French release explores relationship between familiar strangers
A man wearing fringed black leather arrives in a small town. He goes to a pharmacy for some aspirin and an elderly local gent strikes up a conversation. The hotel is closed and the gent offers the man in black a room in the large old house in which he lives alone.
Soon enough we learn that the man in black (French pop star Johnny Hallyday) has come to town to rob the bank, and that only intensifies the interest the elderly gent (veteran actor Jean Rochefort), a retired literature teacher, takes in their chance encounter. The robbery is planned for the same Saturday morning on which the retiree will undergo a triple bypass, but the heist story and, briefly, the medical melodrama are dramatic sidebars in an intriguingly complex tale of alter egos and kindred spirits bonding in unlikely circumstances.
Both men are middle-aged, and so their conversations drift toward philosophical matters and memories of the past. The professor likes to think of the Hallyday character as a figure out of the Old West, and the latter takes an unexpected interest in the poetry that the professor still teaches on the side. Another of the bank robbers is also a painter who takes time out to analyze works in the local museum.
As such, Man on the Train might be viewed as the latest in a French line of crime films with a philosophical bent. But director Patrice Leconte and screenwriter Claude Klotz are far less concerned with the mechanics of the crime story than with the echoing intricacies and reverberations within the two men’s relationship. The fleeting friendship of the criminal and the professor becomes a study in the near-mystical synergy of seemingly opposed identities.
It’s Hallyday and Rochefort who do the most to make all this work.
Hallyday was once viewed as the French equivalent of Elvis Presley while Rochefort is from the traditions of the Comedie Francaise. Together they make an intriguing and credible odd couple—a brusque man of action with a barely hidden thoughtful side, and a man of letters with a wistful appetite for adventure and risk.
Perhaps it’s also a study in kind of masculinity. In any event, the professor’s other noted relationships are with his sister (Edith Scob) and an old flame (Isabelle Petit-Jacque), while the thief’s are with other gang members, including the painter-thief (Jean-Francois Stevenin) and a gnomic hulk named Stadko.