The Girl on the Train

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 20, 2010

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Opens Fri., April 23

Empathy, they say, is the cornerstone of art. By that credo, few films have been more “artistic” than The Girl on the Train. Though it doesn’t officially announce it, the latest from André Téchiné (Wild Reeds, Ma Saison Préferée) is inspired by the strange case of Marie-Leonie Leblanc, a young woman who, in 2004, caused a national freakout when she told police she had been verbally and physically assaulted by six Arab youths who mistook her for Jewish. Four days later, she confessed to making it up.

There are many ways Téchiné, along with writers Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Bessett (who had already adapted it into a play), could attack this too-true tale of moral vacuity. They could make like Stuart Gordon’s Stuck, which turned a more horrible story—a woman ran over a man with her car, embedding him in the windshield and let him slowly bleed to death—into hilariously bleak comedy. Instead it goes the opposite direction, searching with great patience for humanity, striving—ultimately in vain—to understand.

The incident itself doesn’t even occur till more than halfway through the film, the first hour showing the events that led to the fantastical accusation. Turns out she had boy problems: a rootless young twentysomething, living with mom (Catherine Deneuve) and half-assed with her job search, Leblanc—renamed Jeanne and played by Émilie Dequenne—got entangled with intense Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle). The need to provide for her drives him into the drug trade, with disastrous results, leaving Jeanne alone, depressed and desperate. (Real life wasn’t so lurid: Leblanc simply wanted more attention from her boyfriend.)

Even with so much preamble, Jeanne’s decision to feign an anti- semitic attack remains vague and nonsensical. Dequenne, best known for her award-devouring, coldblooded turn in the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta, is called on to be bright, bubbly and, eventually, tortured; she doesn’t seem like the kind of one-dimensional monster who would insensitively prey on racial tensions.

But the film is not after The Truth but truth. Its purpose isn’t to answer why Jeanne did what she did but to grant her (plus the other, very well-drawn characters) the gift of complexity. Even so, The Girl on the Train is the same as most Téchiné films: relentlessly absorbing but unfocused in both good ways and bad. His messiness results in under-realized elements, like the occasional cutaways to an upscale Jewish family that serve as a too loose counterpoint to the main plot. But it also produces moments and ideas that couldn’t be found any other way.

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