Train bien

Leconte explores options in two lives

The man on the train is named Milan. His haggard, bearded face is testimony to years of hard living. He has come to a town in the French provinces to rob a bank. He has a bad headache.

The man in the drugstore is named Manesquier. A retired teacher, older than Milan, his face tells of an entirely different life. On the day of Milan's bank job, he is scheduled for triple-bypass surgery.

Milan finds there's no room at the inn, but Manesquier has several empty rooms to rent in his large old house. It won't take the old guy long to realize his new roomer is no ordinary tourist. It won't take much longer for either man to recognize the world of difference in the other's eyes. Both men have some empty room inside, and three days between trains.

In the 90 nearly perfect minutes of his 'Man on the Train,' director Patrice Leconte quietly explores a range of moods and feelings that many directors won't achieve in their entire careers. The perfect pitch he maintains throughout is captured in the early moment when Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) lends Milan (Johnny Hallyday) a pair of slippers. Getting the feel of them, the laconic tough guy Ñ literally standing in another man's shoes Ñ says, 'My life's all wrong.'

The beautiful thing about the way this comes off is that it's more a confession of disorientation than a moral conclusion. Milan (and, through him, Leconte and writer Claude Klotz) isn't realizing the error of his ways so much as he's just considering a way other than his own. Thief and teacher will briefly try on the other's life and wish for a while it could fit.

There is in this pairing Ñ call it a mature buddy movie Ñ the sense of melancholy romanticism that Leconte has made a kind of trademark in such wonderfully unclassifiable films as 'Girl on the Bridge,' 'Monsieur Hire,' 'The Hairdresser's Husband' and 'Ridicule' (the latter two among the seven films he has made with Rochefort).

There is also the peculiar feeling he always manages to convey that the story takes place in an odd pocket outside time. 'Ridicule,' for example, is set in the 18th century but feels strangely contemporary. Had the contemporary 'Man on the Train' been an American film, it could easily have been a Western. Leconte always characterizes the background with a canny eye, but his characters define the space.

Appropriately, Rochefort and Hallyday define their characters through personality as well as performance. Rochefort, who was promisingly cast as Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam's aborted version of the classic story, has a veteran's relaxed grace and a touch of benevolent aristocracy. Veteran rock 'n' roller and sometime actor Hallyday (once known as 'the French Elvis,' he's the object of a Nick Nolte wisecrack in 'The Good Thief') wears the mileage mapped on his face with wary, weary naturalism, as comfortably as he does his fringed leather jacket. They inhabit these characters and intertwine these lives with a depth that goes past acting.

The film's offhand sense of surprise is edged with tense inevitability, reaching a conclusion that is unexpected and transcendent. But just the right size. A carry-on dream for the departing train.