Identity Poetics

Odd coupling in Man on the Train

Photo by Jamie MidgleyIn the opening scenes of Patrice Leconte's new movie, Man on the Train, a stranger wearing that uniquely Parisian air of well-groomed despair gets off a train in a sleepy provincial town. Played with languid grace by France's most enduring rock icon, Johnny Hallyday, the man, whose name is Milan, appears in almost-painful close-up, his craggy face huge, his gait fluid and confident, his fringed leather jacket sexily hugging his body. He seems almost to swim in the cold, gunmetal light that frames him, his blue eyes dead as those of any defeated cowboy—an effect compounded by the twang of the lone guitar that marks his progress down a cobbled side street. Then, in the kind of tonal shift that tends to occur in Leconte's loopy creations, Milan (named after the spaghetti-Western character actor Thomas Milan) walks into a pharmacy in search of aspirin. There, he meets Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), an old man in a sensible raincoat who invites him home for a glass of water, then suggests he stay until Saturday, when both men have urgent appointments to keep. As garrulous and forthcoming as his guest is silent and evasive, Manesquier rattles around in an old house cluttered with the paraphernalia of a past (his habitat is colored a warm sepia) he shared with his now-dead mother. Rochefort, who has starred in many Leconte films (most famously The Hairdresser's Husband), has the sad, pulled-down features of an exhausted bloodhound, but there's wisdom in his baggy eyes and in the wry, self-deprecating banter he lobs at the taciturn Milan. (The caustically urbane screenplay is by Leconte's longtime associate, Claude Klotz.)

A retired poetry teacher and a creature of habit, Manesquier conducts himself like a man relieved of the need for social proprieties. Though unfailingly hospitable to his guest, he thinks nothing of rummaging through Milan's drawers and finding the three gleaming guns the mystery man has hidden there or of harassing his own beloved but timid sister into admitting that her husband is a "fat prick." But if living unburdened by the expectations of others has been his liberation, it is also his tragedy. Manesquier has lived a life untouched by adventure or risk. We see him whispering a Wyatt Earp monologue into his mirror, and it's inevitable he will fall in love with what he imagines to be Milan's wild life. Just as it's inevitable that Milan, whose chosen career has left him bereft of family, love and poetry, will come to envy the old man his comfortable old slipper of a life.

Odd couples are practically a franchise in Leconte's films. His best work—the dumpy tailor spying on his gorgeous neighbor in Monsieur Hire, the little boy fixated on the hairstylist in The Hairdresser's Husband, the engineer/aristocrat and the scientist's daughter in Ridicule, the knife thrower and his assistant in Girl on the Bridge—uses the blueprint romantically, to create a privileged space in which outcast couples thumb their noses at bourgeois convention. For all their apparent antic looseness, though, his movies are meticulously high concept, hovering on the brink of—and sometimes tipping into, as in the dull and pointless The Widow of Saint-Pierreprogrammatic whimsy. Leconte himself seems a touch too addicted to the pat reversals of bourgeois comedy—in addition to Milan and Manesquier, Man on the Trainfeatures an art-loving burglar and a thug who dispenses high-flown aphorisms. Man on the Trainis far from a spontaneous movie—the passage of this relationship is mapped from the get-go—but it is warm and deep, and its visual style bespeaks a new maturity in Leconte. Man on the Trainis a meditation on aging, on the passage of time and the tyranny of habit in every life. It speaks to the quixotic desire to know what it feels like to be someone else, someone utterly different from ourselves—the reason we talk to strangers, the reason we go to the movies. By most standards, Man on the Traindoesn't have a happy ending, yet Milan and Manesquier have given each other the gift that good films will always give to us: they've completed each other's dreams.

Man on the Train was directed by Patrice Leconte; written by Claude Klotz; produced by Philippe Carcassonne; and stars Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.

 
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