A teacher and a gangster meet by chance in a small town pharmacy. As a friendship of sorts develops between these opposite personalities, each starts to envy the other and by the week's end, everything will change for both of them.Written by
Sujit R. Varma
"Man on the train", directed by Patrice Leconte is "intimiste" French cinema at its best. It tells the story of a chance encounter and ensuing friendship between Milan, a gangster who is coming to a small French town to rob a bank and Manesquier, a retired professor of poetry who has lived there his whole life. The two protagonists could not be more different and yet, each one becomes fascinated by the other's life. Soon, Milan tries on slippers and Manesquier is shooting a gun at soda cans. Was Milan's life wasted because he never had the strength to fill his life with the structure he so desires? Was Manesquier's life wasted because he never had the strength to escape the structured life he so loathes? Will they go all the way and actually exchange lives? The movie is extremely well directed and photographed, with grainy blueish colors that support each character's melancholy. The script is tight and leaves room for silent moments which are as important to the story as the dialogue (a concept unknown in Hollywood). Every word has a deeper meaning than its litteral one. In one of the best scenes of the movie, the elegant poetry professor Manesquier puts on Milan's leather jacket and stands in front of the mirror saying in English: "The name is Earp...Wyatt Earp". But in the end, what makes the movie such a gem is the talent of the two lead actors who, like their characters, are such extreme opposites that their screen relationship could easily have ended up devoid of any chemestry. Jean Rochefort is an intellectual and one of France's greatest and most subtle living actors. Johnny Hallyday is the uneducated, over-the-top rock'n roll singer and social icon who has monopolized the #1 spot in French music charts since 1960 and who has been derided by the French intelligentsia ever since. Until the movie, Rochefort himself was no fan of Hallyday, though he likes to say with a grin: "Madame Rochefort, on the other hand...". They have since become friends. It, reportedly, took a lot of effort by Rochefort and Leconte to make Hallyday comfortable enough to act opposite Rochefort whom he saw as a towering icon. They most certainly succeeded since, in the end, it is the surprising subtelty of Hallyday's performance that makes the movie so poignant. Despite the botox injections and the face lifts, his Mount Rushmore face looks like that of a man who has been to hell and back a few hundred times. He has such presence and charisma that you can't take your eyes off him whenever he appears on the screen. Though he plays Milan with a minimalist approach, both in demeanor and delivery, he manages to display the most intense emotions in a simple grin, a gesture or a stare. The way he smokes Manesquier's pipe while explaining Balzac's "Eugenie Grandet" (which he has obviously never read) to a private student of Manesquier will make you chuckle. The way he looks at Manesquier when he leaves his house at the end of the movie will simply break your heart... "Man on the train" is a gentle, tender film which asks big questions in little ways. Let's pray it never gets remade in Hollywood...
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