Gay filmmaker André Téchiné’s absorbing new drama, “The Girl on the Train,” does not involve queer themes or characters, but this provocative film will intrigue and engage viewers who have felt themselves outside society’s mainstream.
The film, adapted from co-writer Jean-Marie Besset’s play, is based on a true story that inflamed public opinion in France. Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne) is a young woman who falsely claims that she was the victim of a hate crime. She draws swastikas on her torso and cuts her arm, neck, and face. She claims to police that she was attacked by six men — Arabs and blacks — on the RER train. She explains that she is not Jewish, but was victimized because she was carrying a Jewish lawyer’s business card. The event makes her the center of a media circus that eventually captures the attention of the French president.
False claim of victimization turns lives upside down
Téchiné presents Jeanne’s desperate act near the mid-point of “The Girl on the Train.” The film’s first half suggests what motivates her to commit her crime; the second half depicts the aftermath of her deception. Téchiné takes a calm, measured approach to the story, allowing issues of class, race, ethnicity, and identity to ricochet without over-emphasizing them.
As the film opens, Jeanne is an out-of-work free spirit who lives with her mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve). Louise wants Jeanne to get a job, and recommends she apply for a position with a noted Jewish lawyer, Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc). Louise knew Bleistein years before — he had a crush on her back then — but she has not had contact with him in decades.
While her job interview does not go well, Jeanne’s personal life improves when she meets Franck (Nicolas Devauchelle), a hunky wrestler who woos her. Their romantic exchange over a computer is fraught with desire, and Téchiné imbues their relationship with erotic promise in this virtuoso sequence. Their messages of longing are typed out across the screen against the backdrop of erotic images — Jeanne in her bra and Franck in his revealing singlet. She soon moves in with him, and the electronics store where he works is the scene of a violent incident that changes everything.
The episode prompts Jeanne to fake being attacked, but other scenes provide clues to her motivation. At one point, we see her watching TV reports about hate crimes, and when she cries in response to a documentary on the Nazis, it is clear she understands the compassion sparked by violent injustice. Whether she is naive or just foolish, Jeanne does not foresee the media onslaught that engulfs her as well as her mother, Bleistein, and his family.
“The Girl on the Train” benefits from Dequenne’s beguiling performance in the lead role. The actress makes Jeanne more than just a cipher or symbol. A fragile, slightly lost young woman, she is pulled by her emotions but often unable to think beyond her immediate situation. Dequenne captures her selfishness and insensitivity perfectly, making her largely sympathetic, despite her disgraceful actions.
Jeanne is not the film’s only complex character. Louise faces her own pressures, and they come bubbling to the surface as her daughter brings unwanted attention to their family. Deneuve is extraordinary in the role, able to convey her worries and troubles through the simplest facial expressions. Sizing up Franck at dinner one evening, Louise is appropriately wary of this charming young man.
When she makes plans to reunite with Samuel at a concert one evening, he does not show up. Deneuve’s face communicates Louise’s delicate emotional state beautifully here. Significantly, in a later exchange between Louise and Samuel, she confesses how she has been hiding an affair with a married man. Louise is fiercely protective not only of her daughter, but also of her own privacy.
The supporting cast members in “The Girl on the Train” also demonstrate considerable depth, many of them playing members of Bleistein’s family. The most notable character is Bleistein’s grandson, Nathan (Jeremy Quaegebeur), the catalyst who forces Jeanne to confess in the film’s most pivotal sequence. Jeanne is relatively independent, but also duplicitous. In contrast, Nathan is firmly under his parents’ control, but he is a truth teller. Their scenes together are among the film’s most powerful, perhaps because the idea of free will and personal responsibility come into bold relief during their exchanges.
Ultimately, “The Girl on the Train” is a mesmerizing drama that depicts the circumstances and consequences of Jeanne’s actions in neither a sensational nor judgmental way. When her sentence is handed down at the film’s end, it will be shocking to some and seem unfair to others. Such is the polarizing nature of this outstanding film and the crime it depicts.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
Directed by André Téchiné
Opens Jan. 22
323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.
City Cinemas 1, 2, 3
1001 Third Ave. at E. 59th St.