André Techiné’s The Girl On The Train is not so much an exploration of modern antisemitism as a cumulation of our collective fears. Just mind the moral gap.
Strangers On A Train by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Almost an octogenarian, it’s astounding that André Techiné is so good at portraying youth. But time and again it’s the young who take centre stage in his films, white cubes in which to capture orbiting notions of politics, sexuality, ethics and family. And while Les Témoins or Les égarés had AIDS and the Occupation as their political backdrops, La Fille Du RER is set in modern Paris, its moral atmosphere unknown. And as Jeanne rolls round the suburbs, on rollerblades or within the fraternal security of the Réseau Express Régional, it seems there is no existential crisis to threaten the rainbowed innocence of youth. Or maybe that’s the problem.
Inspired by a fait divers in a French newspaper, La Fille Du RER is haunted by a moral ambiguity which creates an unexpectedly unnerving tension. It begins as Jeanne, played with naive charm by Émilie Dequenne, meets Franck, another rollerblading enthusiast. As their relationship blossoms along the quais de la Seine, Franck, played by mean and moody (and currently ubiquitous) Nicolas Duvauchelle, seems less butter-wouldn’t-melt than he at first appears. With unfunny, shocking jokes (locking the door and demanding Jeanne strip when she visits his room for the first time), his dubious identity shifts between naive lothario, smooth conman, violent drugdealer and volatile hothead. A wannabe wrestler, who perhaps appropriately flares from anger to warmth and back again in the blink of an eye, Franck takes on a dodgy job as a caretaker for a drugdealing friend, only to get stabbed and arrested. And when, facing ten years in prison, he screams at Jeanne wishing he’d never met her, his lovelorn anguish seems genuine after all.
Techiné’s clever coup de théâtre here is to divert attention from good girl Jeanne’s own moral vagaries. A vivacious innocent, inseparable from her mother, played by Catherine Deneuve, she takes the RER train from the Parisian suburbs to job interviews in the capital, optimistically hopeful life will sort itself out. And when Franck rejects her, she daubs swastikas on her belly and cuts her face before reporting herself to the commissariat the victim of an antisemitic attack. Techiné suggests that, having watched Stan Neumann’s Third Reich documentary La Langue Ne Ment Pas, the hopelessly rejected Jeanne conflates her pain with Holocaust Jews, hoping that as a victim her self-harming self-hate will be replaced with the love of others.
Of course, the lie must be exposed. And rich Jewish lawyer Samuel Bleistein takes the floor, leading the thematic debate on antisemitism in France, providing a safehaven for Jeanne to confess, and rekindling an old romance with Louise, her mother. Jeanne must recant so as not to erode the significance of genuine antisemitic attacks, perhaps the only contemporary dogma left standing for this La Pucelle to expose with her heresy. For Techiné there are no sacred cows, and the quickness and carelessness with which the media and the Élysées Palace seize the story prove the need for the sacrosanct to receive the same rigorous scrutiny as everything else.
After Haneke’s Code Inconnu violence on the Paris metro is readily believable, the real pathology not being the lie, but people’s desire to believe in it. It becomes a vessel for all their fears – violence, racism, youth; the urban menace incarnate. But the outrage felt by the hoodwinked hexagonaux is a mirror for our own indignation and disappointment, aghast that Jeanne, so carefree and likeable, could have let us down so badly. It turns out her childlike innocence was unhinged naivety, her little white lies the tip of a fantasist’s iceberg.
It’s left to Catherine Deneuve to provides the moral compass, incredulous and apologetic at her daughter’s transgression. In fact, her brutal honesty is the reversal, easily confessing to Bleistein her motives for digging him up from her past, or how she lost the nerve to meet him for a concert at Saint Eustache. It’s a generational divide, where elders speak the truth but can barely tolerate each other and the young who find commnual solace in a fluid microcosm of self-harm and ethical apathy.
With its buried loves, moral sidesteps and political farragos, La Fille Du RER is typical Techiné, just lacking the now-familiar (homo)sexual politics. Its rollerblading love story and Sukkot teen romance are dead ends and the psychological stimulus to the cataclysm is a leap of faith. But like The Witnesses, The Girl On The Train is a great ensemble piece, a barometer of ethical reaction to an exploding bombshell – the lie that brings strangers together but tears loved ones apart.
The Girl On The Train is released in the UK on 4th June 2010.