On Movies: Thought-provoking ride with 'Girl on the Train'
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2010 - In July of 2004, a young woman named Marie-Leonie Leblanc walked into a police station in suburban Paris with her clothing slashed, small cuts on her face and swastikas scrawled on her torso. She claimed she had been attacked on the subway by a group of Arabs and blacks yelling anti-Semitic insults.
Despite the fact that there were strong reasons to doubt the story -- Marie-Leonie was not Jewish, and there were apparently no other witnesses on a busy subway -- an international furor ensued. The president of France was inspired to call for a campaign to purge the nation of antagonism toward Jews and the prime minister of Israel urged French Jews to move to Israel for their own safety.
Four days later, Marie-Leonie retracted the story, saying she had inflicted the cuts and drawn the swastikas herself. Why?
"I wanted people to pay attention to me," she said.
The incident provoked veteran French filmmaker Andre Techine to make "The Girl on the Train," a moody, emotionally subtle, narratively complex character study. Thankfully, it avoids the preachiness, political bombast and over-simplification the story almost invites. In fact, anti-Semitism and hatred of people of African and Arabic descent are both widespread in contemporary France, among other places, and Techine makes sure the viewer knows that. But he is mainly interested in the people involved, and in particular in the young woman at the center of the story. The movie is not so much a dramatization of a highly publicized incident and the misplaced outrage it provoked as it is a character-rich, dramatically strong meditation on alienation in modern society.
Emilie Dequenne is superb as the central character, Jeanne, a young adult who seems to be lingering in late adolescence. She lives at home with her single mother (Catherine Deneuve), and is sort of looking for a job as a secretary, but seems to spend most of her time aimlessly rollerblading. She doesn't take anything very seriously. She meets a fellow skater, an amateur wrestler who is devilishly good-looking and pursues her in a suspiciously calculating way. You can just tell that this muscular lad is going to break Jeanne's heart, at the least.
In the meantime, we have been introduced to a second narrative, a narrative that will eventually intersect with the story of Jeanne. A Jewish lawyer named Bleistein (Michel Leblanc), known for fighting anti-Semitism, is preparing for his grandson's bar mitzvah. Bleistein, his grandson and the boy's divorced parents bicker about whether a bar mitzvah has any relevance in 21st century France, but there seems little doubt that it will take place. There is some sense that the bar mitzvah and Judaism represent a moral tradition that, if nothing else, gives the grandson something solid to push against as he matures. Jeanne has nothing comparable in her life. But Techine does not overstress this theme. As with earlier features like "Scene of the Crime" and "Les Voleurs," he focuses on the actions of human beings, not grand metaphors.
Jeanne's mother knew Bleistein years before, and she arranges for Jeanne to have an interview for an opening in his law office. In a beautifully realized scene, Jeanne blows the interview, coming across like a total airhead. That she may be, although the problem is not so much the nature of her head as what is and isn't in it. She watches a television documentary on the Holocaust with tears in her eyes, as if it were news. When she hits an emotional crisis, the things in her head lead her into a drastically over-simplified version of Bleistein's crusade against anti-Semitism.
The faked attack comes halfway through the movie, and afterward the narratives of the two families come together in a beautiful - and, it turns out, potentially dangerous - spot in rural France. In the end, Jeanne seems to have acquired some sense that acts have consequences and that lies can easily come back to haunt the liar.
Opens Friday, April 30
Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.