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.

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I was compelled to see “Rough Magic” (1995) again last night — and not because I remembered it being terribly good.  There’s something haunting about it despite the fact that it’s just not a very good movie.  I think it’s so promising — and therefore disappointing — because the combination of magical realism and film noir is so full of possibility.  It’s truly too bad the film doesn’t manage to make it work.

It helps that Bridget Fonda channels such a terrific Lauren Bacall vibe playing Myra, a magician’s assistant, and that most of the film’s action takes place in a sunny postwar Mexico rather than the familiar darkened streets, alleys, and dives of Southern California.  Myra’s on the lam because back in LA, she saw her slick wannabe-politician fiancé murder her magician boss; and as she drives her gorgeous convertible into rural Mexico, her increasingly sinister fiancé arranges for a freelance private eye, Ross (Russell Crowe, using a ham-fisted New York accent in one of his earliest American roles) to find her and bring her back.  Instead, Ross falls for her and the two get caught up in the possibility that Myra might really possess magical abilities, skills that can be enhanced if she can find an ancient shaman woman. 

The movie has a terrific opening, which puts you exactly in the mood for what it’s about to sell you.  Dressed in a memorable stage outfit, Myra chases a white rabbit into an elevator filled with three businessmen.  Instead of picking up the rabbit right away, she extracts three little bunnies from the men’s suit coat pockets, pops them into her top hat, tips the hat onto her head (and Bridget Fonda looks fantastic in a top hat), and leaves while the men’s mouths are still open.  It’s a great movie opening: I was sold.

The two actors offered a lot of promise, too.  Fonda seemed to be a perpetual B actor, mostly memorable for being out-acted by Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Single White Female” (1992).  Still, she always had a kind of hopeful, nervous appeal — maybe even like Jean Arthur, one of my favorites — that made me watch for her.  And when I first saw this film, I’d only seen Crowe in the great Australian film “Proof” (1991); by 1995 he’d bulked up to a pugilist’s body, which seemed odd at the time and yet appears somehow endearing, even ideal for his version of a WWII vet-cum-private dick with more than just a layer of post-traumatic stress.  Neither seems wholly comfortable in his own skin, as if the director compiled the entire film with first takes.  This isn’t to say they do a bad job; the actors’ jitteriness, their slight discomfort with their tough-guy, wise-cracking lines … all this still made me hope the film would turn out to be one of those modest but magically sweet films.

But by the time Myra and Ross set off together on the run, the film takes a dive.  Although it was written and directed by the same woman, Clare Peploe, who apparently had experience in both fields, the film’s unevenness made me wonder if it had been made by two or three people who spent the production period at one another’s throats — perhaps a noir writer and a magical realism writer who ceased to get along at some point, or maybe there was a diva-like editor who chopped out all the parts of the story that might have given it smooth transitions and sustained the mood.  Even more disappointing is the fact that it comes up with a comical Latino (Paul Rodriguez) for no good reason at all (what happened to political correctness in the mid-90s?).  The film eventually loses track of its own tale and drops a few of the balls it has in the air, making it very rough magic indeed.  More than anything, by the end it’s merely become a farce, not entirely intentionally.

Despite the missed chances of “Rough Magic,” I hope someone else tries this formula.  The magical realism makes for such a great twist on the cynical, fast-talking noir trope.  I love the idea that, rather than simply find again that a grisly crime was motivated by sex and greed, our hard-bitten protagonist might find love and/or transformation at work in the universe.

It’s just too bad.  We could use some magic at this point.  At my university we’re staggering and yet are still a few weeks away from the end of the semester, and I seem to be surrounded by cynicism and exhaustion.  At least I know better why this film has haunted me — and why we could use a film that dilutes gritty noir with hope.