MAN ON THE TRAIN
("Homme du train, L'")
In French with English subtitles
movie trailer (apple.com - quicktime)
NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by Carl Zapffe who calls it one of the most intelligent movies in years. "This movie is an absolute masterpiece."
"This is the first movie of 2003 to receive my A+ rating. French director Patrice Leconte is to be congratulated for his directorial vision in bringing this film to life. However, the point must be made that his cinematic vision, being Gallic, is decidedly not the typical American vision that many of us may be used to seeing."
"While this movie may not appeal to all tastes, it will be a treasure of discovery for those who enjoy films with a noirish style, innovative cinematography, fully developed characterizations, extraordinary acting, and a beautifully developed story line."
Like a fine symphony, this movie starts off slowly and then gradually builds to a crescendo of events in which two strangers, once having met, find their lives to be much more intertwined than might have previously been guessed given their widely disparate backgrounds and personalities. One is a bank robber newly arrived in town on the train and the other is a long term resident, now retired, but formerly a teacher of poetry at the local high school.
Each is the polar opposite of the other, and it is this very opposite-ness that allows both of them the luxury of an intense personal admiration, perhaps even envy, of the life that the other has led.
I am reminded of that lovely Robert Frost poem in that each of the main characters in this movie sees in the other "The Road Not Taken." The poetry teacher, Manesquier, has led a solitary life of quiet desperation and sees in this stranger the danger and the adventure and the romance that his life has so sorely lacked. For his part, the quiet stranger sees in this garrulous retired teacher living in the somewhat faded comfort of a small in town chateau the sort of simple life of professorial respectability and education that he had always wished that he had lived. One of these men is rootless while the other has put down roots of long duration.
The result is a four day visit in which each tries to assume the mantle of the other before Saturday, a day of personal denouement for both of these men. The bank robber tries to teach a student of Manesquier's before he goes off to rob a bank and the teacher tries his hand at being a gun slinger before he goes off to a hospital for his triple bypass heart operation.
"The Man on the Train" is in many ways a French homage to our American western movies with a mysterious stranger coming to a small town on the local train. Similar to "High Noon"(1952), this stranger is looking for trouble and the town is almost deserted upon his arrival. Musical themes similar to spaghetti Westerns play softly in the background. But instead of facing a sheriff like Gary Cooper or a Clint Eastwood out to put a stop to his predation of the town, he meets Manesquier, a man who quietly envies the excitement and the romance of Milan's life of crime.
I have seen few of his films, so that I cannot say that I am a fan of the French director, Patrice Leconte. I even disliked his recent movie about obsession, "The Widow of Saint-Pierre"(2000). Not that it wasn't well done, but for the life of me I couldn't buy into the logic, the premise upon which the movie was built, so I considered that movie to be a failure.
However, "The Man on the Train" is different. I can buy into every frame of this movie, for this is a movie of subtle intelligence that assumes its audience to be equally intelligent, a compliment that is not paid too often these days.
There are many cinematic shots of note, and the small French town certainly has a chilly, autumnal character all its own, but this is a movie about character, about two personalities. Everything else in this movie is subservient to the two male leads. They dominate the screen and fill our minds with images that will resonate for days and weeks afterwards.
The language is quiet, sometimes not even spoken, but the non verbal messages are there for these two are masters of characterization. I am speaking of Johnny Hallyday as Milan, the bank robber, and Jean Rochefort as Manesquier, the retired teacher of poetry.
Milan (Johnny Hallyday) is a man of few words, a bank robber tired of his trade, but promises have been made so he has shown up in this small, provincial French resort town in the off season for the express purpose of robbing the local bank.
Hallyday is an aging French rock star as famous in Europe as Mick Jagger is here. Furthermore, he has a face even more unusual than Jagger's. I have seen few actors as visually compelling. You can't take your eyes off him as he powerfully dominates the screen with his personal charisma. Hallyday's casting as Milan is wonderfully inspired.
