The Girl on the Train
Many detours for ‘Girl on the Train’
Flirtation is a big deal in an André Téchiné film. Men flirt with women. Men flirt with men. And Téchiné flirts with frivolity.
His movies unfold along the fine line between giddiness and gravity. War, AIDS, identity politics, breaking the law — they all matter. But his movies — including “Scene of the Crime’’ (1986), “My Favorite Season’’ (1993), “Wild Reeds’’ (1994), “Les Voleurs’’ (1996), and “Changing Times’’ (2004) — insist that love, sex, and connection matter a little more.
It’s usually a persuasive argument, although it’s less convincing in “The Girl on the Train,’’ a movie whose blitheness doesn’t know when to quit. The girl is Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne). She’s 20, lives in the Paris suburbs with her widowed mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve), and it’s obvious just by the carefree way she glides around on her in-line skates that Téchiné will give her plenty to care about 90 or so minutes later. For one thing there’s the fine-featured stranger who skates alongside her by the Seine: He’s a young, ornately tattooed varsity wrestler named Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle). He looks like one of the crooks Jean-Louis Trintignant played in his youth, and he zeroes right in on Jeanne’s bogus aloofness. She can’t resist him, and he knows it.
Jeanne needs a job. Louise suggests applying for work with Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a Paris lawyer devoted to fighting defamation and anti-Semitism and who was an old army buddy of Louise’s husband. The movie jumps between Jeanne’s rather halfhearted job hunt (Franck takes up a lot of her time) and the return of Bleistein’s son, Alex (Mathieu Demy), who’s come home from China to resume squabbling with his ex-wife, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), an Israeli lawyer at Bleistein’s firm, about domestic concerns. Should their son (Jérémie Quaegebeur), for instance, have a bar mitzvah?
Téchiné and his two co-writers, Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Besset, strain to bring the two sides together, the attraction between Jeanne and Franck being far more interesting than everything else. Hearing little from the law firm, she takes a gig with him house-sitting an electronics store for a guy who also supplies drug dealers. Things go wrong, and the movie starts meting out surprises. The scenes in the shop and in the kids’ respective bedrooms have a charge. Téchiné is 67, but young people have always made him feel authentically vital.
In those shots with Dequenne bopping around with Bob Dylan in her headphones, he’s laying it on thick. (She made an impressive debut as the beleaguered trailer teen in the Dardenne brothers’ “Rosetta.’’ Now she’s eye candy.) However, when Jeanne and Franck IM and video-chat each other, it’s hot. Their text flies across the screen until, as the typing turns explicit, it stops. The close-ups do speak for themselves. What they have is so good you almost wish the stuff with the lawyer and his family would just go away. Even after the plot brings the two families together, the relationship feels superfluous.
Things culminate with a hate crime that gives the movie its title. But these characters might be too inscrutable for their behavior to make sense. In, say, “Alice et Martin’’ (2001), very loosely about a forbidden love affair, the sense of caprice was part of the movie’s charm. The characters had somewhere to go. So do the ones in “Girl on the Train,’’ but, uncharacteristically, Téchiné is as interested in getting them there as Jeanne is in getting decent work.
Téchiné is capable of banishing the darker forces begging to take over. In a movie like 2004’s erogenous WWII romp “Strayed,’’ you sometimes wish he’d let them in. But that misconstrues what Téchiné is all about. “Strayed’’ worked on its own terms. It rinsed the war from the foreground but brought a yearning to its surface that refused to be cheap or porny. Few directors could get away with that shift in priorities. This time the shift is incomplete. Jeanne’s skating aptly doubles for the movie’s treatment of some of her more outrageous choices, which, while juicy, would be more psychologically fascinating had she any psychology. Franck is much more believably complex.
Duvauchelle is actually the best thing in the movie. Téchiné likes pert young women but he has much better taste in fiery young men. He trusts the animal that paces around in their psyches. But Franck is only as bad as Jeanne lets him be. The exciting thing about Duvauchelle is that you sense he’s capable of making the character a lot worse.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.