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Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Le Odd Couple, going through the motions
A lot of filmmakers like to work in a way that could best be called "cast first." That is, they decide who they want to work with, and then fashion a role with that actor in mind. This can pay off, as directors such as Jim Jarmusch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Francois Ozon and Sophia Coppola have proven in recent years.
Theoretically, a tailor-made role allows an actor to play to his strengths, but sometimes it can be too perfect: With no challenges, the actor just coasts. That seems to be the case with director Patrice Leconte's latest, his 20th film, "L'Homme du train."
Rock icon Johnny Halliday -- the "French Elvis" -- had contacted Leconte expressing his desire to appear in a film. Perhaps he was hoping to get dropped into a bordello a la "Rue de plaisirs," Leconte's previous film, but instead the director responded by casting him opposite his favorite leading man, Jean Rochefort ("Monsieur Hire," "Lost in La Mancha"). The result is a minimalist two-hander that puts Rochefort, mousy, retired teacher, bourgeois and talkative vs. Halliday as a rootless bank robber, hard-edged and brusque. It's also a contrast in performance: the quintessential actor vs. the "natural" rocker.
In short, it's "The Odd Couple," en francais, minus the jokes, and with a lot of bittersweet rumination on aging from these two veterans (Rochefort is a sprightly 73, while Halliday is a relatively young 60). To the extent that both these actors have an innate charisma and charm, the film works. But it's also clear that Leconte saw the plot as little more than a contrivance to throw his characters together, and his halfhearted approach to the idea of a story is irksome.
Take the opening, in which these two men meet by chance. Shady Milan (Halliday) arrives by train in a small town in the French Alps. Suffering from a migraine, he goes to a drugstore to buy some aspirin. There he's spied on furtively by the meek Manesquier (Rochefort), who asks Milan if he wants to come by his house for a glass of water for his aspirin.
It's a fairly lazy ruse to bring the characters together in the first place, but worse is how Leconte seems unaware of how this scene plays. The way in which Rochefort eyes the butch Halliday -- with his fringed leather jacket and Bronson mustache -- and picks him up is the epitome of cruising. Maybe Leconte needs to get out more.
Next thing you know, Milan is staying at Manesquier's place, because all the hotels are shut for the off-season. Manesquier, living alone in the comfortable tedium of his departed mother's house, is glad for the company. Displaying the pent-up loneliness of the housebound elderly, he can't stop chatting away while Milan is around to listen. Milan gruffly puts up with it at first, but soon begins to appreciate the qualities of his opposite. Manesquier envies Milan's life of excitement and danger (he tries on his leather jacket and learning to shoot a gun) while Milan ruminates on the comfort of a settled, middle-class life (he tries on Manesquier's slippers and smokes his pipe).
Watching the two men warm to each other, in late night conversations under the stars, is the film's main course. Rochefort, an inherently likable actor, does most of the talking, but his character's vivacious good humor is tempered by the fact that he's facing a heart bypass operation in a few days. Milan maintains an aloof coolness, but gradually opens up, perhaps because he senses his fate in a poorly planned heist that's coming up.
But, beyond these rather overstated contrasts -- emphasized by blue filters and slide guitar for Halliday, yellow filters and Schubert for Rochefort -- there lies only the simple observation that we all long to live another life, one vastly different from our own. For that, we have the movies, and many of them will pull you in further than "L'Homme du train."
Leconte's film is gently moving at times and boasts a couple of well-executed gags, but for the most part, this "Train" is on autopilot.