In a small town in the French Alps, Monsieur Manesquier, a retired school teacher meets Milan, an aging bank robber, in town to pull off a heist. With the town’s only hotel being shut down for the season, Manesquier invites Milan to stay in his home. On paper the two men are opposites but, opening up to each other, they discover that not only do opposites attract, but each holds a bizarre fascination for the other. Manesquier who has never left the family home in which he lives envies Milan’s nomadic existence, full of danger and excitement. Milan teaches his host how to shoot while the old man loans him slippers (apparently this is very funny to the French – carpet slippers are, I’m told, the height of comedy in France) and a pipe.
The following Saturday, Manesquier is due in hospital for bypass surgery; the same day as Milan’s bank job. As the day of the robbery approaches Manesquier offers Milan money not to go through with the raid but Milan refuses. As Manesquier is being prepared for his operation, Milan and his accomplices are about to raid the bank
In one of my favorite movies, “Educating Rita”, Frank, the university tutor sets a question for garrulous mature student Rita – “How would you address the problems inherent in staging a production of Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’?”, to which Rita replies “Put it on the radio”.
“L’Homme du Train” would be the perfect candidate for a movie better suited to being produced on radio though the reasons for this are also what make it such a simple and striking film. The film is, in essence, an exchange between the two main characters who realize through a process of listening and learning that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
Despite the films picturesque setting, the director Patrice Leconte (who also directed French classic “Monsieur Hire”) does not exploit the scenery for the film. In fact, the pervading feeling is one of dullness, a one-horse town with little to offer. The characters walk through narrow streets and enter faceless shops and the background fades away when the men trudge through the town. There never seems to be any natural light in the film, the whole story is played out in the shadows. Visually there is little to stimulate the viewer, the strength of the film derives from the dialog between the characters.
Milan is played by French heart-throb and former pop star Johnny Hallyday – a man who seems to have been around forever. He has considerably less of the dialog than Jean Rochefort who plays Manesquier, but he carries off the role of the mysterious loner with some style. Rochefort is convincing as the old man living in his deceased mother’s home but the relationship between the two becomes tiring because there is little other action. Had this been a British film I suspect some scenes would have worked better than is the case here; when Milan dons the slippers and Manesquier tries on Milan’s stylish leather jacket the scene falls flat. I think that this is a case of the French taking it all a bit too seriously and the joke disappearing without a trace.
“L’Homme du Train” does have some redeeming features. The scenes in which the bank-robbers get together to plan the job but actually spend more time discussing art are very funny and typically French (the French art-house movie “Killing Zoe” springs to mind) and there are a couple of amusing scenes in the town’s shops which have absolute killer lines. However, I felt that more could have been made of the dramatic potential of the heist; Leconte leaves this in the background and does not capitalize on what is really the only really dramatic scene available.
The soundtrack also salvages a little. Far from being typically French, the repetitive slide guitar of the soundtrack is more reminiscent of a western than a European art-house film but it is appropriate for this out of the way town and the smoldering Milan.
If you enjoy French movies you’ll probably like this; the trademark characteristics of French art-house films are here in abundance – thought-provoking dialog, sombre backgrounds, avant garde music….Lovers of action films should avoid this one or at least use the opportunity of a couple of hours sleep!
In French with English subtitles