Here in this country, we’re familiar with the practice of pinning a crime on a member or members of another race. It’s done to hide one’s own guilt, to make the other race look bad, even to attain celebrity. But leave it to the French to make it all existential.
|The Girl on the Train | Directed By André Téchiné | Written by Téchiné And Odile Barski, based on the play by Jean-Marie Besset | with Émilie Dequenne, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Blanc, Ronit Elkabetz, Mathieu Demy, Nicolas Duvachelle, And Jeremy Quaegebeur | Strand Releasing | French | 105 minutes|
On July 9, 2004, a Parisian woman claimed that she had been assaulted on the RER commuter train by a dark-skinned youth gang. Thinking she was Jewish, she said, they scribbled swastikas on her body. France was already seeing a spike in anti-Semitic crimes, and the French media seized on this one and made it into a sensation, a kind of inverse Dreyfus case. The furor only intensified when it became clear the woman was lying.
Why did she do it? In this fictionalized account of the story, André Téchiné doesn’t have the answer. He has, instead, many questions, and his layered and oblique melodrama ponders, a little too blithely, the roots and repercussions of falsehood and the elusiveness of identity.
Hence the film’s two chapters, titled “Circumstances” and “Consequences.” The first is a tale of two families. Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) is the only child of her domineering, widowed mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve), who reserves her maternal skills for the children she tends to in her home-daycare center. Louise doesn’t have much hope for Jeanne, who seems content to glide mindlessly through life on rollerblades. It’s mom who writes the query letters about jobs her daughter’s not qualified for — among them one as secretary to Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc). He’s a celebrity lawyer known for his crusades against anti-Semitism. He’s also a former suitor whom Louise rejected.
Bleistein’s family is no prize either. His son (Mathieu Demy) hates him — Alex wants his own identity, but he hasn’t been able to achieve it. Alex also hates his ex-wife, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), but he loves his son, Nathan (Jeremy Quaegebeur), who’s spoiled, bored, and lonely. It’s Judith who insists that the family get together — desperately and hypocritically — for Nathan’s bar mitzvah.
Meanwhile, Jeanne has skated into a disastrous relationship, and, moved by seeing a Holocaust program on TV, she plots her silly scheme, becoming like Jeanne d’Arc (i.e., Joan of Arc) a symbol, though short-lived, of Gallic martyrdom. Her chief ploy involves a business card. Is she trying to forge an identity by elaborating a lie? Is she looking for the attention her mother denies her? Is her act a kind of unconscious performance art exposing the workings of propaganda and power? Or has she just watched too much television?
Rather than focusing on the whys and hows of the case, Téchiné explores the margins of these not-quite-intersecting lives. Especially touching is Jeanne’s interlude with young Nathan. The boy sees through her deception at once, but he’s more appreciative than condemnatory. Finding in Nathan a kindred spirit, Jeanne confesses to him that she committed the fraud as a way to obtain love.
Or is she lying about that, also? Perhaps the most prominent characters in the film are the trains themselves. They keep roaring past and taking the camera into dark tunnels, a ubiquitous, vaguely malignant presence. Their fixed rails and timetables are the only certainties, impossible to escape.