Twenty-something Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) is not in a very good place in her life. She has no job, she isn’t very smart, and her father is dead. On the other hand she’s gorgeous and charming. This may be genetic: her mother is Catherine Deneuve (as Louise). While out rollerblading (and probably causing car accidents on every block she passes, although this isn’t shown on film), she meets Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle). He is a cocky jock who wants to be an Olympic wrestler. We know from the get-go that he is a bit of an a*s, and perhaps Jeanne does too, since she resists his charms at first (if we may use the word “charm” in relation to this arrogant heel). Naturally she relents, and just as they start to get really cozy, Franck gets himself into some rather deep trouble.
Meanwhile, director André Téchiné has been setting up a parallel story about increased anti-Semitic attacks taking place near Paris. At the center of this is a famous lawyer named Samuel Bleistein (French star Michel Blanc). As a powerful public figure, he is interviewed on television about the attacks. Jewish by birth, he considers himself an agnostic. His son Alex (Mathieu Demy) is an atheist, although Alex’s wife is a devout Jew. Samuel’s grandson Nathan is confused about the role his fading religion should play in his life.
These two stories come together when we discover that Bleistein has had a crush on Louise for decades. She likes him as a friend, but has always been true to her deceased husband. Still, Louise goes to visit her old friend in hopes of getting her dim daughter a job with his law firm. No dice. Later, Jeanne has a sort of breakdown after Franck’s poor behavior lands him in the hospital with a stab wound. For extremely unclear reasons, Jeanne emulates Franck’s misfortune by cutting herself, and then she concocts a rather implausible story about having been attacked by neo-Nazis. At this point the film might be called “Girl Who Cried Wolf,” rather than “Girl on a Train.” Louise tries to help her daughter by once again contacting Bleistein, this time for legal aid. Of course, it comes out that the whole thing was made up, so Jeanne eventually fesses up.
It is a bit disappointing that “Girl on a Train” is kind of a mess, because there is a likable movie hiding under a few inexcusable flaws. A lot of time is spent on Bleistein family subplots that don’t really pan out into anything relevant. Commentary on anti-Semitic violence is handled ham-fistedly when it isn’t dropped altogether; and yet that seems to be the subtext that this film wants to be exploring. The connection between Jeanne’s phony attack and the RER (Paris-area commuter rail) trains that she rides throughout the film is tenuous at best. The shots of Jeanne on a train exist only to justify the title. Her charade has no clear motivation for occurring. If this film also wants to be a character study of a deranged Parisian girl, that point was completely lost on me.
And yet, the cast is really solid: I liked Dequenne in “Fissures” (which, by coincidence, I reviewed for Film Threat just last month), and she is even better here. Deneuve is reliably regal, Blanc is strong and confident, and yet he exudes pathos as an old man in love. Demy is solid as Alex, and even the kid playing Nathan turns in some believable moments as a young adolescent completely confused as to how to behave when he must spend the night in a room with a sexy girl in her twenties. There is some nice cinematography (by Julien Hirsch) as well, particularly when things move to the Bleistein family’s country retreat. A scene in which Jeanne and Franck video chat over the internet is interestingly assembled, as their typed words give way to sounds, images, feelings. But none of this can save a film that was lost either before it began (a poorly plotted script) or in the editing room. (Could a recut save it?) Somewhere, there is a good film here, but the experience on screen doesn’t quite live up to the potential.