The Man on the Train (2002) / Drama-Comedy
aka L'Homme du Train
MPAA Rated: R for language and violence
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast: Jean Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday, Edith Scob, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Charlie Nelson, Pascal Permentier, Isabelle Petit-Jacques
Director: Patrice Leconte
Screenplay: Claude Klotz
Imagine, if you will, The Odd Couple, if Felix and Oscar, rather than despising one another, felt the utmost admiration for the life their counterpart leads. Change it from a farce to an erudite comic drama, and what you might have would closely resemble the Leconte/Klotz (The Hairdresser's Husband, Felix and Lola) philosophical musing, The Man on the Train. Although the pairing may be lost on non-French viewers, Leconte's film puts esteemed top shelf actor, Jean Rochefort, together with the "French Elvis", former pop king, Johnny Hallyday, two distinctly different popular French personas, an odd couple of their own. Even if you're unfamiliar with the backgrounds of the actors involved, don't worry. It's a simple story about two men from different sides of the track, both standing on grass that seems greener when looked at from a distance.
Hallyday plays the man on the train, who arrives in a quaint French town to case out bank for a planned heist. A stranger in these parts, he is immediately befriended by a lonely, retired schoolteacher (Rochefort), who puts him up for as long as necessary. The two men have little in common, one being a reserved, well-educated lover of literature, who has only traveled the world through the writings of others, while the other is a simple-minded thug, saying what he feels, and always on the move. Before long, the two different men find interest in seeing how the other half lives, thinking of how nice their lives would be had the situations been different.
Although there are plenty of choice little moments that makes The Man on the Train a worthwhile watch, particularly for the art-house frequenters, Leconte has a tendency to overcook his story and its themes to the point where they become too large to jibe with the small, contemplative ideas that work wonderfully during those times when played with a softer touch. It's a streaky film, alternating between sublimely introspective bits of truth about human nature, particularly in the notion that one's own life is not nearly as interesting as the next man's, while sagging during the contrived moments that serve little more than to hammer its thematic hook of two men who want to walk in each other's shoes into each viewer's head. With the strengths coming from the pithy dialogue and nicely quiet characterizations, the film could have been far better served without the heavy-handedness of the final scenes, which depicts the core idea in an almost literal representation, just in case there is still one viewer out there who had fallen asleep during the previous 75 minutes and needed a quick, obvious thematic recap.
Even with some of the baggage, ultimately, the story does work, and it's enjoyable to watch the characters interact with each other sufficiently to keep the interest level piqued. Rochefort and Hallyday are intriguing to observe even when quiet, each bringing a refreshing contrast to complement the other when the situation calls for it. The cinematography by Leconte favorite, Jean-Marie Dreujou, is quite good, going for a slightly unrealistic approach that, along with the punchy, neo-Western scoring by Pascale Esteve, gives the film a unique feel that reminds us that the movie is a knowing artifice, allowing a bridge for those times when the realism might have become too strained to work in a straightforward drama.
Although blessed with critical acclaim, the audience for this kind of film is probably reserved for those who like movies to tread the line between art and storytelling, which has always been the mainstay of French cinema. My personal opinion is that The Man on the Train would have made an outstanding short film, but as a 90 minute feature, the regurgitations in the main thrust spreads its modest ideas too thin.
There's a bit of irony within the story that sums up the flawed creative approach well, when Rochefort is quizzed why he owns two or three of each item of the same variety. He is a consummate "planner", he explains, not a risk-taker. With The Man on the Train, Leconte has all of the necessary ingredients for a wonderful movie, but by covering the same bases multiple times, perhaps he has planned things a little too well.
©2004 Vince Leo