Man on the Train begins with a headache and ends with more than one failure of heart. Suffering from a migraine as he arrives alone in a town on the edge of the French Alps, Milan seeks
Jean Rochefort (as Manesquier, left) and director Patrice Leconte (right) in Man on the Train.
relief in a pharmacy. A stranger he encounters offers him a glass of water to quaff down his aspirins and, because the local hotel is closed for November, a threadbare room in a tumbledown chateau in which to rest his aching head. The host, a retired teacher of French literature named Manesquier, can put him up only until Saturday, when he is scheduled to undergo triple bypass surgery. On Saturday Milan has his own business to attend to. He has come to town to rob a bank.

Manesquier's ramshackle villa is cluttered with fin-de-siecle bric-a-brac, and, as played by sad-eyed Jean Rochefort, he himself is a tattered, fusty relic who spends his days doing jigsaw puzzles, reciting poetry, and tapping out sonatas on an old piano. "I like Schumann," he tells Milan. "He appeals to my love of failure."

Milan, a former circus stuntman, is a failure of a very different sort. As played by antiquated French singing idol Johnny Halliday, Milan is explicitly modeled after aging Hollywood gunslingers. When he first shows his craggy, Clint-Eastwoody face in town, stepping off the train with three guns in his satchel, it feels like the beginning of a croissant Western. Likening the laconic newcomer to Marshal Wyatt Earp, Manesquier likes what he sees. And from exasperation to bemusement to empathy, Milan slowly bonds with the quaint host who offers, in vain, to give him enough money to forgo his planned assault on the local bank. Man on a Train is the story of how men make their accommodations with solitude and with each other. Women - Manesquier's dead mother, his sister, his mistress, the clerk in a bakery - are at most distractions from the bullet train.

A man of few amenities, Milan borrows Manesquier's slippers. When a private pupil shows up for a lesson while the old master is not at home, Milan even fills in, explaining how to explicate a Balzac novel he has clearly never read. Milan's presence emboldens Manesquier. He has his hair cut in a brash new style, and he even dreams of robbing banks. Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train is built on the principle of crisscross; two men will each commit the crime the other dreams of doing. The crisscross

Dir. Patrice Leconte; writ. Claude Klotz; feat. Jean Rochefort, Johnny Halliday, Charlie Nelson, Pascal Parmentier, Jean-François Stévenin (R)
in Man on the Train is an unlikely transfer of personality; within just a few days, the thug Milan inspires Manesquier, while bookish Manesquier rubs off on Milan.

Except for the clacking of wheels on railroad tracks, Train opens with a long sequence devoid of sound. Milan is a man of few words, and Sadko (Parmentier), one of the three accomplices he is planning to rob the bank with, is a man of even fewer. Ever since his wife left him seven years ago, Sadko has been uttering only one sentence per day, at 10 a.m. Though Manesquier is prone to chatter away and recite long passages of traditional poetry, he admits: "I always wanted to be a silent onlooker." He accuses the sister who helps prepare him for his hospital stay of a lifelong failure to use words honestly. "We've never said what we thought," he complains. Man on the Train is an exquisite silent film that happens to have a soundtrack. Primarily through the body language of a cast of expert actors, it manages to convey a rich sense of the possibilities in provincial lives that have been sidetracked. •


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