We need a new name for the sort of genre that Man on the Train inhabits. On the surface, it’s strictly a buddy movie: In a sleepy and provincial French town, a thief, Milan (Johnny Hallyday), meets a retired poetry teacher, Manesquier (Jean Rochefort). Milan’s in town to take part in a bank robbery and Manesquier, who’s fascinated by the rogue’s life, eagerly invites Milan into his home. From there, we’d usually get some blather about loyalty and a hailstorm of bullets by the end. But Man on the Train is after something much more elegant and intimate. Capturing how two very different personalities weave together, it’s a lovely essay on masculine friendship. It’s a chick flick in a goatee, My Dinner With André wielding a switchblade.
Plot-wise, very little actually happens. Or, rather, small things pile up: As Milan takes up residence for a week in Mansquier’s dowdy-yet-noble country house, the two share chit-chat about their pasts and their plans. But unlike My Dinner With André, the conversations have their feet on the ground and a sense of humor (Mansquier proudly notes that ‘not one pupil was molested in 30 years on the job’ as a teacher). Milan plots out his Saturday heist with some hesitance, and we learn that Mansquier has his own anxieties to work through: He has a triple bypass planned for the same time as well. Students, relatives, and mistresses pass through the country house, and it slowly becomes clear that each man wants the other’s life: Mansquier’s house is the home Milan never had, and the rootless life of Milan is what Mansquier has always lusted for.
Director Patrice Leconte gives us this emotional dance in chill blue backgrounds – the better to see Hallyday’s careworn face and Rochefort’s aristocratic profile. It’s giddy fun to see the aging Rochefort try on a leather jacket and say, ‘My name is Earp, Wyatt Earp’ in a thick French accent, turning his index finger into a gun barrel. Hallyday, better known in France as a pop singer, gets by with a sleepy-eyed, smoky-voiced performance that explores the precise point where Manesquier both annoys and attracts him. There’s a book to be written about the scene were he teaches Manesquier to fire a gun as they talk about poetry, rife with lessons about irony, friendship, and, sure, homoeroticism.
It’s Leconte’s sole flaw as a director in playing up these parallels too heavily at times. Toward the end, he forces certain lines into his actors’ mouths or uses props in dual fashion to emphasize how the pair’s emotions are lashed together, as if the audience might not get it. And though the ending threatens to be a melodramatic, too-pat ending, Leconte edits it to create a lyrical, enduring coda. Which might not be the manliest way to make a buddy movie, but it makes for a great movie about being a man.
Aka L’Homme du train.