2 August 2010
I have discovered hell, and it is Lubbock, TX, where my car broke down and I’ve been trapped for two days — going on three — waiting for the damn part that will allow me to get home from my summer research travels. Now, Lubbock might be okay in August, but only if you have a car that works. So we have settled for a cheap motel and lots of streaming Netflix. If there’s anything to break through the generalized crankiness (not to mention our specific skepticism about the reliability of this mechanic), it must be Patrice Leconte’s “The Man on the Train” (“L’Homme du Train”) — a lovely film that turns the malaise of waiting into a profound comment about manliness.
Milan (Johnny Hallyday, the French rock superstar sometimes referred to as “The French Elvis”) arrives in a sleepy French village by train — and we know right away from his haggard-looking, eerily pale blue eyes that he’s seen a too much of the hard life. By accident he runs across Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a retired French teacher counting down the days to his triple bypass surgery who finds Milan’s laconic, steely look appealing. When Milan can’t find a hotel, the older man offers to put him up in his grand old home — and as the two men slowly get to know one another, they discover that Manesquier’s surgery will coincide with a big event in Milan’s life as well. As Manesquier goes under the knife, Milan will execute a bank heist with a few other criminals due to arrive in town any day.
It makes sense that the old man would be fascinated with the thief. He lives in a grand old home crowded with his mother’s fussy little lamps, paintings of his failed ancestors, and the books that symbolize for him the dull life of a man who got old before his time by becoming a schoolteacher. When he sneaks upstairs one morning to try on the younger man’s black leather jacket, we can almost smell the jacket’s exotic, animal odors. Intoxicated, he strikes a tough-guy/cowboy pose and tells the mirror, “I’m from Laramie,” just like a sheriff in one of those movies we all saw but cannot name. “In Laramie they say I’m a tough one,” he says, cocking his hand into pistol position and whipping around to face imaginary foes. “The next bullet’s for you, piss face!” The old man’s play-acting is so giddy because otherwise he feels defeated by life, oppressed by his routines of jigsaw puzzles, a tiny aperitif with dinner, and the occasional tutorial with a thick-headed boy from town. Not to mention the upcoming heart surgery, which seems such a stereotypical aspect of an old retiree’s life.
But the thief is equally captivated by the old man’s peaceful, comfortable life and his effortless knowledge of poetry. He’s not inclined to ask many questions, but after teaching Manesquier how to swallow a good mouthful of cognac he asks whether he might try on the old man’s slippers. Putting them on, Milan gazes down at his feet and mutters, “My life’s all wrong.” Even if he hears Mansquier’s complaints about the tedium of his life — as he plays what he believes are saccharine songs by Schumann on his grand piano, Manesquier claims he possesses all the skills of a young woman from the late 19th-century — Milan is entranced. Especially because he’s starting to doubt the trustworthiness of his co-conspirators who’ve arrived to help case the joint. Manesquier may speak in overly self-deprecating terms about his life, but the younger man sees things differently, envying even those painful discussions of poetry with the obtuse little boy.
The more the men get to know one another, the more the film uses its soundtrack to indicate their odd juxtaposition. Early scenes of the tough-guy Milan are accompanied by a sliding steel guitar that mixes jazz with a little bit of a Western drawl; in contrast, Manesquier always appears with the more predictable strains of a late 19th-century piano. But as the film continues, these two threads begin to interweave, the guitar on top of the piano, or the piano fleshing out the spare guitar — one of the most effective and pitch-perfect soundtracks I’ve heard since “Brokeback Mountain.”
It’s a beautiful film. No one seems more perfectly, classically French to me than Jean Rochefort; and I’d never seen Hallyday onscreen before, but his freakishly chiseled face and horrible blue eyes make him just as suited to the camera as to a venue full of screaming fans. I’ve waxed poetic about French film before, but it’s worth noting one more time how so many of these directors have a knack for turning a film into an almost visceral as well as emotional experience. From the texture of the old man’s ramshackle house (one wants to rifle through those piles of old magazines and nicknacks) to the film’s shocking moments of tension and conflict, the film slowly picks apart our conceptions of manliness and the ideal trajectory of a man’s life. It addresses the subject of masculinity per se in almost every scene, unlike all those male-dominated American films we’ve been seeing lately. Sure, the film’s women are remote, mysterious creatures; but it gets high marks from me for making gender such a prominent subject nevertheless. Best of all, it’s an antidote to the painful versions of good ol’ boys we’ve encountered here in Lubbock. Thank you, France and Patrice Leconte.