Directed by Patrice Leconte, starring Jean Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday, Charlie Nelson, Pascal Parmentier, Charlie Nelson, Jean-François Stévenin, Isabelle Petit-Jacques.
A distinguished ageing actor and the Elvis of France are the odd couple thrown together in Patrice Leconte's gentle tale 'L'Homme du Train (The Man on The Train)'. It's a simple premise - an ageing criminal arrives by train in a provincial town and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a retired schoolteacher - but Leconte's treatment of the subject matter turns this modest idea into a memorable film.
Rugged French rock star Johnny Hallyday plays Milan, a leather-jacketed stranger who arrives at a small French town on the evening train. Milan carries an air of danger with him, an atmosphere of repressed violence that is irresistible to retired teacher Manesquier (an elegant and playful Rochefort). A contrived meeting in the local pharmacy leads to Manesquier inviting Milan to stay at his crumbling, but handsome, old mansion for three life affirming days.
The two men are a study in contrasts - Milan is an enigmatic loner, taciturn and wary while the lonely and garrulous Manesquier can barely contain his excitement at having someone to talk to. But both have secrets. Manesquier is about to go into hospital for a triple bypass and Milan is only in town to take part in a hold-up on the local bank. What they also have in common is a feeling that they may have been doing the wrong thing all their lives.
Manesquier is thrilled to find guns secreted amongst Milan's things and takes a child's delight in trying on his leather jacket ("the name's Earp, Wyatt Earp" he says in English to his reflection). Milan, on the other hand, rapidly takes to the other man's pipe and slippers, even giving a French lesson to a student in Manesquier's place. It's a meeting of minds between two very different people that only works because the desire to change is on both sides. There's a comic and very touching scene in a restaurant where Manesquier, emboldened by his companion, takes on a youthful drunk only to discover that the boy is a former student with fond memories of Manesquier's poetry lessons. But, despite their yearning for change and desire for each other's lives, neither man can escape his destiny.
Although ostensibly a heist movie, Patrice Leconte concentrates on character and conversation, excluding action until the end. Most scenes take place within the confines of Manesquier's house and grounds and between the two men, a device that could soon become wearisome if it wasn't for the sublime acting of seasoned professional Jean Rochefort and relative newcomer Johnny Hallyday. Leconte worked closely with cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou and composer Pascal Estève to develop a distinctive visual and musical palette for each man, blurring the differences as Milan and Manesquier move closer into each other's lives but ensuring that each retains his individuality when apart.
Charming, stylish and thoroughly enjoyable, 'L'Homme du Train' won't set the mulitplexes alight but deserves to be seen by more than the usual arthouse crowd.