Film Review: The Girl on the Train

Fans of Catherine Deneuve, director André Téchiné and quality French films should turn out for this exuberant but unfocused drama about a recent French news story that caused a sensation before being exposed as bogus. Jewish-themed elements

Vet director André Téchiné has done much strong work, often with Catherine Deneuve in films like My Favorite Season, and here again delivers Deneuve and a compelling cinematic style that continually engages. But in trying to cover so many bases (characters, themes, story threads) in so little time, the sum of The Girl on the Train doesn’t quite add up to its many commendable parts.

The film was adapted from Jean-Marie Besset’s play RER, which in turn was inspired by a true event in 2004 in which a lie, before being proven untrue, created a media frenzy in France. The incident involved a young woman who fabricated a story about being attacked on Paris’ RER commuter train because some hoodlums thought she was Jewish. (She and Téchiné’s character are not.) And so The Girl on the Train gives us Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne), an unimpressive twenty-something who loves rollerblading and lives in a lower-middle-class Parisian suburb with mom Louise (Catherine Deneuve), who baby-sits children at their modest home and helps her daughter find work.

Reminded by a telecast that prominent lawyer and Jewish activist Samuel Bleistein (vet actor Michel Blanc) was once a beau and close family friend (as a result of work she and her husband did with the Army), Louise sends Jeanne his way for a potential job. It doesn’t materialize but brings Louise and Samuel into closer contact. Meanwhile, Jeanne attracts the attention of rollerblader Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who follows her and begins what will be a romance.

Jeanne moves in with Franck and soon the two are hired as well-paid caretakers for an electronics store whose boss apparently goes on vacation. Jeanne only discovers that Franck is involved in drug trafficking after Franck, alone in their new quarters, is stabbed by a thug involved in the ring. Franck is hospitalized and arrested, leaving Jeanne again alone and unemployed.

Concurrent with this thread, Téchiné weaves an equally thick thread involving lawyer Bleistein and his family. His rebel son Alex (Mathieu Demy, son of Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy) has just returned from a stint in China to attend to his young son Nathan (Jérémy Quaegebeur), whose religious Israeli-born mother and Alex’s ex-wife Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), against Alex’s wishes, wants Nathan to have a bar mitzvah and does not want him to travel to Venice with his father.

These conflicts of parenthood and divergent religious and lifestyle beliefs mingle awkwardly with Jeanne’s muddy inner conflicts borne of an uncertain relationship with her mother and Franck’s troubled life. She gets teary-eyed watching some TV holocaust footage and, apparently inspired by media reports of anti-Semitic incidents in France, next inks swastikas across her stomach and cuts her neck and face.

What follows is Jeanne’s claim that she was attacked and mutilated by anti-Semitic thugs on the suburban train she often takes. Mother Louise doesn’t believe her and contacts old flame Bleistein for help. This rekindles their friendship and Bleistein helps in getting Jeanne to confess her lie and saving her from severe punishment. But such salvation is preceded by a media frenzy, including a condolence call to Louise from the French President about the alleged attack. On the other front, Alex and Judith carnally resolve their differences and son Nathan gets both a bar mitzvah and trip to Venice.

Téchiné delivers a feverish, ever-watchable rendering of so much drama. The performances are sublime. Deneuve again surprises in an atypical role of a frumpy, working-class mom flawed to the extent that convenient lying comes easily. And Dequenne and the others are always believable. Julien Hirsch’s camera tirelessly moves, grabs close-ups and insists on our attention.

But are the visual metaphors of so much whizzing movement—the rollerblading heroine, the commuter trains through tunnels and exterior tracks, the festive bar mitzvah dancing, Jeanne’s frantic rowing on the river—meant to convey the media’s rush to judgment regarding her false allegations of an attack?

And the question of what the real theme is also lingers. The parallel stories of Jeanne and lawyer Bleistein and his family may meet but they never congeal, as Téchiné generously spreads his attention to so many. More disappointingly, the motive of why cipher Jeanne invented such a bold lie never emerges. And if the point here is the power (or is it gullibility and opportunism?) of media, it is lost amidst the abundant characters, story threads and stylistic flourishes. But as much as The Girl frustrates, it also entertains.