Man on the Train , The

Further evidence, as if any were needed, that there’s no terrain quite so fascinating as the landscape of the human face. Patrice Leconte’s latest is shot in his usual wide-screen format, but its focus is the characterful, grizzled features of two genuine French icons. Johnny Hallyday, esteemed veteran of Gallic pop, is assurance personified in his first serious screen role as the enigmatic individual who gets off the train in a sleepy provincial town one grey November. His skin looks as leathery and battered as his rocker’s jacket, the criminal motivation for his visit only later becoming apparent when a hotel closure sees him lodging with garrulous loner Jean Rochefort (the Leconte regular who was also Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated Don Quixote). The two men could hardly seem more different, the career crook taciturn in his responses, his talkative host, a retired teacher who’s lived alone in the same run-down mansion since his mother passed away, effusive in his opinions as someone who has been starved of good company.
Early on, we’re temptedto wonder where all this is going, but Leconte’s cannily timed release of information and the by-play of charisma between the two men proves deceptively absorbing. By the end of the week, lives will have changed (a bank heist taking shape, heart surgery in the offing), but it’s the eyes which tell the full story: Hallyday’s gnomic cool can’t hide a sadness born of long-time rootlessness, Rochefort’s gaze betrays an effervescence of spirit still bridling against a suffocatingly meek existence. Two wonderful performances, but they’re set in context by slow-burn filmmaking at its most beguiling. This is whimsical and wise, delightfully entertaining, and ultimately rather moving.
(France-U.K., 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Anamorphic. 90 mins.)

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