Patrice Leconte’s latest is a tale of opposites attracting and men having to do what they have to do. Johnny Hallyday plays Milan, a drifting career criminal whose brooding lupine features and permanently red eyes betray how he is at once hardened to and weary of life. Arriving in a backwater town in which the hotel doesn’t have much call to open in November (or, for that matter, in August) he instead holes up with Manesquier (Rochefort), a bored and vaguely eccentric former literature teacher, who inhabits the huge, decaying mansion that has been passed along his family for centuries. As they await, respectively, for the bank job and the triple heart bypass they have pencilled in for the coming Saturday, the two men grow to like and trust each other. Both men see in the other a glimpse of a lifestyle they never got round to trying.
This is one of Leconte’s more successful movies, perhaps because as a tale of compromise and disappointment there are less self-conscious attempts to shock. The lack of prominent female characters or much of a sexual subplot saves the director from indulging his characteristic study of man’s perversions. When done well, this kind of story can reveal something in all of us – but when done by Leconte, it just leaves you hoping you never have to meet him. The relative success of L’Homme Du Train is in its tightly focussed storytelling and unity of style and subject.
As Milan rolls into town in the opening scene, the theme of destiny is introduced in a stylish if not entirely original metaphor, the train. The sound of the train on the tracks is smoothly, skilfully incorporated into the driving, emotional soundtrack by Pascal Estève, in a manner reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark (2000). In addition to this, Milan’s scenes are often complemented with a wailing, Western-ish ballad as he’s seen moseying around the town, debating whether or not to go through with the job. Milan’s is a life of uncertainty, as in the old West; Manesquier fantasises about that kind of life, trying on Milan’s leather jacket and striking poses. His routine existence is so predictable that even major heart surgery seems drearily inevitable to him: can’t he help with the hold-up, somehow? The town is the ideal setting, too: plenty of hills to wander up and down; narrow walkways; a traditional and constant background for the two leads to work out their crises against. They are both exiles – rootless Milan from law-abiding society and lonely Manesquier, in his mansion, from his neighbours and his retired peers.
All this craftsmanship is fine, but it is not really enough. The film is very watchable and at times entertaining, but as so frequently with Leconte, his men linger over their words, every sentence announced as though it were a great insight despite the fact that they rarely say much to make you think. What with the overwhelmingly anachronistic interiors of Manesquier’s mansion and the music which, despite its merits, is overused to the point of distraction, you are constantly reminded that this is, at heart, just a film. Although a general sense of impending destiny is carefully maintained throughout, the specifics of Milan’s bank job and Manesquier’s operation are left until the final climax, unnecessarily slowing the tension and pace of the ending.
Still, Hallyday sneers well enough, and the subplot involving his gang is not entirely charmless. L’Homme Du Train is a reasonable little potboiler, especially by Leconte’s standards, and given the fact that he is continually able to get his films made there must be a cult for him out there somewhere. But make sure you get to the cinema promptly: the first laugh is the seemingly never-ending pre-title list of co-funders, including – bafflingly – the UK’s Film Council (that’s your lottery and treasury money, ladies and gents). Before Hallyday even grunts, you get a free lesson in how to get your film financed. Move to France.