The French government should officially proclaim actor Jean Rochefort a national treasure. A fixture of Gallic cinema for five decades, he is best known to American audiences for his comedic turns in such sex farces as Pardon Mon Affaire and The Closet, and of course his near-miss as Don Quixote, as chronicled in Lost in La Mancha. Tall and angular, with a receding chin, prominent mustache, and crinkly eyes conveying both giddiness and melancholy, the 72-year-old actor excels at playing timid souls. But he imbues them with a sense of such subversive whimsy and such generous amounts of naked feeling that he can make you laugh and break your heart at the same time. Rochefort is at his most ingratiating in Patrice Leconte's Man on the Train (L'Homme du Train), the tale of a decidedly unlikely friendship.
He plays Manesquier, a retired schoolteacher in a small provincial town, who enjoys a quiet life, surrounded by books and music. A bachelor, he lives in the same rambling house he grew up in. Outwardly reserved and unobtrusive, he is actually quite garrulous -- but has few visitors with whom to share his thoughts. He seems to spend most evenings in the living room, piecing together jigsaw puzzles. It is a life at once safe and dull, and Rochefort captures the genteel goofiness of this shy but also slyly mischievous soul to perfection. But Manesquier is not the "man" of the film's title. That honor falls to Milan (French rocker Johnny Hallyday), a career criminal with a weathered face and wary cat eyes that seem almost too small against his other features. Taciturn to the point of terseness, he has the air of a man who has learned never to trust others.
The two men meet when Milan arrives in town by train and seeks a headache remedy at the pharmacy. Manesquier happens to be in the shop and offers Milan first a drink of water at his house and later a bedroom, since the hotel is closed. The two could not be more different in upbringing, outlook, and attitude. Yet, spurred by the more outgoing Manesquier, a friendship slowly develops between the pair, even as the host begins to suspect that his guest is in town to rob the local bank.
Exposed to each other's antithetical worlds, the men begin to imagine how their lives might have been, had they followed a different path. Both actors are marvelous. Milan, a man with fewer options in life and therefore perhaps less imagination, seems actually to be contemplating a different kind of life, while Manesquier is so accustomed to spontaneous flights of fancy that he has a bemused attitude towards them.
Man on the Train is the seventh collaboration between Rochefort and director Leconte, whose films -- which often revolve around chance meetings between strangers -- are simple yet dense tapestries of life, filled with both humor and drama. Man on the Train is no exception.