Man on the Train, The

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 07/21/04 18:20:08

"Exquisite two-character study."
5 stars (Awesome)

I can't recall the last time I saw a small film as lovely, funny, and moving as L'Homme du Train, Patrice Leconte's exquisitely rendered study of two men, a poet (Jean Rochefort) and a thief (Johnny Hallyday), whose lives intersect in a small town, each waiting his Saturday "date with destiny."

The set-up is pure Western: In a small French village (call it Paris, Texas) on a drab November day, Milan (Hallyday), a gun-toting, leather-clad stranger, disembarks from a train with a commission to spend the next few days casing out the town before robbing a bank on Saturday at 10 a.m. Entering a pharmacy to purchase aspirin for a migraine, he happens upon Manesquier (Rocheford), a lonely teacher of literature who has never set foot out of the village. After ascertaining that the only hotel is closed for the off-season, Manesquier invites Milan to stay at his villa, unaware of the man's mission. By coincidence, Manesquier also has an appointment at 10 a.m. on Saturday, when he is scheduled for surgery on his failing heart.

As the two men spend time together -- eating, drinking, smoking, swapping stories, and just gazing at the stars -- each comes to yearn for the life of the other, and each has the opportunity to switch places in small ways: Manesquier surreptitiously enters Milan's room and dons his leather jacket, declaring to his image in a mirror, "I am Wyatt Earp." When a student stops by the villa for a lesson on Balzac's Eugenie Grandet, Milan fills in for the teacher, not letting on that he has never read the novel.

Etched in the faces of both of these men are roadmaps of lines that reveal choices made and opportunities forsaken. As each gets to know the other, a kind of mutual love and awe develop between them, resulting in lives enriched and unrealized joys experienced.

Not having seen Johnny Hallyday in anything before, I was amazed that he seems to have a reputation outside France as something of a joke. I thought he was perfection here, as the thief Milan, a man who sees no escape from a road taken but hungers for the opportunity to do something so simple as break in a pair of slippers or play a piano, or so simply rewarding as tutor a student.

Likewise, the wonderful Rochefort is a miracle as Manesquier, a hidebound teacher who tries on a leather jacket and "becomes" Wyatt Earp, and who requests a haircut "in between 'fresh-out-of-jail and world-class soccer player.'"

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