Saturday, January 9, 2010
Man on the Train
The train drops him off in a small town and at the drug store he runs into Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) a retired poetry teacher who is as mild as Milan is bold. Manesquier offers Milan a glass of water on discovering that the aspirin he bought is soluble. He is clearly fascinated with Milan, who surprises Manesquier by complimenting his house, which is full of family belongings, that Manesquier himself downplays as useless and boring.
He asks Milan why he likes the house, and Milan replies, "It's full of the past somehow." That's also an apt description for these characters, both of them carry all of their past with them, seemingly unable to change who they are. As they each head toward their own inevitable moments, (a bank heist and an operation, both the coming Saturday morning) they examine each other as if they've been given an opportunity to take another road. Since the small town hotel is closed, Milan stays with Manesquier in an extra room and they form an instant if unlikely friendship. A bond quickly forms between them, as Manesquier can't stop talking and Milan says little at all. Each is so different from the other that they can't help exploring through conversation and small experience, the life they always wondered about that the other represents.
This is not a role reversal film, each character knows who he is (perhaps too well) but all the same Manesquier can't help but play with Milan's guns when he is out of the house, even draws the pistols while watching himself in the mirror talking like Wyatt Earp. Milan tries on slippers for the first time, and also smokes a pipe in a robe, while filling in as teacher for a private poetry lesson that Manesquier forgot about. Each brings out something else in the other, and you get the sense that even though they will part on Saturday, this could be the most important meeting of their lives. Maybe they can change or at least not be completely trapped, by the identities they've built.
Manesquier says of himself at one point, when talking of his will to his sister, that one day they just "struck a pose and turned into mummies" They fit so completely into their roles that they didn't have to live anymore. And that's we're watching, people who became the characters they were playing, finally realizing what they've done. The story is not complicated but it's captivating to watch it happen. In one scene Milan is teaching Manesquier to shoot a pistol and Manesquier, missing badly asks what it takes to shoot well. Not talent, or even practice, Milan tells him, "Nobody knows. Maybe a lack of pity." It's clear that Milan could have had this quality, but he's aging, and for one who repeats that he doesn't ask questions, he begins asking quite a few. Notably, in the same scene, he asks Manesquier about a poem he knows two lines of, which Manesquier fills in "On the Pont Neuf I met/No dog, no stick, no sign/Pity for those in despair/ That the crowd turns aside from." (There's more to it, but that's enough to get the idea started)
The scenes are slow and graceful, dark and muted. The blue tones that begin in the opening carry through and the beautiful melancholy persists to the end. The music at times acts as another character, particularly given Manesquier's love/hate relationship with playing Schumann (he identifies with his "love of failure.")
Thoughtful and full of conversational and visual poetry, it is to me a celebration of the idea that no matter how far we're set down a certain road there could still be time to be more than we thought we were. Patrice Leconte's film manages to capture the best in these two characters, making each of them much more than they ever thought they could be. Maybe if it's too late to change, you can lose gracefully. That should count for something. Man on the Train is a heartfelt meditation on the lives we choose.