man on the train (2003)


director: patrice leconte

johnny hallyday, jean rochefort

Two men, long past their youth, meet in a quiet country town. They spend a couple of days together and, even though they’re very different people, become fast friends, and then part. This is the whole of the plot of Patrice Leconte’s Man on the Train, if you ignore the bloody bank robbery, which is only the weakest part of the film.

If you’re French, the casting alone makes the film. Milan, the career criminal, is played by Johnny Hallyday, the Elvis of France - an inauspicious title, if you know anything about French pop music. Whatever his limitations as a rock star, he’s perfect here, leathery and dissipate, and palpably tired of the peculiar strains of his business.

Jean Rochefort is probably among the most venerable screen actors in France, and his Manesquier is Milan’s polar opposite - fussy, voluble, mired in a decades-old routine. The house where he offers Milan a place to stay is choked with ornate bric-a-brac, both house and furnishings inherited from his mother. Milan doesn’t say much, but Manesquier can rhapsodize about the perfect pair of bedroom slippers, worn and ragged from years of shuffling over dusty carpets.

Milan, in town to rob the local bank, envies Manesquier his slippers; Manesquier dreams of robbing the bank where he’s had an account for forty years. Each man envying the other’s life would be a trite enough premise if not for the obvious affection in their dialogue - both men are long past proving anything to anyone, and speak with a candour that makes even the most routine exchange feel loaded. Whatever tension the film has happens when the two are together, since the ending is obvious enough within minutes of their meeting.

The ending - shot as a poetic reverie familiar enough from other Leconte films, like Monsieur Hire - is hardly satisfying, especially after the two men have done so much to make their characters both vivid and sympathetic. You want to see more of them, but Leconte opts for a fatalistic finale that feels like a cheat, selling short the vivid sense of a second chance that Hallyday and Rochefort so longingly discussed for the balance of the film.