by Richard von Busack
It's not clear what holds the new André Téchiné film together besides craft and velocity. The Girl On the Train is about a pretty, shallow young girl and the national scandal she causes, and is based on a true story along the lines of the Ashley Todd incident. A girl goes to the police after being manhandled on a commuter train by a group of Jew haters. Upon investigation, the incident turns out to be not what it seemed initially.
In this fictionalized version, based on a play, Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne of Rosetta) is the careless daughter of a single mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve). Jeanne’s father, a soldier with the peacekeeping forces, was killed in Afghanistan. Louise is working a day-care facility out of their suburban home. She has made a tense peace with her daughter’s limitations, her lack of ambitions.
Jeanne gets involved with a fascinating but untrustworthy student named Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a tattooed wrestler with Olympic hopes.
Watching Franck assert himself at a mother/daughter lunch—he orders cognac and a cigar to show what a big man he is—one asks: What’s worse, a person who can’t get to the comfortable, joking level or a person who pretends to be able to do it?
Franck takes a dodgy job as a watchman at a small electronics firm. Jeanne moves in, and then serious legal trouble follows. The trouble calls forth a beautiful mind in a homely body, M. Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a renowned Jewish civil rights lawyer.
In his army days, Bleistein had known Louise and had a mad crush on her. This was when, Louise says, “He wasn’t bald, and he didn’t have glasses.” Now Bleistein is a wealthy widower, who watches the power struggle over his wise, precocious grandson conducted by the boy’s estranged parents.
The film’s primary motif is the speed of trains.Téchiné tracks the sensuality of Jeanne as she races through the bike paths or along the Seine on roller blades, red hair flying: an embodiment of youth and summer heat. When Jeanne is racing—listening to a favorite song on her MP3 player, Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lady”—she’s most herself. She’s skating when she encounters Franck, passing him on the trail; for a time, she has found a mate who can keep up with her.
The speed of the courtship is remarkable. Téchiné is in his 60s, but he has a velocity that shames directors in their 20s. It’s not that The Girl on the Train isn’t consistently interesting or beautiful to look at. Téchiné’s evocations of man/woman needs stress physical magnetism but never exploit it. Deneuve’s elegant cold shoulders are national monuments worth revisiting. She knows how to make withholding look like a fine art.
Téchiné explores a generation gap: two ways of seeing the way the world works. Like Louis Malle, Téchiné comes down in favor of the instantaneous, breathless approach to life. The second half, ultimately, loses this urgency, even with provocative cutting: Jeanne’s initiation into a prison cell jumps to a boy’s initiation into the imprisonment of manhood via a bar mitzvah. Whether you accept it or not, that equivalency is arguable; it’s just that it doesn’t scan at the time of viewing. The Girl on the Train lets its central mystery skate away.