Man on the Train
Milan (aging rocker Johnny Hallyday), a laconic loner in a leather jacket, steps off a train and into the night of a quiet, provincial French town. He wanders into a pharmacy for some aspirin, where he encounters Manesquier (the ever-distinguished Jean Rochefort), a retired poetry teacher who lives nearby. Milan soon finds that the area hotel has closed for the season and ends up lodging for a few days with Manesquier, whose crumbling family home overflows with antiques and its sole resident's vivid childhood memories. The unlikely pair slowly find a basis for conversation, and as they uncover the secrets that brought Milan to town and put Manesquier in a particularly self-reflexive mood, they begin to take interest in each other's lives.
Director Patrice Leconte, who specializes in Art House Lite fare like Girl on the Bridge (1999), fares somewhat better with Man on the Train. In the film's early chapters, Leconte cultivates the mood of a solid psychological thriller, with several notes of quiet mystery ringing long into the film's development. This feeling eventually reveals itself as a red herring, as Man on the Train veers away from suspense and toward twin character studies. That Leconte's film is basically a mystery that doesn't have one isn't entirely to its detriment; the aura of suspense balances out some of the film's lapses into maudlin and trite sentiments.
Indeed, largely through strong lead performances does Man on the Train narrowly avoid becoming the cloying mound of fromage this subject matter could inspire. Although both characters are old enough for retirement, a generation separates them, and Manesquier, facing the imminent end of his life, finds vicarious joy in imagining the hedonistic past he believes his younger border has led. Rochefort communicates this curious spirit with dignity and humor, clearly enjoying his character's unwillingness to act his age and give in passively to a routine and benign senior citizenship. Hallyday's role doesn't demand a great range, but his persistent gruffness gets the job done, fleshing out a rugged man shrugging off old age even as he finds, in small ways, that it might suit him.
Leconte's film has its clumsy stretches, especially when it suggests impulses for role-swapping between its two principals; its insights into old age are hardly new and sometimes forced. Still, Man on the Train provides some believable and even emotional moments when it confines itself to the simple observation of well-acted roles.