L'Homme du train
starring Jean Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday, Jean-François Stévenin, Charlie Nelson
screenplay by Claude Klotz
directed by Patrice Leconte
starring Catherine Frot, Vincent Lindon, Rachida Brakni, Line Renaud
written and directed by Coline Serreau
AND NOW... LADIES AND GENTLEMEN...
starring Jeremy Irons, Patricia Kaas, Thierry Lhermitte, Alessandra Martines
screenplay by Claude Lelouch, Pierre Leroux & Pierre Uytterhoeven
directed by Claude Lelouch
starring Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella Soupart, Nassim Hassaïni
written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
by Walter Chaw After a brief period where French cinema seemed exclusively interested in the ugliness and violence festering in its anti-Semitic margins, what with pictures as variegated as Baise-moi, Trouble Every Day, My Wife is an Actress, and indeed, Gasper Noé's sensationalistic Irréversible (which demonstrates a continuing fascination with a tumultuous French cinema in extremis), the old guard begins to reassert itself with its own tales of the underbelly of life displacing the façade of the comfortable upper class. Patrice Leconte's new film Man on the Train (L'Homme du train) is reserved and slight while Chaos by Coline Serreau (who was born the same year as Leconte, as it happens) tries to soften the cruelty of much of modern French cinema by overlaying it with a patina of feminist uplift and misplaced social satire. Films like Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke and Godard's In Praise of Love attempt to draw a line between the nouvelle and the digital age (and Chaos is shot in ugly DV), and pictures like Rivette's wonderful Va Savoir and now Claude Lelouch's And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen... act as surveys and auto-critique of the medium itself. With these three pictures, the meta-critical instinct--something of a hallmark of French culture in general and cinema in particular--finds a new voice in, ironically, its older generation of directors. Somewhat apart from all of that is the Dardenne Brothers' The Son (Le Fils), which is on its own stylistically but looks thematically for common ground in its own tale of obsession and reconciliation.
Leconte is a sort of Gallic Kieslowski, navigating the same allegorical waters of paradox and poetry as the Polish master, mingling the tantalizingly possible with the burden of destiny and the slippery calculus of serendipity. As obsessive a chronicler of obsession as anyone working in modern cinema, Leconte's films have a surprising lightness to them, a certain sense of humour one part gallows, one part farce. Though not nearly so accomplished as his The Widow of St. Pierre nor his obsessive Monsieur Hire (nor, really, his underestimated The Hairdresser's Husband), The Man on the Train is essentially a blue mood on celluloid, capturing the myth of the American western in dual implosions of quiet regret.
Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) is a retired poetry teacher wiling away his last hours in a home he shared with his late mother. While lingering at a pharmacy around closing time one night, he encounters the titular man from a train, Milan (French pop icon Johnny Hallyday), who needs some water for his aspirin and then, after discovering that the only hotel in Manesquier's sleepy town is closed for the season, a place to stay. Over the course of a weekend, the two men embark on a Persona-esque journey of transference and self-discovery, though one ecstatically unburdened by Bergman's terrifying existential gravitas. A moment in which Manesquier dons Milan's leather jacket and plays Wyatt Earp to a mirror is set in wry counterpoint to a moment wherein Milan marvels at the comfort of slippers before deciding to tutor one of Manesquier's young charges on the intricacies of Balzac.
The picture is at its heart as simple as two lonesome men finding in each other the means to a resolution of a lifetime's regret at paths not taken and choices not made. Milan the criminal finds in Manesquier a life of positive sway (the old man tries to start a fight in a crowded café to a surprising, and lovely, end), and Manesquier finds in Milan the cowboy with which France seems to have had a love/hate relationship since the heyday of the nouvelle vague. If it's possible to extend the small questions of Man on the Train to encompass the widening gulf between our two nations, more's the better, but the picture, and Leconte (and screenwriter Claude Klotz, Rochefort and Leconte's collaborator on The Hairdresser's Husband), seem more interested in how sometimes the life is, in fact, greener not for the living, but for the life of the mind.
