Andre Techine’s “The Girl on the Train” (opening in limited release Friday 1/22/10) feels like two different films cobbled together, without much to connect one to the other, beyond the fact that they’re about the same characters. Granted, he divides the film into two sections – “Circumstances” and “Consequences” – but the disconnect between the two is huge.
Based on a true story and adapted from a play by Jean-Marie Besset, “Girl” wants us to accept the inexplicable as a fact of human nature, which, of course, it is. But actually caring about the people who behave in an incomprehensible way is another story.
The film is based on an actual case in which a French girl went to the police, claiming to have been the victim of a hate crime on an early-morning commuter train. She maintained she’d been harassed and attacked by a gang of young Arab men, who hurled anti-Semitic slurs at her (though she wasn’t Jewish) before physically assaulting her. Eventually, she admitted that she had fabricated the entire story, though she didn’t say why.
That portion of the story consumes only the final quarter of the film, which spends most of its time looking at the life of the girl, Jeanne (Emilie Duquenne). She’s of college age but not in school, spending her days roller-blading and very casually looking for a job.
When her mother (Catherine Deneuve) sees a help-wanted ad for a legal secretary in the newspaper, she realizes that it’s at the firm of an old army pal of her late husband. She’s just seen him on TV – the man is now a noted attorney fighting the rising tide of anti-Semitism in France. But Jeanne ignores her mother’s offer to retype her resume and application letter, then can’t understand it when her handwritten documents and her underwhelming credentials fail to land her the job, even when she drops her father’s name.
Meanwhile, Jeanne meets a guy, who literally chases her down while roller-blading and puts the moves on her. He’s a college wrestler with big dreams – but when she agrees to move in with him, the situation itself is a shady one: as caretakers for a not-quite-legit electronics dealer.
Her entire life seems to consist of one disappointment after another. The job she doesn’t get, the guy who turns out to be a crooked operator – while she doesn’t work particularly hard at trying to get ahead, she’s still unhappy at the results.
So one day she draws swastikas (backwards) on her stomach, chops off chunks of her hair and even cuts herself superficially, then shows up at the police station claiming an assault. Can you say “cry for help”?
Yet, as she’s played by Duquenne, Jeanne is something of a cipher: neither haunted nor sad nor compelling in the slightest. Nor does she seem that shaken by the events which, theoretically, provoke her to act out in this way.
The real emotional center of the film is Deneuve as her mother, a widow who does daycare in her home for a living and who immediately suspects something is fishy about her daughter’s story. Her sense of shame – and guilt – at the furor her daughter creates is palpable. Equally good is Michel Blanc as the attorney who, first, turns Jeanne down for a job, then takes on her case as a kindness to her mother. Compact with a shaved head, he’s a vital, commanding figure with a surprising vein of compassion.
But the movie isn’t called “The Mother of the Girl on the Train” or “The Lawyer for the Girl.” It’s called “The Girl on the Train.” And, ultimately, Techine doesn’t give us much reason to care about her story.