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CIFF 2009: “The Girl on the Train” (André Téchiné, France)

The Girl on the Train: a title like a "missed connections" posting. And the girl (Émilie Dequenne) really is lovely. She's got hair like Solveig Dommartin and a tiny tattoo on her left shoulder blade. She looks determined and goofy with her roller blades. You see her on the opposite end of a train car, or maybe holding on to the handrail, and you'd try to hide your glances, maybe making eye contact in a turn of the head. From a few rows away (a train's or a movie theater's), she inspires ordinary domestic fantasy: how the curls in her hair would turn gray one at a time over the years, how you'd tease her about her nose. She's got a boyfriend, though, with tattoos up his left arm and you know she runs her fingers over them when they lie together in bed. She's beautiful to glimpse, but people aren't glimpses. Imagining what it's like to touch someone's shoulder is not the same thing as actually touching; if imagination was real, there'd be no point in action. Dequenne isn't simply shown: she stands before us. She isn't an enigma, and that is much more distressing.

Jeanne (Dequenne) tells little lies and can't find a job. Well, it's her life to live. So, like Godard and Karina's Nana S. crying at Falconetti on a movie screen, Téchiné and Dequenne's Jeanne cries at concentration camp footage on TV and maybe thinks: "All the horrible things that have happened to the Jews and they don't want any pity. Well, if they don't want it, maybe I can have some of theirs. Nobody pities me for the troubles I've had." It's a simple little action, mostly harmless: she lies that, mistaken for a Jew, she was attacked by a gang of anti-Semitic youths. Maybe she doesn't realize it, but in a society governed by politics, every life is political, and every action is a political action. Everything is intentional, whether the intentions are yours or someone else's. We are all somebody's oppressors, terrorists, ignoramuses or racists. It's very rare to find out whose exactly, as Jeanne does, having to spend a day in the country with the lawyer who once courted her mother and has now been dragged into this mess.

If Lukas Moodysson or Lars von Trier had directed The Girl on the Train, it  would've been about the lovely Jeanne and her Franck, and how they got mixed up in drug trafficking; had the director been Arnaud Desplechin, it would've been about the Jewish family bound by a need to parent the youngest, interspersed with details on the tradition of the Bar Mitzvah; Aaron Katz would've been happy with just the shots of Dequenne listening to music on her headphones, and Jia Zhang-ke with the tracks and the shots out the train window; Clint Eastwood could've made something out of the decades-old feelings between a widow and a widower; Tsai Ming-Liang could've done with just Jeanne and Franck's flirtation, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien with their texts and instant messages; Claude Chabrol would have made a film about the crime, the lie, so ordinary and human it becomes mysterious. You could make an entire movie about Catherine Deneuve's character and the way she smokes her Slims, and in The Girl on the Train, you can also find projects for Jacques Doillon, David Mackenzie, James Lee, Jean-Pierre Limosin and countless others. But the director is André Téchiné. So there are all of those elements, and many more without precedent: an exchange in a travel goods store that Cantinflas would've loved, some of the most beautiful dissolves and double-exposures since the end of the silent film and a webcam sequence even better than the one at the end of demonlover and possibly the greatest in all cinema.

I'm not sure The Girl on the Train even qualifies as drama. Maybe the old definition of melodrama, meaning "action with music," except the music here is in the images and the dramatic action is so musical that the two elements are barely distinguishable. Out of the other Téchiné films, if Hôtel des Amériques was a beach, I Don't Kiss was a mountain path, Wild Reeds was a forest and The Witnesses was a city during the day, The Girl on the Train is a tunnel. You enter through one end, and inside are half-audible sounds, textures, smells and things you briefly think you see in the dark. Coming out the other the end, as the final image dissolves and we (and there's a lot of us – a great big crowd in this theater) stand up from our seats to Philippe Sarde's exit music, the feeling isn't so much that a story has ended, but that cinema's just life masquerading as art.

Now you’ve got me excited about seeing this one. I imagine Techine would be extremely flattered at having trumped all the directors you listed.
IA, It’s not that he’s trumped them. In fact, some of them have directed films that I prefer to some of his films, and at least two of the directors mentioned are fairly easy to trump. But Techine can often seem like the sum total of many directing styles and because he has, since the early ‘80s, gradually moved from pastiche to innovation, we often forget how many of cinema’s traditions (new and old) his films blend.
And for the record, if Clint Eastwood made a movie just about Michel Blanc and Catherine Deneuve’s characters, I would be the first in line to see it.

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