Patrice Leconte is a guy who makes a lot of mildly satisfying movies in regular succession. Although this could sound a little like the desired result of a diet heavy in granola, bananas and water, it’s also an honorable resume for a hardworking if unexciting filmmaker. In his quarter-century career he’s made such flicks as Monsieur Hire, The Widow of St. Pierre, The Girl on the Bridge and many other respectable if not terribly remarkable films. Probably his best picture is Ridicule, the 1996 Oscar nominee about duplicity in 18th century Versailles that featured strong performances, a sparkling script, poofy wigs, bounteous bosoms and a climactic duel.
Leconte may never be confused with Rohmer, Chabrol or Tavernier, but there are worse things to be than a solid filmmaker who makes decent movies about worthwhile subjects. With the exception of Ridicule, and perhaps the Hitchcock homage Monsieur Hire, I haven’t found many of his films to be all that memorable. (In fact, I had to consult the Internet for a refresher on what The Girl on the Bridge was all about: circuses, a knife thrower and a sexually wanton woman.) Happily though, Leconte’s latest film, Man on the Train, rates as one of his stronger and more striking efforts.
The title is a deliberate echo of all those films that feature an anonymous “Man” in the title, from The Man Who Would Be King to The Man Who Wasn’t There. More pertinent are those titles from Westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, The Man from Laramie and Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western character “The Man with No Name.” “The Man” is a mythological conception, the stranger who rides into town with a mysterious and dangerous charisma. No one knows who he is or what his motives are–he’s an icon of existentialism, free will and self-justified action.
Accordingly, the film opens on a train that’s pulling into some French nowheresville. A rugged, inscrutable hunk of testosterone is on board. He looks like a killer, and he’s played by Jonny Hallyday, that aging French rocker that we Americans find so quaint. This stranger, who presently reveals his name to be Milan, gets off the train, strolls down Main Street, ducks into a drugstore for pain medication and… meets his double, in the form of one Monsieur Manesquier. (Funny how both of the names seem like manly cryptograms: “il man” and “I want to be a man,” or perhaps, “I want a name.”)
Manesquier, we learn, is a retired schoolteacher who lives in his ancestral home, a rundown but still impressive mansion where the rooms positively creak under the weight of books, a grand piano and generations of memories. In the drugstore, the older man is drawn to the stranger and invites him home for the glass of water that will allow him to take his medicine.
An odd, semi-articulate friendship ensues. Manesquier is a lifelong bachelor and bibliophile, at the fag-end of a life spent in passive contemplation. Confronted with an alluring, pistol-packing stranger, he realizes that he’d always wanted a life of action, romance and danger. He sneaks into Milan’s room, tries on his guest’s leather jacket and poses in the mirror pretending to be Wyatt Earp. Later, he asks Milan for shooting lessons and proves to be just as inept as Jimmy Stewart was in Liberty Valence.
Meanwhile, Milan wants to be Manesquier. Though Milan is a semi-literate goon (and bank robber, as it turns out) he warms to Manesquier’s quiet, cultivated and monastic existence. Milan is tired of living life straight up, like a bullfighter or a movie criminal; he wants to settle into a divan with a pipe, slippers and good book.
The professorial Manesquier is a bit of a Quixote, and in a delightful and fortuitous bit of casting, this character is played by the stalwart Jean Rochefort. Local filmgoers may remember him from the recent Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about Terry Gilliam’s doomed effort to film a version of the Cervantes novel. Rochefort was cast as Quixote in this catastrophic production, but his poor health contributed to its collapse. (After seeing Lost in La Mancha, it comes as good news that the 72-year-old Rochefort recovered from his ailments and proceeded to make Man on the Train.) A veteran of over 100 productions, including an excellent supporting turn in Ridicule, Rochefort is a benign comic actor with a marvelous and kind face. As an elderly dreamer, he’s utterly heartbreaking and it makes the failure of Gilliam’s Quixote project all the more regrettable.
Hallyday, for his part, plays his deadly stranger like Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West, playing up the physical resemblance and like his forebear, saying very little. (In this time of ugly Franco-American discord, it’s reassuring to see that the goose-liver eaters are still as crazy about American pop as they were in the days when Jean-Paul Belmondo mugged his way through Breathless pretending to be Bogart.) At one point, there’s a nice acknowledgement of Bronson’s influence when Milan tells Manesquier, “I had a harmonica once”–a nod to Once Upon a Time in the West.
It turns out that both men have an appointment with destiny–this Saturday, to be precise. On this day, Milan is getting ready to rob a bank with three conspirators who are frankly unworthy of him (and screenwriter Claude Klotz does a nice job of creating distinct thumbnail sketches of each). Meanwhile, Manesquier has a heart bypass operation scheduled for that day. Although the film does build to its expected finale, the outcome is less important than the subtle, often non-verbal ways in which the two men have bonded.
In the end, Leconte seems to suggest, we may be less free to chart our lives than we would like. The point is made amusingly explicit one afternoon when Manesquier’s attempt to instigate a tavern brawl midway through the film has an unexpected but exactly perfect result. But even if character is destiny, Man on the Train posits the pleasant possibility that we all have doubles living the lives we think we could have had.