An almost anecdotal story about an unlikely encounter between two men from opposite worlds who wistfully crave each other’s lives is spun out with simplicity, class and style in Patrice Leconte’s “The Man on the Train.” Pairing not only contrasting characters, but also radically different actors — veteran Leconte collaborator Jean Rochefort and legendary French rocker Johnny Hallyday — the comedy-drama hinges on the captivating dynamic between the two men, combining gentle humor and charm with a melancholy undercurrent of yearning. Arthouse dates seem assured in markets receptive to quality French cinema.
Title figure is Milan (Hallyday), who arrives by train in a sleepy small town where he will rendezvous with accomplices to perform a bank robbery the following weekend. Heading straight for the pharmacy for headache pills, he unwittingly buys the soluble variety and accepts the offer from elderly stranger Manesquier (Rochefort) of a glass of water. The taciturn bank robber half-listens to the retired schoolteacher’s endless talk before taking his leave, only to return for the night when he finds the town hotel closed.
While delighted to have company and a captive ear for his rambling recollections and philosophical musings, Manesquier is as wary of Milan as the latter is of everyone he encounters, including his partners in the upcoming robbery. But over the next three days, the distance between them dissolves as each man reveals his longing for another life.
Manesquier dreams of exchanging his books and sedentary existence for Milan’s leather jacket and a life of danger and adventure, while Milan covets the older man’s cluttered, comfortable home, his bedroom slippers and stability. Both men silently endure feelings of apprehension, Milan over the robbery and Manesquier for the triple bypass surgery he is due to undergo that weekend. Both these events go horribly wrong, but a moment of magical reprieve permits each man to realize his dream.
While Claude Klotz’s script sometimes works a little hard at painting Manesquier as a lovable old codger, Rochefort — in his seventh film with Leconte — brings such effortless wisdom, gentleness and generosity of spirit it’s hard not to respond to the sweet-natured character. The real surprise, however, is Hallyday. France’s answer to Elvis, his steely expression and stern demeanor allow glimpses of tenderness and sensitivity beneath the man’s seemingly hard exterior. Hallyday’s emotionless delivery of the witty dialogue plays perfectly off Rochefort’s more outwardly engaging manner.
Edith Scob and Isabelle Petit-Jacques both register some nuanced moments, respectively as Manesquier’s sister and his longterm lover.
Leconte directs with his customary finesse, masterfully using the widescreen frame to offset the intimacy of the tale, and adopting subtle changes in lighting to establish the two men’s different worlds. Pascal Esteve’s score strongly identifies the two main characters, using Ry Cooder-esque guitar tunes for Milan and classical themes for Manesquier, letting the two styles collide when the men come together. Lenser Jean-Marie Drejou’s restless camera lends freshness and vitality to what could have been a visually staid affair, and editor Joelle Hache threads the tight little story together with a pleasingly jaunty rhythm.