Written by Claude Klotz and directed by Patrice Leconte (The Widow of St. Pierre, The Girl on the Bridge, The Hairdresser's Husband and M. Hire), The Man on the Train is the story of the unlikely bond formed over a short period of time between two men on life's downward slope. The fiftysomething younger man, Milan (Johnny Hallyday, a European rock star once hailed as "the French Elvis"), is a career criminal and has arrived in town to case the local bank. If he can assemble his gang in proper order, he plans to stage a broad-daylight heist and make off with a quick quarter-million dollars. The seventysomething older man is Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a lifelong resident of the town. Though Manesquier has retired from his teaching position, he continues to tutor private students interested in extra instruction in poetry and the other literary arts.
These two men would seem at first glance to have very little in common. One is refined and loquacious and has made his living with his mind, celebrating the world of artistic creativity and expression. The other is coarse and taciturn and has survived by animal cunning and the ruthless exertion of brute force. Their core connectedness constitutes Leconte and Klotz's central point. Different as they seem, they have many, many things in common. Each has reached an age to wonder about the meaning of it all. Both have been successful in their wildly divergent careers. Both have known desire and have experienced sexual passion. Perhaps both have known love, though neither has married. Both are haunted by the feeling that somewhere, a long time back, they made a wrong turn from which they can never find contentment.
Each looks at the other's life with covetous wonder. The teacher envies his unexpected friend's life of excitement and danger. In an instructive scene he slips into Milan's jacket and impersonates Wyatt Earp from some unnamed Hollywood Western. Comparably, Milan is attracted to Manesquier's serenity, security and established decency. One day when the older man isn't home, Milan takes over his host's tutoring duties and acquits himself with finesse and unschooled intelligence.
Leconte's ambitions for The Man on the Train don't wander far beyond this summary. For the film's first four-fifths, the narrative verges on the static. Yet, we are held in by the quality of the performances and the filmmakers' embracing touch for their characters. Manesquier is the careful kind of man who believes in responsible planning and thus has two of everything. Milan is necessarily a wanderer, a stranger to any given place. His possessions are limited to what he can carry. A vivid example of what one man has and the other man lacks occurs on the first night Milan spends under Manesquier's roof when the robber asks the teacher for the loan of a pair of slippers. Manesquier has more than one pair, and Milan has never lingered somewhere long enough to indulge himself the comfort of house shoes.
The Man on the Train keeps threatening to head places it blessedly doesn't. We wonder a moment about homoerotic attraction, but whatever the chemistry these two men feel for each other, it doesn't go there. Milan's criminal history makes us fear a sudden outburst of violence against his host, but that's not where the script is headed, either. Manesquier's ripe fantasy life worries us that he will embark upon some wild and self-destructive act of existential lunacy, but the filmmakers are too subtle and controlled for that, too. Finally we understand that the film's theme seeks a new spin on those oldest concerns about the roads not taken and the greenest pastures on another man's land. The picture's very end is both narratively murky and metaphorically obvious, but up until that final passage Leconte offers counsel about contemporary life at once sage, sobering and inadvertently encouraging.