The Man on the Train (L’Homme du train) (2003)

I haven’t lived in the town where I grew up for more than decade. I’ve spent much of that time bouncing around from one city to another, changing jobs, friends, and houses like seasonal clothing. The people I left behind have largely stayed put, building careers, having children, and making money. And every time I go home, I feel a certain wistfulness, a longing for simple, familiar pleasures. It is the life I could have lived and didn’t, the one I never will.

This feeling is at the center of Patrice Leconte’s poignant, and, in some ways startling, L’Homme du Train (Man on the Train). Initially, we meet two men locked into their own fates, but whose dreams slowly take the shape of each other’s lives. Still, they are fated: their choices, and their ultimate outcome, were made long ago. The two are walking in footsteps drawn for them, remaining courageous, or idealistic, enough to believe that things can be different.

Milan (Johnny Hallyday), a career criminal, disembarks from a train in a small French village. He seems out of place immediately: as he walks down the street, storefront after storefront closes with the arrival of night. Trying to buy aspirin at a pharmacy, he meets Mansequier (Jean Rochefort), a retired schoolteacher who bids the stranger to come to his house. (At this point, murder rather than male bonding seems likely; it’s difficult to think of this film’s title without recalling Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.)

Mansequier appears an open book, so eager to impart his life story that he tells Milan almost immediately about pleasuring himself in front of a painting of a woman. Milan, by contrast, is secretive and uncommunicative. His vocation is announced in his bearing and appearance — sharply drawn goatee, black leather jacket.

The veteran director Leconte isn’t bothering, at least at this point, with shades of gray. Rather, these two begin as archetypes, even clichés. Even they get it: Mansequier identifies Milan straightaway as a rogue, a man who plays by his own rules, and moreover, that he has come to town to rob the local bank. To that end, Milan meets up with a small collection of thugs, including the grim, hooded Sadko (Pascal Parmentier), who speaks only one sentence each day, at 10 a.m. (“Revenge is misfortune’s justice” is an example).

As Milan and Mansequier begin to share their lives, they act out small fantasies. Mansequier, who appears to have lived an interior life of action for some time, a sort of gun-toting Walter Mitty, poses in front of a mirror, aping stale cowboy dialogue. Milan, in turn, becomes interested in poetry. As Milan grows increasingly comfortable in his dream, his interest in the robbery dissipates. But… there’s that archetypal code again.

This may be the first film in history in which a man trying on a pair of slippers carries emotional resonance. Man on the Train is about a relationship between two men that is neither sexual nor stereotypical. The usual paradigms aren’t operating. It isn’t teacher-student, coach-player or Maverick-Iceman. The two men will not be lifelong friends. Instead, they are open to one another only at the time they meet. Had their encounter come earlier or later, they would have passed each other without a word.

Rochefort, the veteran French actor who was scheduled to play Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s famously failed project, plays another version of that character here, a milquetoast with a heart of a lion. Hallyday is the former internationally ridiculed French pop music star, once nicknamed the “French Elvis” by people who had never heard Elvis. He has aged into a leathery legitimacy and his performance is as restrained as it is convincing. It is as if Donny Osmond showed up in an American drama acting with an unanticipated and wholly credible weariness, erasing almost entirely his previous bubblegum existence — all this backed by a bluesy, guitar-laced score by Pascal Esteve, to boot.

The DVD release, unfortunately, offers no special features. But perhaps this is a film that would grow worse with greater analysis. Man on the Train is a buddy movie without pyrotechnical action or lessons learned. If this were an American film, it would be pushed as a Mona Lisa Smile, a feel-good festival with really, really deep meaning. But it isn’t a feel-good film. The end, depending on your point of view, is as heart-wrenching as it is uplifting. If you prefer to celebrate the human condition, you might find it even pessimistic in a French, existential kind of way. This slight, rather undramatic film is a beautiful relic of a time in cinema when characters mattered.