The Girl On The Train

The Girl On The Train

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In July, 2004, a young woman turned up at a suburban Paris police station and reported that she had been assaulted on a train by six young men on North African appearance. They had cut her face, drawn a swastika on her stomach and cut off a lock of her hair as a souvenir, she said. Paris had already experienced anti-Semitic attacks that year. This young woman wasn't Jewish, but claimed she had been mistaken for a Jew. A media panic began. But the incident never took place. The young woman made it all up. In this freewheeling adaptation of the story, André Téchiné considers the reasons why such a fabrication might occur.

Émilie Duquenne is Jeanne, a young woman drifting through life with little sense of direction. Whilst her mother (Catherine Deneuve) works as a child minder, she makes up stories, pretending she is looking for a job but preferring to spend her time rollerblading through tunnels and city parks. On one such adventure she meets a young man who goes on to capture her heart. He's a pro wrestler, working class, tattooed, with a sometimes uneasy sense of humour. Her mother clearly hoped for something else, yet tries to be supportive. Perhaps that kind of support isn't quite what Jeanne needs. When things go wrong she has no one to blame but herself, and her dodging of reality starts to take on a more sinister, almost masochistic character, leading to the fateful story about the train.

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Does Jeanne invent this story because she wishes it had really happened to her, because she wants some way to make her abstract sense of suffering tangible? Téchiné shows her curiously observing Jewish people, tearfully watching a documentary about the Holocaust; does she envy the Jewish experience of shared suffering, or the Jewish community that contrasts so starkly with her own limited experience of family? When her mother turns to an old friend, a Jewish lawyer (Michel Blanc), for help, these worlds collide, and Jeanne has to confront the fact that the grass may be no greener on the other side. The lawyer's family has its own fractures, its own petty conflict and awkwardness. A disaffected grandson provides Jeanne with what might be her first encounter with real understanding.

Is the film too sympathetic to Jeanne? Many people would say so. The racist nature of the accusation is softened in this fictional version, but there is little focus on the consequences, either for those who became distrusted as potential attackers or for the genuine victims of anti-Semitic crimes who were taken less seriously as a result - never mind all those Jewish people who must have been afraid to travel after the story broke. But perhaps such a focus would be too simple, too obvious. Téchiné is striving for something different. His light touch reflects the flippancy with which Jeanne treats the situation, the ease with which she lets it overwhelm her, whilst later imagery - darkness and pounding rain - suggests more potent hidden forces driving this apparently amiable young woman toward destruction.

Because it is so self-consciously light, this film never quite has the impact it might have done, but it's still an interesting take on an unusual phenomenon. Duquenne has the right quality of distance and Deneuve, without the usual glamour a radiating a more youthful beauty as a result, makes the perfect foil, whilst the unspoken affection between her and Blanc's lawyer provides an adult depth to balance the dangerous frivolity of youth.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2010
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Ensemble drama examining the politics, lifestyle and rise of anti-Semitism in contemporary France.
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