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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 20, 2003

'Man' layered study of human opposites

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post

 •  'Man on the Train'

R, for violence

120 minutes

A friend points out that the American-made trailer for "Man on the Train" suggests that this French film is about a bank robber and a schoolteacher who trade places. Gack! How American is that? Big, dumb, gross, loud, another lost Nick Nolte-Martin Short vehicle.

But of course the film is much subtler — much more ... French. It chronicles the connection between a bank robber and a teacher, their awareness of their opposing lifestyles, their attraction each to the other's, but they never trade places. What they trade is fantasies of such a transference; this takes place entirely in the imagination as each man faces mortal but inevitable circumstances.

The devilishly smart director is Patrice Leconte, one of the best of the current generation of French auteurs. He has a string of superb films to his credit, movies driven by a brilliant concept, a great wit and intelligence, fabulous performances and a vivid irony. I'm thinking of films I've enjoyed passionately over the past decade or so: "Monsieur Hire," the fabulous "Ridicule" and "Girl on the Bridge."

We begin with the man on the train. There he sits, slumped, dangerous, isolated. Milan isn't quite a master criminal, but he is a wary pro, with a face that's a road map to every joint he's ever been in. Actually, that's the face of veteran French pop star Johnny Hallyday, and it's a magnificent ruin: 60 miles of bad road, potholes, retreads and oil puddles. Hallyday says very little, but he's got that icon thing going, and his eyes read reality instantly; he has the charisma of the man who knows how to handle things.

But Milan can't handle the fact that in the provincial town he's just gotten off that train to visit, the hotel is closed because the tourist season is over. And who's that, standing next to him in the street? Why, it's M. Manesquier, the retired teacher. Actually, it's the elegant French actor Jean Rochefort, who, at 73, is still a vivid presence.

Manesquier has noted Milan in a drugstore and followed him. It's not a gay attraction (that issue never comes up), but a manhood deal. The ineffectual, meek, decent Manesquier recognizes the stranger immediately as the man he never could be: tough, self-reliant, quiet, capable, a man outside the system. Thus, he offers the younger fellow a room for the night in his rotting inherited mansion, where most of the ceilings leak and the decor still reflects Manesquier's mother, who died 15 years earlier.

The movie watches this odd couple connect. Each studies the other; each understands the appeal of a life marked by solitude or action, as the case may be. Each contemplates in the other a what-might-have-been, but each realizes by the end that what might have been is really an illusion: Each is what he is, and that is that.

And the movie is very funny. It continually plays the robber's taciturnity against the somewhat nattering, self-aware, rhetorical style of the teacher. Manesquier, fabulously self-loathing, makes the accurate point that his life — reading, piano-playing, cooking — has prepared him to be a perfect 19th-century woman! There's a wonderful disquisition about the kind of man whose dithery frenzy inexorably invites clerks to ask him if there's anything else and the kind of man who seems so absolute a force of nature that the "Is there anything else?" question cannot even be broached.

The movie also watches as each tries to change, but can't. Emboldened, Manesquier tries to pick a fight in a bar to show his new friend he is capable of something beyond irony. But the intended opponent turns out to be an ex-student who still reveres the old man. For his part, Milan senses that the job he's in town for is snake-bitten from the start, but somehow, he just can't walk away.

What a good movie. Sometimes you get tired of explaining and you just want to say: Hey, this one's really very good. That's all, folks.