Off the beaten tracks

Tangentially interested in Jewish identity and French anti-Semitism, "The Girl on the Train" is more about the mysteries of interpersonal behavior.

February 22, 2010 22:44
3 minute read.
Jeanne is first introduced as a young woman roller

girl on train 311. (photo credit: Screenshot)


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LOS ANGELES - The Girl on the Train is inspired by a much-discussed real event that took place in Paris a few years ago, but don't expect any kind of neo-documentary examination of cause and effect. That's not filmmaker Andre Techine's style, and this is one of his most successful films.

Best known for 1994's The Wild Reeds, Techine has been a director for more than 30 years, and the fluidity of his polished, intelligent, at times enigmatic works make him someone whose films are always worth watching. What caught his interest for Girl on the Train was an incident on a suburban Paris train (the film's translated French title is more site-specific: "The Girl on the RER") when a young woman claimed she was the victim of a vicious anti-Semitic attack.

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As dramatized by screenwriters Techine, Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Besset (who wrote a play about the incident and its aftermath), this film is not a "problem" picture, and it's only tangentially interested in Jewish identity and French anti-Semitism, though it does touch on those issues. Rather Techine, as always, is concerned with the human dynamics of a given situation, with the mysteries of interpersonal behavior. Girl on the Train is focused on the paradoxes and contradictions of how people act, on the drives that make us do what we do and on how often our actions do not add up in any defensible way.

At the center of things is Jeanne, a young woman in her 20s first glimpsed rollerblading through her neighborhood. It's soon clear that for Techine this is not a random choice of diversion: Jeanne is a person who is always moving, always eluding and escaping, someone more comfortable with action than reflection.

AS PLAYED by French-speaking Belgian actress Emilie Dequenne (who debuted in the title role of the Dardenne brothers' Cannes success Rosetta), Jeanne is a beautiful young woman but very much an enigmatic one. Techine can't get enough of showing her in close-up, and the more he does the more we realize that her look is unfathomable, that she has one of those faces into which anything can be read.

Restless, aimless, with no great sense of self, Jeanne still lives at home with her widowed mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve, Techine's favorite actress). Louise runs an at-home day care center, and Jeanne is so uninterested in getting a job that her mother is reduced to trolling the Internet on her behalf, one day turning up an ad from Samuel Bleistein (French veteran Michel Blanc), a prominent Jewish lawyer whom she knew when she was younger.

The dynamics of Bleistein and his family figure in the film as a parallel plot. Besides the lawyer, we meet his angry son Alex (Mathieu Demy, the son of Anges Varda and Jacques Demy), the son's Israeli ex-wife, Judith (top Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz), who works for Bleistein, and their 12-year-old son Nathan (Jeremie Quaegebeur).


While we meet this family, Jeanne gets involved with Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a wrestler with dreams of the Olympics who has the drive, focus and intensity that Jeanne lacks. But Franck also has an edge that is hard to figure, that leads to a series of fraught acts that change everything.

We never find out definitively why Jeanne does what she does, though anything from a kind of personal desperation to a paradoxical need to be loved emerges as a possibility. Of course the specific reason is not what is of interest here. It is as always the intricacies of interpersonal drama that make it impossible to turn away.

(Los Angeles Times/MCT)

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