The Man on the Train (L’Homme du Train) is from French Director Patrice LeComte. Two men meet by chance, a friendship begins but there are finite limits. Beyond the coming Saturday, three days hence, neither can make any plans at all. More on that later.
The titular character (The Man on the Train) is Milan played by former French rock star Johnny Hallyday. In his younger days, Hallyday was called the ‘Elvis of France’.
As the film begins he’s the one on the train. We know nothing of him, nor do we know where is is going. In fact, we don’t even know where he is when he gets off the train. It is a forlorn provincial town in Eastern France. The time is the late fall and there aren’t many folks around.
Milan has to remedy a headache so he stops in at a local pharmacy to procure some aspirins. Also in the pharmacy at this time is Manesquier, an older Frenchman played by Jean Rochefort, who even as an elder statesman of acting is still one of France’s most admired actors.
Manesquier is not only chatty, and inquisitive, but he is able to suss out in moments that Milan will need water for the ‘must be dissolved’ aspirins. He is a widower and lives nearby, so he invites Milan to come to his house for the water and to rest. Since Milan has no where to stay as the town’s lone hotel, because of the lack of tourists, is boarded up beginning in November, his host offers to put him up. Manesquier also passes on that the hotel also suffers from a lack tourists in June too. As I said he is chatty.
The glass of water is provided, soon a drink, and soon after Manesquier serves dinner. With no choice or viable alternatives, Milan is shown to a spare bedroom. This is not a backwoods shack, no sir, Manesquier’s home is the family estate, and is quite suitably furnished.
It is when Milan unpacks his valise that we see that he carries handguns.
The next day we learn more when Milan meets his associates who drive into town. We learn that are in town to rob the bank. On Saturday.
Manesquier is a retired Literature teacher. He still tutors an occasional student poetry. His life is orderly and precise. His sitting room is wall to wall books and from the looks of them first editions as well. He appreciates the fine arts – you can tell when he can recite full poems from memory, and the house has that look of old wealth (maybe) and fussiness (certainly) to it.
When Milan is out, Manesquier, snooping, discovers the hidden guns. Instead of being shocked, he is delighted. It turns out the our mild mannered, nearly milquetoasty Professor of Literature harbors a secret. He’d love to be a tough guy. You know the kind – a man that could shoot a gun, not be a afraid of telling loudmouths in a pub to shut up, or to have women lined up for him to service.
He even tries on Milan’s leather jacket and does a small bit of imagining he is Wyatt Earp while looking at his own image in the mirror.
Here is a small sample from the dialogue that tells us a little something about Manesquier:
Milan: Why two combs and two toothbrushes?
Monsieur Manesquier: There are two kinds of men. Those who say, “I must buy a toothbrush; I’ve lost mine,” they’re adventurers. And those who have an extra brush.
Milan: What are they?
Monsieur Manesquier: Planners, at best.
Milan: You have two of everything?
Monsieur Manesquier: [smiles] No, three!
Milan has his secret too. He’s tired of the violence, of living on the run, and of having a job which in execution of said job, he could be facing his last moments of being alive. He craves the quiet life.
Manesquier craves the excitement of living on the edge which is next to impossible for him. He offers to help Milan with the bank job but is refused. But even if Milan had allowed him in on the Bank job then Manesquier wouldn’t have been able to participate on Saturday – he was going in for heart by-pass surgery on that day.
That’s your setup. Two men meet and while their lives have nothing in common on the surface, they each want to have the life that the other has.
Those are the questions that LeComte sets in motion for us to ponder. This is a French film so things move slowly. We marvel at the expressive faces, we can think about what we see in a look or a smile of one character or another. It is amazing how much can be conveyed without words.
This is why LeComte is considered one of France’s finest directors. His ability to tell the story without special effects, or violence, or without a lot of boring philosophical or psychological explanations.
In one sense the film is recreating the old west from the American cowboy films – a quiet town and a stranger enters. Yet it still is a French film, in its pacing, in its style, and in the execution. Of course they are speaking French, this is not a dubbed version. But the subtitles are brilliant.
I won’t tell you anymore. The fun of this film is that we know things or rather, we learn things about each of the characters before the other character does. So we are sharing in the secrets.
A most enjoyable film. Available from Netflix.