A Comfortable Ride 

A review of Man on the Train

*Man on the Train (R)
Paramount Classics

Man on the Train is just the sort of summer art film designed to please its audience. It's slow in that meandering French way that NPR liberals mistake for depth. It's none too challenging, but quite pleasant; a midlife crisis film combined with an exploration of how strangers waltz into our lives and, in a Brooklyn heartbeat, change them forever.

We meet Milan (French rocker Johnny Hallyday) tripping out on a crack-of-dawn commuter train. His haggard face is sad and tortured, his steel blue eyes capable of God knows what. If this were a Hollywood character study, he'd be shooting smack in the bathroom, having any number of goofy flashbacks, and be bedding Charlize Theron within 15 minutes.

But since this is a French art film, the gruff, leather-jacketed Milan (a nihilistic French Fonzie) gets off in a small town and buys some aspirin. At the drug store, he meets the affable Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), who invites him home for a glass of water. (Does this kinda thing really happen in France?)

Manesquier is a graying dandy, a retired poetry teacher and heir to a small fortune. He has a small stone mansion begging for an interior paint job, a mistress, a library of antique books and a lot to say.

The two quickly make an arrangement for Milan to stay over Saturday night. Their initial awkwardness is as enjoyable as any romantic comedy as Manesquier is as talkative as his guest is stoic.

During the day, Manesquier tutors a gimpish wanker in poetry while Milan firms up his plan to hold up a local bank -- a job that gives every impression of going awry as the driver is an unknown savant and his trusted partner in crime, TK, is late to show.

As fate would have it, Manesquier has never quite proven his manhood.

Because he's French and has no access to ESPN's Sports Center or Cigar Aficionado magazine, he wistfully idolizes the heroes of spaghetti westerns and is infatuated with the possibility of sticking up a bank. Ironically, this is precisely what has brought his guest to town. When he finds three handguns in Milan's leather jacket, he couldn't be more delighted, and spends a hilarious minute playing Clint Eastwood in the mirror.

But when Manesquier attempts to act on his newfound boldness by confronting a few pinball-playing hooligans in a caf, he's fondly recognized as the former poetry teacher of one of the thugs.

There's a quiet delight to this film, directed with grace by Patrice Leconte. It's a melancholy exchange between men without the predictable homophobia of macho prevarications -- a sort of, "wish I coulda had your life guy, pass the baguette s'il vous plat" stroll through the vicissitudes of destiny.

The film's ending is as violently fatalistic as it is predictable. But it manages not to sour the film's well-earned tenderness.

In this time of Franco-American estrangement, it's fun to observe Frenchie infatuation with our stoic, cowboy masculinity (even as they loathe our stoic, cowboy unilateralism). Rochefort, in his western fantasy, claims, "My name is Wyatt Earp."

Whether it's arrogance or isolation that prevents Hollywood from romanticizing Europe, it's hard to say. But wouldn't it be refreshing (and ridiculous) to see an American film put the shoe on the other foot:

Who dares to say ..."My name is Jacques Chirac!"?


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