Saturday, June 12, 2010

Scandal Minus Sensationalism: The Girl on the Train

A few months ago, I panned The Headless Woman, a quiet, compact foreign film about a woman, her psychology, and a crime that might or might not have happened. Today I'm here to praise The Girl on the Train, a film with a similar concept, but superior execution. This 2009 French production may derive from a 2004 scandal but, director, André Téchiné, has produced neither a Law and Order, "ripped from the headlines" entertainment nor an over-earnest issue picture. The Girl on the Train may tell us something about the ills of modern French society, but it's far more eloquent about individual problems.

Jeanne Fabre (Émilie Dequenne) lives in a Parisian suburb with her mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve). For all her efforts – hours pounding pavement, enduring interviews, and scouring job listings – she can't find a job. She cuts an appealing figure with her roller blades, headphones, and casual clothes, but Jeanne's not a terribly happy girl. Nor is she very smart. When she's with her shady wrestler boyfriend, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), she tells obvious lies, but manages to avoid noticing her beau's sideline in drugs. An hour into the film, Jeanne tells the police – and through them, the whole of France – a very big lie.

After Jeanne fibs her way into the national consciousness, one of the film's main subplots almost entirely vanishes. For the first fifty minutes, the film seems to be about Jeanne's relationship with Franck. The surprising end of the relationship appears to be a major catalyst for Jeanne's breakdown, but Franck is almost entirely absent in the film's second part. He has perhaps forty-five seconds of screen time. Those forty-five seconds are very affecting, but I can't help but wish The Girl on the Train had a slightly more elegant structure.

Though the movie's story belongs to Jeanne, The Girl on the Train devotes a fair portion of its running time to lawyer, Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), and his family. Though Blanc is a fine actor, the film's portrayal of Bleistein's dysfunctional family never quite convinces. Bleistein's indefatigable assistant, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), is his son's ex-wife. Said son has an awful beard and a gruff manner; he's touchy, funny, irresponsible, and hard to accept as Judith's lover. Bleistein's thirteen-year-old grandson, Nathan (Jérémie Quaegebeur), alternates between callow and preternaturally wise; Quaegebeur acquits himself well, however, and surpasses the script's inconsistencies.

Midway through the film, The Girl on the Train tells us that Jeanne's claims have shocked the country and frenzied the media. Where a lesser film might give us shots of rallies, protests, and policemen, this one remains focused on the characters, not the crowds. If anything, the film becomes more sedate in its second act, which moves from Paris and the suburbs to Bleistein's country estate. If the manner of Jeanne's final epiphany feels slightly forced, we never doubt that she would eventually own up to her deception. Her "composition" of her apology/confession is an effective scene, as is her bleakly minimal entrance into a jail cell, though I'm not sure about Téchiné's decision to intercut the latter scene with Nathan's Bar Mitzvah.

Some might complain that The Girl on the Train is too oblique; we hear, but never see, Jeanne's false accusation and the director neglects to film several potentially dramatic scenes. I, however, was much taken with the movie's preference for psychology over spectacle and its way of showing the political as personal. Jeanne might seem to represent a nationwide "pathology," but we never forget that her problems, in the end, are her own. Téchiné never overreaches with grand statements or sententious proclamations. He lets the story speak and leaves interpretation to the audience.

Throughout this review, I've tried to avoid mentioning what exactly Jeanne lies about – what exactly (didn't) happen(ed) to "the girl on the train." Perhaps my reticence is unnecessary; anyone in the movie's French audience would know what to expect from Jeanne's quixotic crime. There's a fair deal of foreshadowing throughout the film's first hour, but I prefer not to divulge the movie's (open) secret. In my mind, the film becomes more interesting if you don't know quite what to expect. Even if one does have a general idea of the plot, Jeanne's crime, and her incompetence in staging it, remain stunning.

The Girl on the Train is neither a great nor an ambitious film; it is well-made, well-acted, and thought-provoking. It stands on the line between art house and popular cinema, and should please partisans of both styles.

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