Combine the elegiac Sam Peckinpah of The Wild Bunch and the fatalistic Jean-Pierre Melville of Le Samourai or Le Flic and the result might well be The Man on the Train (L’Homme du train), director Patrice Leconte’s 20th film. Hard-man loner Milan (a taut, impassive Johnny Hallyday) arrives at dusk in an anonymous, provincial town in eastern France. A chance encounter on the street with retired French literature teacher, Manesquier (a deceptively lugubrious Jean Rochefort, one of Leconte’s favorite actors), provides Milan with a temporary refuge when the apathetic town, neatly symbolized by its empty-faced pharmacist, its shuttered hotel and silent streets, retreats from the unknown that Milan represents. It’s a classic Western moment, given new life by Leconte.
In many ways, this film achieves yet another consummation of intellectual France’s romance with the twin poles of American popular culture, the Western and what the French call the policiér, which aimed to bring to French audiences the best of the “hard-boiled” American school of popular literature after World War II. The opening, as several French critics observed, recalls the ominous beginnings of many fifties and sixties westerns, when the dangerous stranger rides into town and nothing is ever the same again.
On a larger, structural level Leconte accentuates the homoerotic elements of male friendship reminiscent of both genres, allowing the soft, domestic life of Manesquier (usually the domain of the “good” female in both western and film noir) to tempt Milan, albeit momentarily, from his goal.
Although precise, old-fashioned, solitary and even pedantic, Manesquier has lost neither a child’s curiosity nor an artist’s capacity to dream. He romantically casts Milan as the mythic outsider with a misbegotten past, and revels in their enforced intimacy, all the more precious for being so transitory. On Saturday, three days hence, Milan must leave, and Manesquier himself must undergo by-pass surgery. Manesquier contemplates the surgery fatalistically, unsure about his survival, and he quickly discerns that Milan, underneath his taciturn self-possession, will also risk death on that day. Manesquier’s unabashed delight when he discovers that Milan is planning to rob the local bank marks one of the high points of the film.
Like Leconte’s other characters, Milan and Manesquier are friable human beings, despite their hard demeanors. In The Man on the Train Leconte uses the interplay between Manesquier and Milan to drive audiences to face up to the dichotomy between how we perceive ourselves and how others see us. Each man sees the other’s life as an escape and the insight of this film is that each recognizes that escape as entirely illusory/unattainable. In a sense, the “trying on” of another’s life allow both to savor, for perhaps the last time, the sweetness of their own lives. Through his generosity of spirit in particular, Manesquier offers Milan not only physical shelter, but psychological respite as well. In doing so, he transcends his own routine of books, tutoring, and memories to glimpse, momentarily, images of a life he might have lived had he, like Milan, one day climbed on a train and descended, hours or days later, into the unknown.
When Manesquier shrugs on the absent Milan’s leather jacket and turns to a mirror we get a chance to see this life as he fantasizes it. He mimics not the tough guy one expects from his adulation of Milan, but an American Western legend. Poised before a speckled mirror, Manesquier transforms himself into a lugubrious Wyatt Earp. He delivers the barroom dialogue, complete with swigs of bourbon and quick-draw reflexes, of a hundred B-movie Westerns. Here Manesquier’s pleasure is all the more intense for its very insubstantiality. His performance in the bedroom mirror is more “real” (and successful) than the one that takes place out on the streets.
Full of confidence at being part of a “team of two,” Manesquier tells two louts, who are accosting customers in the restaurant where he has eaten lunch for thirty years, to shut up. Instead of the verbal abuse or the punch he expects, one of the two begins to recite poetry, still touched by the teacher who introduced him to literature. In American hands, the casual poetry of this moment would have been overwhelmed by Significance; the importance of Manesquier’s character, occupation, influence, etc. In Kotz and Leconte’s hands, Manesquier is wryly piqued that he has not provoked the elemental punch-up he imagined in the mirror.
The same retreat from over-loading the moment infuses Milan’s fantasy relationship to Manesquier’s life. On the second evening of their acquaintance, Milan abruptly asks to try on one of Manesquier’s slippers, something he has never owned. As the prudent older man produces a boxed pair of virgin slippers (this character would always have a pair of reserve slippers), and Milan eases his broad foot into them, sentimentality hovers threateningly in the air. But Leconte displays perhaps his greatest gift as a director, his willingness to withhold the sympathetic gestures so many audiences crave and let his characters prickle, chafe and ultimately realize their own failures.
Manesquier sharply criticizes the crispness of Milan’s walking in the slippers, and urges him to adopt a more slovenly, all-the-time-in-the-world dragging of the feet. In Milan’s slight smile is a fundamentally practical recognition that while dressing up is entertaining, only fully becoming the other man would suffice. And neither man has the time to become anything but a more self-aware, more vulnerable incarnation of himself, faced as both are by questions of their own mortality. Yet that, too, has its pleasures. For 24 hours, at least, Milan can inhabit, as he says, the skin of the man of planning (the kind of man who buys two loaves of bread on the assumption that he will be alive and in the same place tomorrow to eat the second loaf) instead of always occupying the skin of the man of action.