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By Jeremy Mathews


"The Man on the Train" ("L’Homme du Train")
Paramount Classics
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Written by Claude Klotz
Produced by Philippe Carcassonne
Starring Jean Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday, Jean-François Stévenin, Charlie Nelson, Pascal Parmentier, Isabelle Petit-Jacques and Edith Scob
Rated R
In French with English subtitles
Opening at the Broadway
(out of four)

Jean Rochefort tries on Johnny Hallyday's jacket as he begins to consider the life he could have had. Don't you wish you had that jacket. No lying!  

A man steps onto the platform of the small-town train station, his face showing the harsh years behind him. At the pharmacy he runs into another old man, this one more whimsical and less abused. Time has wizened both men in different ways and, as Patrice Leconte’s latest masterpiece "The Man on the Train" shows, wisdom has taught each man that his life isn’t all its cracked up to be and that the other’s life is much more attractive.

The casting is ingenious: Johnny Hallyday, the rock star whom the French have worshipped for four decades, plays Milan, the traveller. Jean Rochefort, the great French actor who has also seen decades of work but still looks eager and curious, plays Monsieur Manesquier, a retired poetry teacher who works as a tutor and passes the time in his large inherited home. The town’s only hotel is closed, so Milan has to accept Manesquier’s hospitality.

One talks too much, the other doesn’t say enough. One dreams of the bold confrontations seen in the movies, the other has experienced enough of them to know that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Rochefort and Hallyday play off each other’s personas, creating intriguing character dynamics.

Hallyday’s arrival isn’t shot with the standard editing formula or the music-video approach that often passes for style; rather, it is as if the director considered each framing, each pan and whip pan to suit the mood and subject matter. Cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou adds the beautiful colors of the provincial town.

The scenes in this movie are the kind you see clips of and immediately recognize their elegant beauty. This isn’t too big a surprise, because the great Patrice Leconte directed the film.

Leconte is one of cinema’s living treasures. His films vibrate with music, ideas, images and lively performances, all originating from a deep love for film. I remember seeing "The Girl on the Bridge" (1999, 2000 in United States) for the first time and smiling with glee through the entire film, amazed with how consistently amazing it is. The film is about a knife-thrower and a nymphomaniac who meet and discover that they give each other good luck.
As in that film, the two men who meet in "The Man on the Train" seem to have a special sort of connection. Perhaps they both wish they’d led the other one’s life. Of course, neither man’s life is ideal.

While a lesser film would have made the characters exactly how the other person expected them, Claude Klotz’s screenplay reveals surprises in riveting, if casual, conversations with excellent dialogue. When Milan asks if Manesquier was a good teacher, he replies, "Not one pupil molested in 30 years on the job." Leconte prevents the characters from becoming typical and predictable and shows them in an unexpected light.

While the film is more about its characters than its plot, Milan is in town for a bank robbery. The film follows the changes in the characters in the time leading up to the robbery.

From the beginning, Milan isn’t enthused about the crime. One of his partners hasn’t shown up, and the other has brought a getaway driver who only says one sentence every day, at 10 a.m. Before the driver says it, the partner explains, he thinks. Afterwards, he rests. The resulting statements include statements such as, "revenge is misfortune’s justice."

The sorts of odd details and visual grace found in "The Man on the Train" are the reasons we go to the movies. Whenever a Leconte film arrives stateside, it makes ordinary films with formulaic screenplays wash away because for every 100 or so of them, there’s one film made with love, passion and precision. Of course, if hundreds of filmmakers realized that they should be spending their lives with Patrice Leconte’s joy of filmmaking, that’d be nice too.