Were one unacquainted with French film, Patrice Leconte’s L’Homme du train is the kind of film that could be employed as an ideal conglomeration of all the themes, motifs and stylistic traits that typifies Gallic cinema. A deceptively whimsical piece, the film flirts dangerously close to the edge of self-parody, but it is to the immense credit of both director and (especially) actors that events retain a level of heightened lyricism and enable an exploration of themes of destiny and mortality with both wit and pathos.
Small-time crook Milan arrives at a sleepy French town (one clue to its ‘Frenchness’ – French films not set in Paris invariably play out in this kind of deserted provincialism) to rob a bank. When he befriends Manesquier and moves into his sprawling, velvet-clad house, an unlikely partnership blossoms, in which both men learn of the other’s lives and loves, exchange suitably poetic bon mots and realise that they are in many ways a different version of the same person. Rather unsurprisingly, the film and our enjoyment from it derives not from the clichéd storyline or rather telegraphed ending, but from Leconte’s serendipitous casting decision.
Played by Johnny Hallyday, the leonine Milan strikes an impressive pose. As a French heartthrob and rock singer, Hallyday’s acting past is scattered and sketchy (a few collaborations with Godard aside), but his physical frame dominates this narrative. Behind his impossibly blue eyes and deep-lined craggy features, his face encapsulates all that has happened in his life – weather-beaten but still luminescent, battered but not beaten. He cleverly plays with his own image, walking around the house in slippers and smoking a pipe, the picture of cosy domesticity that undermines both his screen and private persona.
His co-star equally excels. As Manesquier, Jean Rochefort carries a burden of age and creaky bones, but fairly twinkles in his scenes with Milan. Again, his eyes, watery and opaque, are important signifiers of his personality – an educated man suffocated by the stuffiness of his late mother’s furniture, desperate the play Wyatt Earp and hold up the local bank. If Milan strides, then Manesquier shuffles, taking an age to move and yet lightning quick in his observations on the human condition.
The supporting players are suitably erudite – the mute gangster who only speaks in aphorisms, and only then at ten o’clock in the morning, and two café boors who quote poetry to Manesquier when he confronts them. As Manesquier’s long-suffering sister, Edith Scob is both brittle and fussy, and the scene where Milan hijacks a young boy’s private tutorial on Eugénie Grandet is the film’s most enjoyable moment.
The bank hold-up thus becomes the classic macguffin; it is the reason for the two men meeting but becomes a necessary anti-climactic event when it eventually takes place. Milan dies (or does he?) not with a bang but with a whimper. Likewise Manesquier, who gently expires on an operating table. What Leconte achieves is to perpetuate the latest of a long line of solitary men who seek to distance themselves from a society or culture they are unable to understand, much less assimilate into. Like Daniel Auteuil in La Fille sur le pont (1999), or Rochefort again in Le Mari de la coiffeuse (1990) or Ridicule (1996), Leconte investigates how these men can find levels or happiness or self-fulfilment in acting out fantasies through other, more willing people. If honest relationships between two resolutely heterosexual males can be frequently difficult to invest with anything more than an eye-winking reflexivity, Leconte here imbues the gradual coming together of two opposing spirits as a profoundly plausible and bitter-sweet experience. The ambiguity of the ending merely underlines the closeness between the two men – nudged together they become interchangeable.