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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Man on the Train is a simple, bittersweet tale about two men, both loners, thrust together into a week-long friendship. The movie’s appeal comes from the serendipitous ways that they complement each other; by the time they have to part, they could easily find fulfillment by trading places.

Lonesome Losers

Hallyday trades blue suede shoes for comfy slippers
Hallyday trades blue suede shoes for comfy slippers

The man on the train gets off as soon as the opening credits finish. He takes a room in this small French town where the hotel is out of business. His host is an old man who will be going in for surgery on Saturday.

Our man from the train is a grizzled drifter, old before his time, face weathered by a lifetime of fast living. (Milan is played by French rocker Johnny Hallyday — think Ozzy Ozbourne but with an air of regret instead of sitcom-flavored ironic detachment.)

His host, Monsieur Manesquier (Jean Rochefort, whom you may recognize from Lost in La Mancha), is lonely and inquisitive, always trying to start a conversation. But Milan is in town for a bank robbery on Saturday and is disinclined to converse with any of the locals, especially someone who hopes to befriend him.

When Milan is out, Manesquier sneaks into his room. He tries on Milan’s leather jacket and fantasizes about being Wyatt Earp, ruling the Old West with his six-shooters. Anything to liven up reality: Manesquier is a retired poetry teacher, living alone in a big, cluttered house.

Eventually Manesquier cracks through Milan’s hard exterior. Maybe it’s the pair of comfortable slippers he gives him. Or maybe it’s that Milan realizes he’d like a long, quiet life in a big cluttered house with one or two pupils to teach poetry to once a week. Whatever it is, Milan begins to open up to Manesquier’s friendship.


There are many connections between the two men. Both are alone, and both are lonely. Both brood about their dates with destiny on Saturday and worry about the things they can’t control. They come to see in each other the qualities that are missing from their own lives. Milan has had too much adventure and not enough stability, and it’s the opposite for Manesquier.

At one point, Manesquier says of his tame and boring life, “I stopped living before I got old.” Those same words might well be the Milan’s epitaph if he doesn’t slow down.

At the end, the connections are drawn even more clearly in a Godfather-like montage: the surgeon pulls up his mask, then the bandits pull up theirs. The film becomes heavyhanded, although at this point it feels more allegorical than coincidental. On reflection, the connections in Man on the Train do seem contrived, but never feel that way during the film.

Soaking in to the Screen

The best thing about the movie is the friendship between the two men, played by two very good actors. If “good actors” is too flattering then use “good evokers” instead. Director Patrice Leconte doesn’t require much action of his actors; instead he gives them time to sit quietly and let them soak in to the screen.

Their sadness is broken by moments of levity. The movie’s sense of humor is quiet and observant. For example, the getaway driver has suffered a head injury, and he says only one sentence a day, at 10:00 AM. “What does he do before that?” “He thinks.” “And after?” “He rests.” Likewise, Manesquier has stopped going to the local baker because she always asks if he wants “anything else?” and it frustrates him. When Milan goes and stands in line, we can see the sparkle in his eye as he tries to figure how to get her not to say the catch phrase.

The worst thing about the film is the bank robbery at the end, which seems too grandiose, too “only-in-the-movies.” Leconte salvages the scene somewhat by trying to infuse meaning into the sequence (and by building to it in the dialogue), but it still feels out of place, like part of a different film.

Even so, most of these criticims come to light only after the movie is over. During the show, I had no complaints because I was too absorbed in the unlikely but sincere friendship between the two men.

If you’re looking for a little more substance and subtlety than most summer blockbusters offer, watch Man on the Train.