“Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” is a cinematically vivid and emotionally draining ensembler that makes the average Woody Allen film seem like a picnic for the well-adjusted. Helmer Patrice Chereau (“Queen Margot”) has his distinguished thesps do everything except tie themselves to the tracks as their characters travel via train to the funeral of a painter. An enthusiastic local reception seems assured, but crix and auds beyond France will be sharply divided on the merits of so much overwrought soul-searching by not-terribly-pleasant people. But those who do clamber aboard for Chereau’s seventh feature are in for a technically dazzling widescreen trip.
The friends and associates of minor painter Jean-Baptiste Emmerich (Jean-Louis Trintignant, seen briefly in flashbacks in his studio) frenetically convene at a Paris railroad station, for the four-hour trip to Limoges, where the deceased wished to be buried. Among them are nearly a dozen characters who have, or have had, problems with drugs, HIV infection, fidelity, unwanted pregnancy, suicide — you name it.
There’s not a happy camper in the bunch, but there is, thankfully, one serene presence: art historian Francois (Pascal Greggory), whose cynical acceptance of every possible chamber in affairs of the heart allows him to glide above the fray.
Francois is traveling with longtime lover Louis (Bruno Todeschini), who becomes smitten by the sight of a disheveled, tubercular-looking teen named Bruno (Sylvain Jacques). The helmer lavishes camera time on Louis and Bruno as they trade ravenous, questioning glances and work their way up to a furtive, bereaved encounter in a swaying john.
Jean-Baptiste’s cadaver is being transported in a station wagon that’s traveling parallel to the train tracks. The car’s driver is slightly thuggish Thierry (Roschdy Zem), husband of Catherine (Dominique Blanc), who is traveling on the train with their lively little daughter.
On the train, Francois plays back a taped interview with Jean-Baptiste, whose vital statistics and niche in art history are thus provided by his voice. It also becomes clear that Jean-Baptiste was a manipulative man possessed of a multi-layered sexuality that captivated men and women alike.
In the seething group of onetime rivals for his affections, the most flamboyant couple is his nephew, Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), and Jean-Marie’s estranged wife, Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, doing her trademark histrionics), who’s a walking pharmacy. And Lucie (Marie Daems), now a dumpy old woman, is certain she was the love of his life.
Pic comprises three distinct acts: The train trip from Paris to Limoges, the funeral in “Europe’s largest cemetery” and the diffuse aftermath at the rambling manse of Lucien, the dead man’s brother. In the last, Trintignant, as Lucien, delivers a deft, deceptively offhand perf, while Vincent Perez essays the borderline risible role of someone in the midst of a sex change.
Chereau manages to pull off the difficult feat of situating most of the first 50 minutes on a moving train, with the cramped, swaying environment perfectly mirroring the protagonists’ shaky disarray. (The production monopolized two extra carriages hitched to a real scheduled train, going one way before lunch and heading back in the afternoon. Cast and crew traveled 12,000 kilometers during two weeks.)
The hand-held lensing is mighty impressive, with the constant movement, rhythmic clickety-clack and changing scenery. Once the mourners disembark, the photography continues its perambulations, imbuing even the most awkward moments with a formal beauty. Hand-held for two-thirds of the pic, the camera is forever on the prowl, scanning the horizon or scrunching up close to the action.
Pic is aggressively blanketed in source music, primarily with English-language lyrics. From the heavily freighted vocal stylings of James Brown through Jim Morrison to a male version of “I Will Survive,” the sometimes apt, sometimes close-to-embarrassing music track even has Mahler get into the act at the majestic conclu-sion.
The movie’s quasi-enigmatic title comes from the painter’s final words. They were actually uttered by filmmaker Francois Reichenbach before his death in 1993 and appropriated here by his friend, co-scripter Daniele Thompson.