The Man on the Train
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Writen by Claude Klotz

The new film from Patrice Leconte, written by Claude Klotz is another interesting and thought-provoking magical-realist fable from the land of LaFontaine. Although it seems to stumbles a bit into sentimentality and its "magic" is sometimes slightly too literal, still it comes off as a fond, kind-hearted consideration of the concept of "The Road Not Taken" that is well-executed and enjoyable. But it is more complex than that.

The story concerns the jaded, ageing bank robber Milan (played by Johnny Hallyday - arguably the iconic Keith Richards of French Pop) who turns up in a provincial town to pull a job. By chance - or by destiny? - he is taken in by an elderly retired schoolteacher, with whom he has nothing in common except his doubts about the course he has chosen in his life.

Monsieur Manesquier (an award-winning performance by Jean Rochefort) was a comfort to his mother until her death, and a credit to his profession ("Thirty years without molesting a single child" he replies in answer to the question of whether he was a good teacher). He is comfortably-off in his inherited bourgeois home, surrounded by inherited bourgeois clutter, solaced by the comforts of his piano and his long-time mistress.

Milan is a tough-guy of the old style - the kind of "cowboy" (complete with leather jacket) that French punks used to aspire to be. He has been around the block a few times. He packs three deadly-looking automatics and talks effortlessly out of the side of his mouth. He has the "cool" affect of Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" down pat.

Yet, as the movie gradually suggests, perhaps there is something missing from both their lives. It is the gradual unfolding of the presence of this absence even in the most seemingly settled - or adventurous - life that give the film its charm and its mystery. A variation on the idea of the doppelganger - a person who is not one's "double" in this case, but perhaps one's "inverse" - The Man on the Train plays with the idea of exploring the shadow of one's actual life.

With typical French - and European - sensibility, the movie is doggedly ambiguous. Are Manesquier and Milan real, or is one a figment of the other's imagination? Both are such exaggerations of their types that such an interpretation is clearly possible. Screenwriter Klotz plays with audience expectations by directly challenging the cliche of the exchange of destinies, depicting it literally in an extended sequence that could be intended as a dream, an hallucination or an unexpected "afterlife" reality.

Likewise, Leconte uses unusual techniques to throw the seemingly straightforward narrative off-balance. Characters don't always "enter" the frame, or appear in fade-in and -out as normal film conventions allow. Sometimes they just appear and disappear in the setting. Such surreal touches lend an undertone of the fabulous. the magical realist, the unpredictable that contrasts strongly with the orderly linear progression of the apparent narrative flow, to underline the sense of multiple levels of meaning the director seems to be working to generate.

Is this really a tale of supernatural interactions? Is it the wish-fulfillment dream at the end of an unsatisfyingly predictable life - or at the end of an empty, violent, ill-considered career? The film-makers refrain from making it clear, leaving the audience to rationalize as best they can.

Mainstream US films are almost uniformly about "events" - literal events that actually happen, or fantasy events that happen in a fantasy world. Even the transformation of character - a common dramatic dynamic - is treated as a concrete event, rather than the open-ended, confusing, partly imaginary, often vague and nebulous experience that it is from the inside.

In foreign and some independent American cinema, however, and in the occasional anomaly like Adaptation, it is the very nature of reality itself and the ways in which we conceptualize and distort it, that is being explored. The Man on the Train runs numerous interwoven tropes on the theme - exploring the way the characters project their hopes dreams and fears - their concept of reality - on their surroundings and on each other.

This is a film about ideas, couched in what at first appears to be a sweet little fable, but on reflection becomes something much edgier and harder to get hold of. Klotz and Leconte seem to be consciously exploiting the idea of "third-act problems" - writer's shorthand for the difficulties of satisfyingly resolving a plot - to raise some probing questions about how we deal with the "third-act problems" of our own lives.

A great deal of the credit for why this rather minimalist film works has to go to the two lead actors, who must arouse our curiosity and sympathy and carry our interest. Jean Rochefort won a Golden Lion at the Venice Festival for his performance here. His mannered, fussy Manesquier is an idiosyncratic, compulsively loquacious loner - a grown-up "only child" who has learned to be content amusing himself - perhaps to a fault.

Rochefort allows Manesquier's child-like qualities show through - his delight in trying on Milan's leather jacket, his incompetent excitement in being allowed to fire a gun - and also allows us to see the shyness, the imagination, the inchoate "wildness" that still lurk in this man who has spent his entire life being a "good boy." In a couple of scenes, he takes the character a little close to overplaying, but the overall effect is appealing and touching.

Johnny Hallyday's Milan is the strong, silent type - a direct contrast to Manesquier's gabby, fastidious old bachelor. He is cynical and bitter where Manesquier is optimistic and hopeful. His fatalistic resignation to his chosen life stands solidly against Manesquier's flights of fanciful imagination. Yet Hallyday also lets something of the inner man show, obviously affected by his newfound acquaintance's foolish enthusiasms and innocent neediness.

Hallyday has in fact the more difficult job of the two - playing in effect "straight-man" to Rochefort's "clown." He has to convince us that his worldly indifference is genuine, yet allow us to see, in only tiny, believable glimpses, the feeling human being lying far within. He has to do it with none of the expressivity and expansiveness that make Rochefort's character so instantly sympathetic.

Director Leconte - a prolific filmmaker in France, active since the 70s whose work best known to Americans includes the 1989 Georges Simenon adaptation Monsieur Hire and the Oscar-Nominated The Widow of St. Pierre (2000) - shows his experience here with a low-key, actor-friendly approach to the material.

He has a good story and a pair of good actors, and he is content to give them plenty of room to work. Without flourishes or directorial pyrotechnics, he deliberately frames their work with pacing, camera work and in settings that allow the dynamics of the narrative and the chemistry between the actors to develop slowly and naturally.

The Man on the Train displays use of a characteristic of many foreign films - first developed in the US but now mostly lost - in the lingering close-up or middle distance shot that allows the audience to simply stare at the actor on the screen, to fully take in the emotional process reflected by the actor's face and body language. Most contemporary mainstream American films are too busy racing through MTV-style quick-cut montages toward the next plot point, explosion or CGI sequence to bother with such luxuries - so films that do take the time seem increasingly like welcome preserves of humanity in an industry whose idea of entertainment seems increasingly industrial.

Klotz's script is amiable and intelligent. He makes a few false steps that teeter on the edge of sentimentality, but manages to right himself with a combination of wit and the interweaving of the unexpected, that draws attention away from his lapses. The whole concept of the film - more suggestive and provocative than structured and declarative - is daring and intriguing, and it is carried off with considerable skill.

The music - notably a twangy guitar theme, clearly referencing Enzio Morricone's spaghetti western scores for Milan and an almost-too-sweet solo piano piece for Manesquier - adds a another level of comment on character and action. At some times almost a parody of conventional movie "theme" music, at others used as a Brechtian device to draw attention to the artifice of the situation, it invites the same sort of multi-layered response as the rest of the film.

The Man on the Train is a deceptively simple, deceptively "nice' film, which it is tempting to read as a badly contrived, sentimental fantasy. Its complexities only emerge on reflection, where its internal contradictions and dangling threads challenge us to try some of the different ways of making sense out of them. It is an engaging film, well-made and delightfully acted, that also provides plenty of food for thought.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.