To the British, train travel represents expense, frustration and delay, but Patrice Leconte's 'L'Homme du Train' exploits what locomotion has come to symbolise for the rest of the world: a doorway to all kinds of transgressive possibilities, where strangers can meet, the norms of every day life can be left behind.
When bankrobber Milan (Johnny Hallyday) passes through a 'quiet little town' for a job, by chance he meets retired poetry teacher Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), an elderly local who invites him to stay in his empty mansion. Over the next few days, between these two very different types of men - the one a laconic man of action always on the move, the other a garrulous dreamer who has never left his ancestral home - there develops a strange respect. Each has time to kill before their fateful appointments on the following Saturday, and they soon find themselves testing out one another's lives, with Manesquier shooting at bottles, picking fights in bars and getting a crewcut, while Milan smokes a pipe, dresses in slippers and reads books on fine art. What they discover in their brief stay together is that they are in fact fellow travellers, whose lives are ruled by disappointment, and whose different journeys lead inexorably to the same destination.
A film like this entirely depends on the strength of its leads, and fortunately both are equal to the task. Rochefort brings a sense of rebellious mischief to his straight-laced role, conveying precisely the impression of a man who has always secretly wanted to take the first train out of his established life. The real surprise, though, is Johnny Hallyday, best known as the prince of French rock music, who is entirely convincing as a middle-aged criminal who knows his last train is soon due to leave. Hallyday simply exudes sombre cool in a way that would be unimaginable for British counterparts like Cliff Richard, Rod Stewart or Tom Jones.
Despite Hallyday's connections with rock, 'L'Homme du Train' is all about the blues. Leconte's decision to shoot 'L'Homme du Train' entirely through blue filters successfully transforms the postcard setting of provincial France into a far eerier, more elegiac landscape - the perfect stage on which men can play out different models of manhood while they wait for the end. Each man comes to envy the other, even though neither is satisfied with his own lot in life, and both must in the end do (in their different ways) what a man has to do. Like 'Le Samourai' and 'Sonatine' before it, 'L'Homme du Train' uses the genre of the crime film to explore the existential crisis of masculinity, and the conclusion it reaches is a similarly bleak affirmation of the codes of heroism.
Well worth the price of the ticket.