Man On The Train

May, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Patrice Leconte

Starring:Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday

America's current distress with all things French notwithstanding, this seemingly casual import from director Patrice Leconte (Tango, Ridicule) manages to say a great deal about a very serious subject in an apparently simple "buddy film" starring a pair of male leads whose average age is Medicare eligible. To the roster of great male screen duos like Newman & Redford and Crosby & Hope, can now be added the wonderfully improbable but highly effective work of Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday. 

Rochefort, the durable French leading man of dozens of films in his 40 + year career, teams again with Leconte in spinning out this quiet study of two men who meet by chance and take the time to investigate the roads not taken in their respective lives. Rochefort plays Manesquier, a recently retired professor of literature whose entire life has been spent in the same house in the same town in which he was born. He makes a late afternoon visit to his local pharmacy and impulsively helps Milan, a leather jacketed visitor who has just alighted from a train with a piercing headache only to discover that the town's only hotel has already closed for the season. Manesquier, obviously lonely, sees in Milan's bone-weary expression the suggestion of a life spent doing things the scholarly bachelor only dreamed of, and so invites this brooding stranger to be a guest in the comfortably over-the-hill home Manesquier has lived in alone since inheriting it from his mother. 

Despite the professor's loquacious interrogation, Milan divulges little about himself or his reasons for requiring a place to stay for an understandable reason; with the aid of some accomplices, he plans to rob the town's bank at the end of the week. But something unexpectedly charming happens as this unlikely couple begins to spend time together; a mutual respect between a pillar of the community on the one hand and one of society's outsiders on the other, each with a growing fascination with the life the other has lived. A chance line of poetry leads to the discovery that Milan harbors no illusions about his choice of careers while his leather jacket possesses totemic attraction for his literary host. Milan has never worn a pair of slippers around the house; his host has never fired a .45. Each will have the opportunity to experience a bit of the other's mode of existence in the short time before a weekend that promises a violent felony for one man and triple by-pass surgery for the other….

Rochefort has made a career out of sophisticated comedies, and his sense of timing is perfect; his Manesquier wields language like a weapon, hurling asides at Milan before deftly careening their one-sided conversations back on course like a champion at mumble-de-peg. As he faces the surgery both his doctor and family assure him isn't really too serious, he coaxes an admission from his sister that she's made a bad marriage and has to accept that bitter fact if she's to avoid making some of the mistakes he's made; Rochefort's insistence that she accept the reality of her situation becomes a testimony to the importance of dealing honestly with life's sometimes bitter circumstances, and her reluctant but decisive outburst, affirming the accuracy of his observation about her marriage, becomes an epiphany for both.

   Hallyday, (France's answer to Elvis Presley 30 years ago) uses his years as a Gallic bad-boy in on-stage performances to wondrous advantage here, investing his character with a compellingly stoic gravitas borne of years drifting from one dicey job to the next. His pitted facial skin and gravelly voice aren't merely used to provide yet another example of the ennui so frequent in French movies; he has no illusions about what he's become and he's honest enough to disabuse his host of any false impressions the latter might harbor about the glamour of a life composed of successive felonies with unreliable henchmen. So while the sedentary bookworm fantasizes about life as an outlaw, Hallyday quite credibly conveys a perfectly understated hunger for the calm, leisurely peace of good books in an old study, a bit of music and the simple pleasures of an evening at home in threadbare but comfortable surroundings.

Leconte uses alternating camera angles and different lighting schemes to prod his audience even further into this pair of diverse lives, never getting ahead of himself as his plot progresses-at an almost leisurely pace-towards its ingeniously preordained climax. But his greatest achievement, (and that of his actors) lies in getting the audience to appreciate both the experiences and the longings each man has for the best parts of each other’s lives, and the film's graceful, melancholy denouement captures that almost wistful ambivalence perfectly. 

Finally, who but the French would have attempted a study of male bonding in characters this old? Rochefort and Hallyday embody men well past their prime only in the youth-worshiping culture that pervades American movies; these two pros exude charm, integrity and erotic appeal precisely because they're fully aware of who they are and how they got that way, making the brief appearance of Manesquier's former/current mistress, (and the appeal both men have for her) unselfconsciously natural in a manner simply not possible in the Hollywood productions that pass through our theaters these days. Plagiarizing Yogi Berra, life this elegant, thoughtful reverie of a film seems to say, isn’t over until these fascinating characters say it is, and the manner in which Leconte says goodbye to them is suffused with a wistful melancholy that perfectly caps his story.    

If you're collecting Social Security, this one's a must; if you still have some years to go in that regard, see it to learn how valuable even the most unlikely of lives can be creatively dissected--and cherished.       

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