self-abasement reflects clumsy yearning (“I wanted to be loved and the opposite happens”). Not so much an analogy to the alien immigrant’s longing, to Téchiné’s credit it is a vivid expression of basic human need. Americans who are used to movies that play on fear and pathology are hereby called on to examine their hearts and minds.
The Girl on the Train
Directed by André Téchiné
At IFC Center, The Beekman Theatre
Runtime: 105 min.
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