Milan (Johnny Hallyday) sports a wicked mustache, spiky hair and leather coat, and his milky blue eyes look like they've seen plenty he can't talk about; Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), dressing in tweed and neckties, has the whimsical yet appraising air of a man who's spent a good deal of time living alone and writing poetry. They are in fact so dissimilar that you know immediately Patrice Leconte's The Man on the Train has joined them for a purpose, probably to show they're not so different after all.
But that's only partly correct. Contrived though The Man on the Train might appear, it's also a wry, entertaining and thoughtful poke into human nature, and how we always want what we haven't got, even if we wouldn't know what to do with it anyway.
Manesquier, bored and curious, invites Milan to stay for as long as he wishes in the house inherited from his mother, a curio-filled den with peeling wallpaper and a door the teacher never bothers to lock. Milan has come to meet some old cohorts for a bank job; it's a scheme he of course keeps secret, but the two men grow together nonetheless. When Milan is out, Manesquier tries on his fringed leather jacket and acts out a scene from an old Western; the poet subsequently tutors the outlaw on walking in slippers (one should shuffle, rather than stalking as if across the floor of some jewelry store at midnight).
Yet Leconte and writer Claude Klotz set each protagonist on a trajectory from which he seems unlikely to deviate, a circumstance that feels less like a plot than an elegant dramatization of the film's themes. "I've been living all wrong," Milan murmurs, trying on those slippers. "I stopped living before I got old," Manesquier muses later, though without an unduly large portion of regret. Both men know they can't change the past, and that the future - Milan's bank job, Manesquier's medical exam scheduled the same day - is probably written as well.
A typical shooting strategy for this kind of film - its American cousin is the "buddy movie" - would be to photograph the men separately early on, and later to group them together in the frame. Veteran director Leconte (Ridicule, The Widow of St. Pierre) does just the opposite: He typically frames Milan and Manesquier together from the moment they leave the drugstore, and only later follows them to their separate fates. Rather than uniting them, the film's humor rests in the irreconcilable nature of their worlds. When Manesquier loudly jokes about holding up a bank, his only loot is stares from the customers; Milan's bid at substitute-teaching one of his host's students, meanwhile, is a wonderful bit of comedy. During an argument with his sister, Manesquier wields frankness like a surgeon's knife; sharing dinner with the elderly teacher and his former mistress, the visitor Milan swings it like a truncheon (and misses the mark besides).
On one level, there's something a bit too neat about these setups, no matter how agile the writing and compositions; Leconte also distracts with his unconventional cinematography, apparently an aesthetic choice but one which to me just looks like washed-out colors and smeary resolution (I initially thought the whole thing was shot on video).
But at his best, Leconte's humor is knowing: A scene where Manesquier surprises his scythe-wielding gardener, for instance, is hilariously over-the-top foreshadowing. The casting is nice, too. Hallyday - an experienced actor who's also spent decades as a pop star in France - gives Milan a credible mix of danger and existential rue. As Manesquier, the crafty Rochefort is probably a bit better, though maybe he just gets the best lines. When the elderly poet decides on a modish new haircut, telling his baffled barber "I'm blazing a new trail," Rochefort makes you understand that Manesquier knows his coiffure won't make a damn bit of difference, but that it's still fun to imagine that it might. In French, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., June 6. Manor