My stout Francophobia dates from a trip to the country two decades ago in which I tried desperately hard to speak la langue maternelle and was openly mocked. One Parisian, a hotel proprietor, actually assembled his staff to hear me ask directions: I was the comic highlight of their day. As Americans have piled on France in the last six months, though, I’ve begun to feel some sympathy for my old Frog antagonists and to search for ways in which their hostility toward Americans reflects a more complicated attitude about U.S. culture than that of, say, the English. My latest piece of evidence is Patrice Leconte’s haunting tone poem Man on the Train (Paramount Classics), which is quintessentially (in places, ludicrously) French yet is suffused with a tender Yank envy.
There are no Americans in the movie, mind you. But there is the next best thing: a French rock icon called Johnny Hallyday, whose look is American greaser cowboy. (And no one would ever think to call him “Jean.”) Hallyday, a startlingly expressive non-actor, plays Milan, a wandering 50-ish bank robber in the process of casing a dull French village. While searching vainly for migraine medicine at the understocked pharmacy, he meets Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a lonely old ex-mama’s boy who invites Milan to stay at his gabled manse on the outskirts of town.
What happens next is droll, melancholy, inexorable: Each man recognizes in the other the road not taken. Manesquier, who has lived all his life in that house, dreams of being the roving l’homme du train: He surreptitiously dons Milan’s fringed black leather jacket and announces (in English), “I am Wyatt Earp!” Milan covets Manesquier’s bedroom slippers and briefly fills in for the old man when a student happens by for a tutorial on Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet—about a true woman who waits forever for a foppish lover to return. As the two men spend time together—they get drunk, tell stories, sit on the terrace under the stars—they come to realize that they’ve each “struck a pose and become mummies.”
The director supplies a couple of mysterious transitions, in which people materialize and de-materialize. He wants us to think: La vie, s’évaporer. He also holds fast—in that indelible French way—to the idea that each man’s destiny is fixed: Manesquier and Milan can do little but go to their respective fates with their heads held high. The parallel-lines climax is too, too French and, frankly, borderline idiotic. But Leconte redeems himself with a mystical denouement: a flight of empathy that ends the movie on a note of shimmering transcendence.
Man on the Train is a slender thing, with a perversely undernourished color scheme: grainy blue exteriors and old-time sepia interiors. The fullness comes from the faces of its two protagonists. Rochefort is almost laughably Gallic. He’s the perfect emblematic Frenchman: pinched and faintly peevish, but with stars in his eyes. Hallyday, with his cold blue eyes, is even more transfixing: Think Johnny Cash with liberal dashes of James Dean and Chet Baker. His face is eerily (surgically?) smooth and yet ravaged; it suggests a death mask. It also suggests that the French are deeply attracted to the cowboy individualist—even if that’s not a part of their national character, even if that way lies oblivion. Given this image of Americans, it must be crushing to them when we open our mouths and mangle their language. Maybe they sneer to hide their broken hearts.