Thanks to the skills of director Patrice Leconte, L’Homme du train (Man on the Train) would have made an excellent silent film, except that we would have missed the enchanting tones of Jean Rochefort’s retired poetry teacher, Monsieur Manesquier. Manesquier talks like a schoolboy who has yet to leave behind his school days his rich words and phrases touch on his dreams and wishes, and are charmingly tinged with sexual innuendo and self-deprecation. Rochefort’s characterization is perfectly complemented by Johnny Hallyday’s stoic career criminal, Milan, who responds to questions with either silence or sapient, terse words.
The plot is simple: As Milan arrives by train in a sleepy French town, he is suffering from a headache. He goes to a drugstore to buy some aspirin, and bumps into an elderly, loquacious gentleman (Monsieur Manesquier), from whom he borrows a glass of water with which to wash down the pills. Simply by chance and a lack of local hotels, Milan has to stay at the retired teacher’s home until Saturday, when he has an appointment (a bank robbery), which works perfectly for the teacher because he too has an appointment (a triple bypass operation) on that day.
Of course, these two characters have lived completely different lives: one as a quiet criminal, the other as a retired poetry teacher who chatters incessantly “not one pupil molested in thirty years,” he sarcastically says. After initial adjustments to each other’s presence, they begin to talk about themselves and the insights they have discovered through their very different life experiences. During dinner one evening, Milan teaches Manesquier how to drink hard liquor, and in return Manesquier demonstrates the use of slippers, leading Milan to declare sardonically (and seriously), “My life’s all wrong.” Manesquier also reveals his affection for the life of the American cowboy.
The musical score, by Pascal Estève, skillfully employs leitmotifs reflecting the character and moods of Monsieur Manesquier, played on a cello, and Milan, on a twanging guitar. As the two characters continue to interact and learn from each other, the leitmotifs begin to overlap; Milan’s guitar theme fuses with the cello, and Manesquier finally gets the cowboy guitar theme he’s wanted his whole life.
The movie was shot with a film stock that gives a sepia-like feel (as in the opening and closing sequences of O Brother Where Art Thou?), which allows the performances and musical score to create the color and ambience. The acting by Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday is excellent, seen best when they begin to take on aspects of each other’s personality, as Hallyday’s character becomes more talkative and Rochefort’s Manesquier more assertive.
The film introduces additional characters, who enable us to see the changes that both Manesquier and Milan are undergoing. Manesquier confronts his sister about her husband’s coldness, while Milan fills in to teach one of Manesquier’s pupils about Baudelaire. The movie also shows us the criminals with whom Milan is working on the bank job. The organizer and motivator of the group is Max, a fat, aging crook desperate for this score; next is Sadko, the driver, who only says one sentence a day, at 10 a.m. (“We will pass, like centuries and doves.”); and finally Luigi, Milan’s trusted friend, an alcoholic, without whose participation Milan would not have taken the job.
On Friday night, the eve of Milan’s and Manesquier’s appointments, we are introduced to Manesquier’s mistress, Viviane. As director Leconte has stated, “Viviane says what she thinks, and her character serves to redefine Milan and Manesquier on the day before the robbery and the surgical operation.” Both characters seem to have doubts about performing their respective tasks until this point, but now there is no turning back for either. Viviane’s visit provides interesting insights into both lead characters (even though she is wrong in her thoughts on Milan, according to Leconte).
Man on the Train does not move beyond the basic themes and conflicts of the two main characters, centering on their lingering regrets and long-hidden dreams of what might have been. As such, it seems on the surface to present a rather deterministic view, suggesting that neither of the characters could have lived otherwise than he did. Claude Klotz’s script, however, skillfully and subtly undermines this interpretation. Milan is a logical and intelligent man who poignantly teaches Manesquier that the criminal life isn’t the kind of romantic cowboy story he has dreamed about. Manesquier, for his part, shows Milan the charms of a simple bourgeois life, as seen in the freedom to sit around in comfortable slippers.
Thus the film shows that both characters have always been capable of living differently, and each freely chose his own way. What has held them back is their own doubts about their abilities. In a telling scene, Manesquier attempts to fight with some bullies, only to discover that one of them was a former poetry student of his. Similarly, when Milan asks Manesquier for a book containing a poem he once heard, and the teacher expresses doubts that he can find it, Milan says, “It is better not to know the full poem anyway,” exemplifying his habit of always moving on, never staying to finish tasks or even thoughts. Little wonder, then, that a life of crime is just about all that is open to him.
Through this nice twist, the film provides a coherent end to both characters’ poems, and a little for us to ponder as we leave. Man on the Train is a journey well worth taking.