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Jules is upset. The minister of transportation ignores his letters, so, on the day the minister is in Lyons to reopen a rail line, Jules heads to the train station to speak to the minister directly. He takes a pistol in case he needs to demand the minister's undivided attention. When a bodyguard won't let him close, Jules steps onto a one-car train and rashly takes its ten passengers hostage. The film plays out the stories of the hostages, their interactions, their families awaiting them, and Jules's need to get out of this jam. One passenger, Jeanne, has an abusive husband, and she finds Jules an attractive alternative. Written by
This film's starting point might seem material for social realism - a 41 year old unemployed bus conductor lives in a one-roomed apartment with his slightly simple friend. Mercifully, the film opts for something much safer and enjoyable. Having been inexplicably sacked after years of loyal and conscientious service, having written 17 unanswered letters to the Minister of Transport, having failed to talk to him at the televised opening of a new railway line, Jules, at the end of his tether, hijacks a suburban train, and takes ten hostages.
This might seem a little implausible - although this is a country where disgruntled farmers let loose sheep in governmental departments - and Jules' very real, understandable trauma does become the stuff of wish-fulfilment comedy. The film's trick, though, is not to make the transition from a state of high tension to comic release too obvious, and for the first third, the weird Jules seems like a genuine threat: a good man not only marginalised by his society, but systematically ignored; he has very little to lose.
Although the plot is basically AUTOBUS in a train, the film, thankfully, does not limit the action to this claustrophobic setting. The hostages have been sketchily, but convincingly drawn in before the crises, from the beautician with the abusive, philandering husband, and the beautiful religious zealot, to the adulterous couple of whom the male has started to feel inconveniently guilty.
We switch humourously from the 'action' on the train (which has long reached its final terminus for the night) to the home lives they have left behind. The train, far from being a site of possible annihilation, becomes a kind of free, psychological space, where people can re-examine their often paralytic or compromised lives (as do those they leave behind), because they see someone, Jules, risk everything, where they have not dared to. This is most relevant to Jeanne, who becomes very attracted to Jules, spotting the decency and genuine hurt behind the neurotic intensity - it is significant that the seemingly virginal Jules, at 41, is unmarried, and it is implied that his refusal to co-opt in this ritualistically social manner is a factor in his marginalisation.
Inevitably the tensions, the immediate ones of the hijack, and the long simmering personal and social ones, are transmuted into the carnivalesque, one large group release, and their ultimate success confirms the belief of the bourgeois anarchist that only as a collective will they achieve their aims.
Of course, they don't really, the pressing social problem that generates the action is bought off with some money, and while this is right comically for characters we've come to like, it evades the question it asks. The minister, despite this extreme action, is not made accountable, and not everyone is in the positon to hijack trains to highlight governmental indifference. The film does reveal the media's collusion in bureaucrateic neglect, and the video that the characters hope will give them a voice and rescue them lies impotent and broken on the side of the road, the voices of the dissatisfied remain unheard.
Still, after a week in which I saw MA VIE SEXUELLE, SANS TOIT NI LOI and THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS, this was merciful light relief, from the winning performing of caricatures (the normally unyielding Francois Cluzet, in his archetypal role as the harrassed 40-something male, is quite likeable here), the undemanding comedy, to the sombre aquatic colours of the night-abandoned station, and the jaunty music.
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