[box cover]

Man on the Train

Patrice Leconte is locked in. Churning out films at a rate of a little more than one a year since 1998, the respected French filmmaker, always one for brevity, has developed an expert talent for paring his narratives down to the absolute essential, resulting in an impressive succession of perfect little slivers of films. Man on the Train (2002) is easily the best of these cinematic singles — there isn't a wasted frame or gesture, not an ounce of fat on its slender body. And yet, for all of its astonishing exactitude, it is a thoroughly underwhelming experience. The too-neat story has aging thief Milan (played by the fossilized remains of ex-punk rocker Johnny Hallyday) arriving in a quiet French village where he will spearhead a bank heist with a rag-tag group of accomplices. Having difficulty finding a place to stay, Milan is put up by Manesquier (the man who would be Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort), a lonely, retired poetry teacher. Manesquier is immediately taken with his new tenant, who represents the peripatetic lifestyle of the rogue that is the thrilling, romanticized opposite of his dull, scholarly existence. Meanwhile, as Milan spends more time in the company of his gracious, if harmlessly nosy, host, he warms to the idle rhythms of Manesquier's life. Previously a man of solitary purpose, he has suddenly been introduced to the sustaining pleasures of introspection, and, with each passing day, the prolonged exposure dampens his already waning enthusiasm for his illegitimate profession. As each man lives vicariously through the other, the film attains a gentle melancholia that is deepened by their realization that they are too long in the tooth to trade places. This is particularly true in the case of Manesquier, who will be undergoing a complicated medical procedure on (in a case of thematic convenience) the same day as Milan's heist. But while he won't be able to take part in the job, Milan touchingly gives the straight-laced old man a taste of the scoundrel's life by teaching him how to fire a pistol. It's a shopworn scene from a thousand other films, but it still works thanks to the smart underplaying of both actors. Rochefort is, of course, brilliant throughout, but it's Hallyday who gives the picture its whimsically tragic center with his deliberate manner and compellingly craggy visage. If Leconte had been a bit less obvious with his intent, and a little more expansive in his execution, the film might've had a chance to make a genuine impact. But he's too in love with the precision of his storytelling to notice that, in being brief, he's also being terribly predictable. There's also a sense that the full force of his imagination has been spent on terseness — the film's main bit of symbolism, Manesquier piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of Monument Valley, is groaningly obvious. Did Leconte feel he was being too understated by showing the old man donning Milan's jacket and playing Wyatt Earp in the mirror? One hopes that this undeniably talented filmmaker gets out of the batting cage soon and starts taking game time-cuts like he did with his immensely satisfying The Widow of St. Pierre — which, coincidentally, was the last time he dared to breach the 90-minute barrier. Paramount presents Man on the Train in a fine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. No extras, keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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