Jean Rochefort, on the other hand, is a long term icon of French cinema, having appeared in over 100 films.
His droopy eyelids and hang dog expression so suggestive of a Basset hound have made him perfect for being cast in roles of dubious morality, even criminality, as he did to perfection as Fernand Mondego in the Gerard Depardieu French mini series version of "The Count of Monte Cristo"(1998). (This is the made for television series that I have written about earlier as being perhaps the finest ever made. Now available on DVD; take my advice and go rent it!)
Here, however, he plays a harmless retired school teacher who lives in an in town chateau that has remained unchanged since his mother died some 15 years earlier. Chatty to the point of garrulousness, he is the perfect counterpoint to Milan, a man of very few words.
Where Milan oozes testosterone, Rochefort emanates a questionable sexuality, perhaps even a bi-sexuality. He has never married but has a long term mistress, Viviane (Isabella Petit-Jacques) who stops by on occasion. He has left his home unchanged since the death of his mother, and, in one rather telling scene, replies to Milan that he was a good poetry teacher because he taught for 30 years without one student having been molested.
One would never guess the chemistry these two men exhibit on the screen. Not sexual chemistry, for this movie is about everything but. What "The Man on the Train" exhibits is the perfect intersection of two lives, two men who blend seamlessly in a story of near perfection. This is truly memorable casting in an exquisitely well made movie.
Milan, a man seemingly in his late forties, rides alone and in silence on a French train speeding towards the hinterlands. His face is distinctive, a monument of character. Coarse, yes; rough, decidedly so; frightening, perhaps; attractive, most certainly, for here is a man who is the embodiment of trouble, a man who is deadly for both men and women alike. Trouble is the right word, for Milan has come to this small town to knock off a small bank which appears to have a weak security system.
Milan wipes his cold blue eyes which are watering uncontrollably. Alighting in this small French resort town with his one traveling bag, he quickly heads to the local pharmacy for a prescription for his migraine headache. It is not available but the pharmacist assures him that he can get it in a day or two.
An older man standing nearby in the pharmacy admires the coiled intensity of this stranger and follows him outside to invite him home for dinner. He is Manesquier and he has lived in this small town all his life, as has his family for generations. The family chateau, once located out in the country, is now surrounded by streets and houses and is accessible only by passing down an alley.
The alley gate and then the chateau door open when pushed for everything is unlocked in this small town because nothing much happens here and everybody knows everyone else. The chateau remains a monument to Manesquier's childhood and has been little changed since his mother died 15 years before. The leaking roof, the library overflowing with books, the antiquated kitchen appliances, and the rest of the house all suggest an advanced stage of decay and dilapidation.
Milan goes to leave after dinner to find a place to stay for the night. But this is a French resort town and it is a chilly weekday in November. All the tourists have gone home and the hotel has closed down for the season. Milan is forced by circumstances to return to Manesquier's home, as Manesquier knew he would. He hears the footsteps to the door and the crank of the door latch. His eyes light up and he smiles quietly to himself.
For the next three days each man has the luxury of getting to know the other. The job is easier, of course, for Milan, as Manesquier chats to the point of distraction while Milan is a man of few words. Dinner is shared and the comforts of the house, such as they are, are enjoyed. Milan is able to relax with his guns safely locked in a cabinet.
One day after Milan has left Manesquier sneaks into his bedroom and tries on his fringed black leather jacket. In a very touching scene, he stands in front of the mirror and pretends to be Wyatt Earp. Cocking his fingers, "Bang! Bang!" he whispers in a moment of joyful fantasy. Underneath his poetic exterior beats the heart of a bandit in the 1800's Wild West of America.
Manesquier wants to key Milan into his dissatisfaction with the boredom of his life, so he purposely picks a fight with two noisy patrons at a bistro where they are enjoying their meal. Milan knows better than to start a fight as one man against two, and, besides, he is tired of fighting.
