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Man on the Train (May 10/03)

Patrice Leconte's Man on the Train is an exceedingly simple story elevated by effective filmmaking and two fantastic lead performances. Aside from a bizarre ending, the movie does a nice job of establishing a friendship between two exceedingly different men.

The film opens with Milan (Johnny Hallyday) stepping off a train in a small French town. As he ambles into the city, and discovers that most stores are closing, he wanders into a nearby drug store - where he meets Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a former schoolteacher. After a short exchange, the two head back to the older man's home, where Milan is to stay for a few days. Both men have big plans for Sunday - Milan is planning a bank robbery with three associates, while Manesquier is scheduled for open-heart surgery. To bide their time until that fateful day, the two men pass the time by talking about a variety of subjects.

The most interesting aspect of Man on the Train is the relationship between the two men, though their differences are numerous. Milan is the sort of guy that's reluctant to speak to anyone, presumably out of a need to maintain a low profile - while Manesquier is essentially the complete opposite. Defying expectations, Milan remains unfriendly throughout much of the first half of the movie - allowing Manesquier to do most of the talking (and in fact chastises the man for his relentless chatting). Had this been a traditional Hollywood flick, it's likely that Milan would've been turned into a far more likable figure. As it is, he eventually does become someone we're rooting for, but that's only after a good deal of time has progressed and we've learned more about what makes him tick.

The film does suffer from the sort of dialogue that seems to plague the majority of foreign flicks, though. A lot of time is spent on big issues like life and death, but at least in this case, it kind of makes sense since Manesquier made his living as a poetry teacher. Still, as is usually the case, this sort of dialogue is more distracting than anything else - though in all fairness, Claude Klotz's screenplay doesn't dwell too extensively on these philosophical discussions. His script is far more effective when it deals with the differences between the two men, and the longing that each feels to be in the other's shoes. This is made clear early on when Manesquier tries on Milan's leather jacket, while Milan begins wearing an old pair of Manesquier's slippers. It's certainly the most intriguing aspect of the film, but Leconte and Klotz take it a little too far - the action culminates in an ending that's a complete head-scratcher.

Aside from that silly conclusion, though, Man on the Train is a rich and rewarding film. Anchored by great performances from Rochefort and Hallyday, the movie is a worthy alternative to most of the generic fluff that tends to populate cinemas.

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