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The Girl on the Train (André Téchiné, 2009)

      Prompted by, if not directly based upon, real life events, André Téchiné’s exciting new film The Girl on the Train traces the build-up to and fallout from a claim of anti-Semitic violence in modern-day Paris. This ensemble piece presents, first and foremost, a collection of indomitable wills. The imposing cast includes the grand dame of French cinema Catherine Deneuve, the scarily intense Ronit Elkabetz, aggressive wrestler Nicolas Duvauchelle (in what should be a star-making performance), and bull-headed Rosetta herself Emilie Dequenne, playing the titular role of Alice. Each of these characters is firmly defined. Collectively, they reinforce the notion that every community is created through a gathering of viewpoints, some of them poised fundamentally in opposition to one another.


     This tension, which manifests itself less through direct confrontation than a series of passive-aggressive actions, lends the movie’s vision of Paris an energy that lesser, less nuanced urban studies like Crash could never hope to achieve. The presence of a wide swath of Parisian demographics ensures that The Girl on the Train is not undone by its vapid central character. Using an approach that vaguely recalls the one that Van Sant employed in To Die For Téchiné tries to get inside a media phenomenon through an examination of private moments. Half of his narrative takes place before the alleged attack even occurs, hinting that the incident itself is not of especial significance to the director. Instead, time is spent detailing the heroine’s dawning realization of racial difference, as well as her increasing desire to be loved by what see perceives as an uncaring world.


     Strapped in roller skates, and usually donning a pair of headphones, Alice is rather blissful in her self-absorption. When she accuses her attackers, she doesn’t consider the ramifications of her actions on individuals or society, but the director certainly does. Téchiné underscores the fact that no one who knows Alice personally buys her story for a second, yet implicitly criticizes the media and government for believing her. Her ordeal is offered up to the public as a sign of deep discord in French society, but it’s difficult to tell if his critique extends to the human rights groups and populace who rally behind her, which is problematic. The film’s focus on the macrocosm this story operates within expands it immensely, yet the director never loses sight of intimate details.


     There are some stunning sequences in The Girl on the Train, to be sure. A meet cute takes place via internet videoconferencing, and the accompanying lap dissolves, digital artifacts and low lighting seems to herald the arrival of a new kind of virtual screen intimacy. Another edit, which overlays a character’s reaction shot with a bloody smear, is remarkably intense, and feels almost as shocking as the violence that initially created the stain. A third-act crisis, set on a lake, sees the color desaturated to the point where Laughton’s Night of the Hunter seems to have replaced Téchiné’s movie. Throughout it all, the noise of modern Paris is ever-present. Whether it’s due to the clamor of a passing train, the clacking of the would-be heroine’s skates, or the slamming of doors, the reality that this drama unfolds in a shared space is always evident.


     Where Téchiné fails is in bringing the disparate elements of his story together. Although his film includes cast members of various ages, ethnicities, and social strata, the script doesn’t adequately make all of their concerns equally exciting. It’s not just due to the imbalance in screen time that his middle-class protagonists are the focus of our attentions. It’s because his wealthy characters have no especially pressing concerns in comparison. This class inequity certainly might be part of what Téchiné hopes to convey, but it makes for lopsided drama nonetheless.


     The Girl on the Train is so thematically sprawling that it becomes difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is supposed to add up to (beyond a recrimination of the media and system, at least). At the same time, it never feels underdeveloped in its ambiguities. What results is an irreducible and complex portrait of the drama that is modern life. Téchiné, much to his credit, has transformed here a thoughtless action into something that is capable of making the mind reel with implication.



Jeremy Heilman