Man on the Train (review)

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What is it about the human psyche that never allows us to be happy with our lives, that keeps us constantly reassessing the choices we’ve made and envying those who took other roads? There’s probably no real answer to that, but here director Patrice Leconte and writer Claude Klotz offer a piquant and poignantly humorous exploration of the conundrum. Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) is the picture of placid homebody-ness: a retired poetry teacher, he lives alone in a rambling, musty house in the French countryside, and his biggest irritation is that the girl in the boulangerie in town never trusts that he really only wants the single baguette he requests. Milan (Johnny Hallyday) is clearly a rogue from the moment we first see him, arriving in town by train: his beaten-up leather jacket alone would scream Danger! even if his beaten-down face did not, and it soon becomes clear that he’s visiting to case the local bank for a robbery. The unlikely acquaintanceship the two strike up out of convenience — the only hotel in the village is closed, so Manesquier offers Milan a place to stay — slowly gives way to a genuine curiosity about the appeal of each other’s lives. But the moments of tenderness — as when Manesquier introduces Milan to the comfortable concept of slippers, but also, surprisingly, when Milan introduces Manesquier to the uncomfortable concept of killing another human being — belie the inevitable conclusion: that the grass isn’t always greener over there. Riveting but unsettling, this is a mystery of the human spirit we can all see a bit of ourselves in.

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