Atypically, vet Gallic helmer Andre Techine’s latest film, “The Girl on the Train,” centers on one of the most media-blitzed events of recent French history: a young woman’s invented story about being attacked on a train by black and Arab youths who mistook her for a Jew. From this polarizing lie, Techine fashions a brilliantly complex, intimate multi-strander, held together but somewhat skewed by the central perf of Emilie Dequenne (“Rosetta”), whose radiant physicality threatens to eclipse even Catherine Deneuve. Much-awaited pic, bowing March 18 at home, seems poised for a strong international run and solid U.S. arthouse play.
Jobless, freewheeling rollerblader Jeanne (Dequenne) resides in the suburbs — not the ethnically mixed high-rise hotspot of recent French cinema, but a peaceful backwater where her widowed mother (Deneuve) has retreated to cultivate her garden and mind the neighborhood tots. The sole but constant reminder of a larger context is the elevated train passing above the district, counterpointing Jeanne’s carefree rollerblade movements or comfortably carrying her to and from the city.
A highly physical courtship sets Jeanne up in a shady warehouse with b.f. Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), an aspiring wrestler; Deneuve’s expressions are priceless when she’s forced to amicably socialize with her daughter’s tattooed beloved. But violence implodes the couple’s idyllic house-playing.
Jeanne’s desultory search for a secretarial job links her to the family of her mother’s old flame Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a successful lawyer and leading defender of Jewish causes. His globe-trotting, politically engaged, mismatched brood — boasting an Orthodox ex-daughter-in-law (Ronit Elkabetz), flat-out atheists and everything in between, arguing nonstop in art-filled duplexes and luxury hotel rooms — reps a marked contrast to Jeanne’s experiences of provincial domesticity.
Jeanne evinces little knowledge of or interest in politics. The more the camera captures her from different angles, the more unknowable she appears — sealed off by her Walkman and rollerblades, with an almost animal-like insularity. Once her blissful romance disintegrates into a hail of social and personal blame, however (the cops blast her for her willful naivete, while Franck alleges to have taken to crime to finance their love nest), the only way she can relate to history is to make herself the innocent victim of it. She invents a role from bits and pieces of half-heard conversations and poorly understood images on TV, blind to the implications and consequences of her accusations.
Techine’s choice of Dequenne makes perfect sense of many potentially contradictory elements of his story — Jeanne’s almost unconscious racism, the eagerness with which the press (and the president) jump on the unsubstantiated claim of a beautiful non-Jewish victim of anti-Semitism. Yet, at the same time, the Belgian actress acts as a lodestar whose sheer magnetism upsets the careful equilibrium of Techine’s setup.
Thus, though the emotionally explosive Bleisteins are cannily conceived as foils to petit-bourgeois civilityof Jeanne and her mother, their scenes fail to resonate with the same intensity as simple shots of trains crisscrossing space — failing to bridge worlds that might just as well be planets apart.