The Man on the Train (l’Homme du Train) is a bittersweet fable about two aging strangers whose lives briefly intersect. In this 2002 French film, directed by Patrice Laconte and featuring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday, the grizzled Hallyday doesn’t sing a note. Instead he helps craft a rare gem of a film.
Hallyday plays an enigmatic tough-guy who takes the train deep into the French countryside. The film’s credits call him Milan but his name remains unspoken throughout the film. This French “Man With No Name” is a loner who echoes Hollywood’s Eastwood with his taciturn ways and steely gaze. Suffering from an agonizing headache he heads straight for the local pharmacy when his train arrives in town. There Milan has a fateful encounter with a retired teacher called Manesquier– a genial chap who is waiting for a prescription of his own.
Manesquier is stylishly played by Jean Rochefort, who looks every inch the emblematic Frenchman. He’s an eccentric old bachelor of well-established routines. Manesquier lives alone amid various antiques, in the spacious yet crumbling mansion he once shared with his parents. The sidewalks roll up early Milan’s small town destination and hotels close for the winter. Milan has to accept the kindness of a stranger and uneasily finds himself lodging with Manesquier for a few nights.
Hallyday’s stony menace is a perfect foil for the rueful spark Rochefort creates in his character. Manesquier is happy to have someone to talk to, even someone as reticent as the poker-faced Milan. When Manesquier discovers handguns in Milan’s luggage, he becomes obsessed with his guest’s real purpose in coming to his sleepy town. It turns out that each man is concealing a date with destiny – Milan is about to rob the local bank, one last heist in a string of many, while Manesquier is awaiting the heart surgeon’s scalpel.
Manesquier is entranced by Milan’s criminal side, “My name’s Earp, Wyatt Earp” he plays to the mirror as he furtively tries on Milan’s leather jacket. Milan on the other hand yearns to shed his desperado image and dreams of the comfortable fireside retirement that Manesquier appears to be enjoying. Milan teaches Manesquier how to fire a gun; Manesquier teaches his new friend how to shuffle in a pair of slippers. Learning from each other they gain a degree of satisfaction in their frustrated lives as their individual fates loom.
As Milan cases the local bank and Manesquier mentally prepares himself for triple bypass surgery, each man gets a taste of a road not taken. Manesquier experiments with a trendy haircut telling his startled barber that he wants a cross between an ex-con and a soccer hero. He confronts a ruffian in his local café only to be told he was the man’s favorite teacher. Milan not only acclimatizes himself to slipper wearing, he begins smoking a pipe and substitutes for Manesquier when a young student of the teacher’s needs to review Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet. In a few words Milan tells the pupil not to wait too long to enjoy life.
There is much to enjoy en route to the film’s mystical climax. The Man on the Train is clever movie; amid the informal sophistication that defines French style, it is at once both melancholic and sweetly humorous. The conclusion of The Man on the Train will leave you searching for symbols and clues, but relent and savor the film. You will most likely watch it twice.