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    The Man on the Train

    Johnny be good

    French pop icon Johnny Hallyday is the biggest revelation as a crook with a huge presence in "The Man on the Train."


    As usual, something completely different from director Patrice Leconte: this time, a bittersweet meditation on the possibilities of chance and change.

    Original title: L'Homme du Train.
    Directed by: Patrice Leconte.
    Written by: Claude Klotz.
    Cast: Jean Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday, Charlie Nelson, Pascal Parmentier, Jean-Fran¨ois Stˇvenin, Isabelle Petit-Jacques.
    In French with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site | French site
    Since he began his directing career in 1975, American audiences have only seen a handful of Patrice Leconte's 24 films. And it wasn't until his tenth — the haunting "M. Hire" in 1989 — that we really began to take notice. But none of his previous comedies, romances and policiers prepared audiences for the wit of "Ridicule" ('96); the luminous black and white fantasy of "Girl on the Bridge" ('99) or the heroic solemnity of "The Widow of St. Pierre" ('00). Leconte, a true original, never repeats himself and if there is any thread connecting his disparate filmography, it's how chance encounters change lives, coupled with his delicious sense of irony.

    Nowhere is that more clearly the case than "The Man on The Train," a rumination on lives lived in antithetical worlds, colliding for a moment. To embody his extreme opposites, Leconte employs the always delightful Jean Rochefort (recovered from his recent "Lost in La Mancha" illness) to play Manesquier, the epitome of a male old-maid schoolteacher still living in the house he shared all his life with his maman. (This is Rochefort's seventh effort with Leconte, having also appeared in the director's first film, 28 years ago.)

    The Man on the Train  
    But it's singer Johnny Hallyday — a French pop icon from the '60s, known as the French Elvis — who is a revelation as Milan, the eponymous man of the title. Milan arrives in Manesquier's little provincial town like a Clint Eastwood character in a Serge Leone spaghetti Western. He's even accompanied by a Ry Cooder theme as he walks from the train. Manesquier's theme is from Schubert and their music, as much as the script, separates and defines the two characters.

    Milan has come to rob the bank and Manesquier is about to have a heart operation. Their chance meeting takes place in a pharmacy where Milan seeks aspirin and Manesquier provides not only the pain killer, but a place to stay and a window into a life Milan never even realized he might want. Each man has lived too long in his own world and sees the other's life as a road not taken. For a scant three days the two form a bond, through halting conversations and the trying on of each other's clothing — for Milan it's his first pair of houseslippers; for Manesquier it's Milan's fringed leather jacket.

    We see each man in his own world as Manesquier teaches poetry to a bored young boy while Milan plans his robbery with a couple of thugs. But it's when they're together at Manesquier's home or having a drink at a local bistro that the director shows us, with wry humor, how this unlikely pair come to care for each other in deep and touching ways. The film is a gem as much for what it doesn't do as for what it does — this is no mere "Trading Places" scenario like Donald Cammell's "Performance," especially since the criminal and the rock star here are already one and the same. Fraught with drama, Leconte's human comedy is really about dreaming the "possible," rather than the impossible dream.

    MAY 16, 2003

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