L’Homme du Train (The Man on the Train) – rated – HOT! HOT! HOT!

Like Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (Shane Meadows, 2002) this film takes a western theme.  It is much more successful in doing this that Midlands.  Here the theme is more subtlety used, I think, even though both films start out with a stranger coming to a sleepy little town and disturbing the equilibrium of the townsfolk – to the strains of a Western-style score.  In Midlands the theme feels forced, grafted on.  In L’Homme du Train I suspect the theme works because the scenario is so sparse.  The style is part of the substance, whereas in Midlands the story is there and then it seems as though someone has said: “Look, this is just like a Western, so why don’t we give Ricky Tomlinson a guitar and boots and make him a country-and-western nut?”

As the film opens we see the old French rock star Johnny Hallyday, as Milan, whose craggy face speaks volumes about his shady past.  It’s a tour de force performance from Hallyday, who is absolutely believable as the bank robber with one last job to do.  He enters the blue-tinted atmosphere of a small town in late Autumn (Annonay, south of Lyons and west of Grenoble).  Here retired literature professor Monsieur Manesquier (Jean Rochfort) lives in quite seclusion in a crumbling mansion.  Their paths cross in the first few moments of the film and immediately we know they are alter egos. Director Patrice Leconte matches them immediately, and we see this in the way they walk down the street together.

Rochfort is magnificent as the garrulous professor.  Milan teaches him how to drink and shoot and Manesquier teaches him about poetry and how to wear slippers. We know their fate is inter-twined and preordained. Perhaps it is the inevitability of a “showdown” that makes this a far truer western than Midlands could ever be.

What happens unwinds slowly.  There’s not much plot but loads of atmosphere and wonderful dialogue – or should I say monologue, since Milan hardly says a word at first. Slowly a bond grows between the two men, and its one that reaches a metaphysical climax when both men reach their “High Noon” at about 10am on a Saturday morning.

Long-time Leconte collaborator Claude Klotz (himself an elderly man) wrote the screenplay.  It is full of wonderful thoughts.  My favourite is the advice that Milan gives Manesquier: “We get more precious as we get older”.

Leconte and his cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou set up each frame beautifully, and there are some expertly-used dissolves too. The music, by Pascal Estève is wonderful, too. I understand that Leconte’s instructions to him were: Milan = Ry Cooder and Manesquier = Schubert.  The mix works well, with pedal steel guitar chords bending poignantly for Milan, and the classics underscoring Manesquier’s ready-made life.

This is an adult film for literate people: a precious little gem.