Man on the Train (L’homme du train) (2002)

Directed by Patrice Leconte

A seemingly troubled, worn out man gets off a train in a quiet French town. He’s there for a reason, though we don’t know what it is immediately. He meets a retired poetry teacher and they strike up a friendship – primarily because of the teacher’s efforts. The other man is reluctant at first, though he does accept the teacher’s hospitality.

Man on the Train is about these two men and their friendship. Everything else in the film is secondary. Everything else serves to delineate their characters and their relationship.

This is a quiet, almost meditative film about men in the second half of their lives when they can, and do, look back at their personal history.

As the film continues we learn the first man, Milan (Johnny Hallyday) is a bank robber. He is in the town to rob the bank. But it is clearly something his heart isn’t in. The second man, the poetry teacher Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) is due for a heart operation.

The movie follows the men as they each move toward their appointments – the robbery and the operation.

Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort in Man on the Train (L’homme du train).

Both men regret their lives and the choices they have made. The irony is that each wishes he had lived the life the other has had.

In fact, were the title more complete it would likely read, “Man on the Train and Man Not on the Train,” since one has chosen to go out into the world and the other has chosen to remain stationary, never leaving the town.

The one life is characterized by movement, as with a train. The other by stillness.

What is amazing about this film is that such a low-key, melancholy story is so engaging.

I think there are two keys as to why this is so. First, there is the wonderfully witty, dry script. Milan asks if Manesquier was a good teacher and the reply is, “Not one child molested in 30 years.”

Secondly, there are the performances of Hallyday and Rochefort which are so exacting and so well-pitched. The weariness of the men is almost palpable as is their yearning for the other’s life.

This is a lyrical, almost poetic film. There are other characters, including a few criminal types who strangely speak lyrically and often obscurely.

Then there is the ending, which is hard to understand except perhaps in a mythical, poetic sense. In the end, there is a redemptive quality to the film as both men die and are reborn.

Despite its often sombre, gritty look this movie is not intended to be realistic.

It is ultimately a fantasy that contemplates the lives of men.

In this sense, I would place Man on the Train in the same category I would place Unforgiven and Scent of a Woman in that it is about the lives men lead, their choices and the why’s behind those choices. It considers men and their roles in the world. It considers what it is to be masculine.

© 2003 Piddleville Inc.

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