Saturday, June 05, 2010

Review - The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER)

The Girl on the Train is based upon a shocking real-life story. A young woman, riding alone on an RER train, was set upon by a gang of thugs who mistook her for a Jew. They ripped her clothes, they cut her hair and her face, and they drew swastikas on her stomach. In a country already simmering with racial tension the incident became a huge story, enraging the nation and drawing the condemnation of President Chirac. Then people discovered it wasn't true. The woman had completely invented the scenario, cutting herself and drawing the swastikas on her own body, and when the truth emerged, the focus shifted from the crime itself to France's complex race relations and the media's sensationalistic coverage of the event. All of which is ripe material for André Téchiné, the French filmmaker whose films have often focused on intriguing personal stories against the backdrop of political unrest.

In adapting Jean-Marie Besset's play, Téchiné – who co-wrote the screenplay with Besset and Odile Barski – has created a fascinating character study, even if the true motives of its central character remain murky. He spends the best part of an hour letting us spend time with Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne), and in that time he drops in a variety of potential reasons why this seemingly ordinary young woman would suddenly decide to cry wolf in such a spectacular way. Jeanne is a woman in her early twenties who seems lost. She begins a relationship with the charismatic Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and her mother (a slightly miscast Catherine Deneuve) sets her up with a job interview at the law firm run by an old friend. But when her relationship with Franck ends in disaster and she is rejected by the influential Jewish lawyer Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), it appears to send her into an emotional tailspin that prompts her outrageous accusation.

Téchiné has always enjoyed fracturing the narrative structure of his films, and he divides The Girl on the Train into two parts, labelled Circumstances and Consequences. The first gives us the opaque causes of Jeanne's behaviour and the second details the fallout, with Téchiné employing the same detached yet energetic approach to both. The Girl on the Train is hardly the director's most fully formed work, there are too undeveloped strands lingering around the edges of the picture that leave us with a clutch of loose ends, and Téchiné's take on the narrative fails to really explore the themes and dilemmas in sufficient depth. Particularly perplexing is the amount of time spent following Bleistein's son and his relationship with his ex-wife, which seems to have little bearing on the main subject. It remains terrifically watchable, though, with the lively editing keeping the film in a compelling state of perpetual motion that's encapsulated by its recurring motif of Jeanne gliding through the streets of Paris on rollerblades, free and without a care in the world.

Such an enigmatic central character is a challenging role for an actress, but Émilie Dequenne's superb performance captures all of the role's complexities – Jeanne's sense of aimlessness, her yearning for attention – while maintaining an intriguing sense of ambiguity in her characterisation. Was there a clear thought process behind Jeanne's folly, or was it simply the irrational act of a frustrated, disaffected youth? Téchiné is drawn to these mysteries of human behaviour and he leaves us plenty of room to speculate on the reasons why, while he focuses on the family's attempts to rectify the situation. In the second half of the picture, Michel Blanc emerges as a figure of calm authority, lending emotional support to Jeanne's mother and patiently drawing a confession out of the misguided girl. In these scenes, Jeanne finally seems to appreciate the full weight of what she has done, but that self-realisation has come far too late. The effects of a single lie can be impossible to contain once they have begun, and The Girl on the Train portrays this inexorable ripple effect with style and intelligence, even if it never reaches the depths that Téchiné is capable of.