But Manesquier forges ahead across the bistro to the two burly men, sure to be trounced for his efforts. To his surprise, one of the men, upon turning around at this old man interrupting their juvenile boisterousness, starts quoting poetry. He has recognized his old high school teacher, whom he fondly remembers. Manesquier returns to his table somewhat at a loss at the lack of action to a Milan who is even more surprised than he.
Milan brings up part of an old poem that he has carried in his head for years and wonders if Manesquier knows the rest of it. Manesquier instantly finishes the final verses of the poem by memory and assures him that he has a copy of the full poem lying around somewhere at home.
The next few days are filled with meetings between Milan and the gang members gathering for the heist as they each scout out the bank and its security weaknesses. The gang includes his long time associate, Luigi (Jean-Francois Stévenin), who has brought along a driver even more taciturn than Milan. Sadko (Pascal Parmentier) makes only one statement a day, always at 10:00 am and usually one of an obtuse philosophical nature, and then he sinks silently back into the hood of his sweatshirt.
Meanwhile, Manesquier has had meeting of his own with the doctor. X-rays have shown blockages in his heart valves and a triple bypass heart operation has been scheduled for 10 am that Saturday morning, coincidentally at the exact same hour that Milan is planning to rob the bank.
He feels that a change is necessary, perhaps of a personal nature, so he goes into the barbershop and requests of his barber a much shorter haircut, "half way between fresh out of jail and a world class soccer player." His barber, shocked beyond belief after so many years of an unvarying haircut, complies with his request, although with considerable confusion.
Manesquier hopes that his more youthful cut will allow him to join Milan's gang, but Milan will not hear of it. He then offers a bribe to Milan, some money, not much, but enough so that Milan can leave town without robbing the bank. Milan again turns him down. He has, after all, given his word to his fellow gang members.
Manesquier has asked Milan for an unspecified "special favor" for his playing the host for the three days that they have spent together. That special favor is to be paid on Friday evening, and it is for Milan to enjoy the evening at home with Manesquier and his long time friend, Viviane (Isabelle Petit-Jacques). Manesquier has never married, but he did come close to asking for Viviane's hand many years in the past. He never did, however, but Viviane has remained his friend and occasional mistress ever since.
Viviane chats on at the dinner table about the travails of her son and his problems with college entrance exams when Milan abruptly interrupts, telling her, "He wants tenderness and sex, not news of your brat." Later she confronts him in his bedroom and tells him that she knew him to be trouble from the moment she first met him.
Saturday morning Manesquier reports to the hospital for his operation. He is nervous, as would be expected. After being shown to his sterile room, one half expects him to leave and walk out the door, but he dutifully undresses for the operation. Like all of us before an operation, the last thing that Manesquier sees is the long row of ceiling lights as he is wheeled down the hall to the operating room.
Milan and his gang walk up to the door of the bank and they pull out their guns and pull up their sweatshirts to cover their faces. The terrorized staff are herded into a room while Milan and his crew stuff wads of bills into a case. An instinct, a suspicion, alerts Milan that something might be wrong. Examining a bill up against the light, he sees that it is a copy, a fake. He races out to his comrades and shouts, "Let's get out! Max (a former member of the gang) has ratted on us!" They all race outside into a hail of gunfire and Milan falls to the ground, mortally wounded. His blood pours out on the sidewalk as he lies dying.
Manesquier's triple heart bypass is proceeding without incident when the heart monitor suddenly starts beeping uncontrollably, signaling that his heart has stopped beating. After desperate, futile efforts to revive him, they give up, pull a sheet over his eyes, turn out the lights and walk very sadly out the door.
A young intern passes through the room when the heart monitor starts beeping regularly again. In shock, she rushes over and pulls the sheet off Manesquier's face. Out on the sidewalk, Milan again opens his eyes and looks around with curiosity.
They each get up and walk out to the center of the city, where they meet near the train station. Manesquier sees Milan across the street, and tosses the keys to his home to him. They smile at each other and wave goodbye. Manesquier gets on the next train out of town and sits in a seat, alone and silent.
It is obvious that each man has found the heaven of his dreams.
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