The collision of the comfortable upper-class stricken by milk-fed malaise and the downtrodden criminal underbelly aspiring for an illusory caste is given a clumsier glance by Serreau's unpleasantly upbeat Chaos. Its tale of a hooker (the singularly frightening Rachida Brakni) with a heart of gold and a sad luck tale who punishes her pimps and the bourgeois pigs who locked their door when she was seeking shelter is given an ugly sheen with its potpourri subplots concerning rape, drug addiction, explicit violence, and slapstick comedy. An unhappy wife in the Adrian Lyne mold (Catherine Frot) gives up everything to sit at the hooker's bedside while the middle portion of the film is given over to an extended flashback that includes a vilification of, of all things, immigrant practices of arranged marriage. Chaos is convenient and hackneyed, every act of unforgivable retribution forgiven by hasty circumstance (though the hooker's unrepentant fleecing of elderly Johns is distasteful no matter the hell she's been through). A Gallic version of The Hours where men are presented as either evil or stupid--most often both--while the women are just different shades of battered heroine, Chaos is a hash of a diatribe, parading its hypocrite champions trading in misanthropy with a puzzling sense of self satisfaction.
A less galling contemplation of the high and the low comes in Claude Lelouch's wonderful And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen..., a movie that functions as something of a survey of Lelouch's own slick crime flicks/romances as well as the whole of Jeremy Irons's career. In its tale of a jewel thief who falls in love with an ill chanteuse, the picture acknowledges that our knowledge of films and the peculiar beings who live in them is based on our cinematic experience and past performances, presenting this Pirandello-esque understanding of this alternate reality with an almost bemused self regard. The appearance of twin doctors recalls Irons's turn in Dead Ringers, a disguise as an old man his performance in Reversal of Fortune, an affair with a younger woman Damage, and the very discussion of parallels between life and screen life The French Lieutenant's Woman. The film itself makes reference to To Catch a Thief and, during one art auction and the nom de guerre "Mr. Hitchcock," North by Northwest.
The picture isn't just homage, however--it's a film near the end of a veteran filmmaker's career that understands what is expected from a film and plays with those expectations in a tango as complicated as it is effortless. French singer Patricia Kaas (like Hallyday in Leconte's film) leaves a strong impression as Irons's erstwhile lover almost more (again like Hallyday, underlining the point) as icon than actor, while Lelouch's screenplay (with Pierre Leroux and Pierre Uytterhoeven) walks a labyrinthine line between fantasy and reality, text and extratext, and finally memory and reality. And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen..., as its title suggests, is as much stage as simulacrum, and one of the finest, most enjoyable, discussions about film since Richard Rush's The Stunt Man.
In similar fashion, brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son is claustrophobic and unsettling, owing in no small part to the brothers' penchant for placing their camera just off the shoulder of their protagonists and to the amazing Olivier Gourmet and Morgan Marinne. The Son dispenses with much in the way of exposition, depending entirely on Gourmet's performance (he spends nearly every second on screen in an obsessive close-medium shot) and, bracingly, on the audience's ability to think, and their knowledge of the mechanics of visual storytelling. It's a pure film, completely unadorned by sentimentality or score, and its greatest achievement isn't the simple morality of its ultimate message, but the beauty of a picture that fixes its themes and its performers in a near-perfect artistic space that breathes life into a sometimes-moribund medium with just the honesty of its craft.
Olivier (Gourmet) the shop teacher opens his door to wayward boys and teaches them a trade; one day, he takes an unusually ferocious interest in young Francis (Marinne). With a lack of very much that is familiar, the Dardenne brothers have put into practice what Lelouch intellectualizes (and Leconte mythologizes, and Serreau trivializes): the reformation of narrative to express old stories (the mentor relationship in Man on the Train, the revenge fantasy of Chaos, the romance of And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen...) in ways not only new, but also aware of the conventions that have made identical narratives in inferior films passé and exhausted. Though the modern French concern with ugliness festering just beneath a carefully varnished outer shell is expressed with something like ferocity in The Son, what lingers is the surprise that something so familiar--even universal in its existential implication--can be, in the end, so exhilarating and enlightening. Originally published: June 6, 2003.