For those who find that most “life-affirming’ films leave them nauseous and sometimes angry, “Man on the Train” is a miracle of genuine uplift working with two characters probably fated to die.
And only movie-style fate would pair Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a retired teacher who still lives at his childhood home, with Milan (Johnny Hallyday), a robber in town to job the local bank. But such is the skill of the actors and director Patrice Leconte (Monseiur Hire), that this conceit goes down easily and the implausible relationship unfolds with unforced humor and beauty.
Manesquier dreams of a more exciting life than his comfortable, but predictable existence. For him, a disagreement with a clerk in the town’s bakery is a consuming event. He is immediately interested in Milan, a charismatic stranger who arrives by train one day with only a duffel and leather jacket.
The initial dynamic of the chatty older man and the silent stranger gradually deepens and reveals the characters’ yearnings for what the other has, and the simple (read: life-affirming) joys of companionship. The actors effortlessly convey this growing affection and bond that acquires undertones of tragedy with the emerging sense that both may die.
The film’s great accomplishment is its complex tone of humor, pain , warmth and, most captivatingly, discovery. All hands on deck, from the funky production design, to the desaturated cinematography, subtly structured script, and exceptional acting come together here. It is the work of a director who understands exactly what he wants and knows how to get it. Expect an American version, say Fall 2005, with obvious emotional cues and a feel good ending that depresses.
There are a few false moves, notably a sequence with Mansequier’s occasional mistress that feels truncated and lacks clarity of purpose. Otherwise, this film provides a glow of good feeling that has stuck with me for days after screening. At ten dollars, that’s first-rate value.