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Quality filmmaking for those who look for it - R.H. Joseph

A lacework tale woven of gossamer and grace, "Man on the Train" finds repose in life's ephemera: the mutual respect of the fearless; a lover's constancy and casual familiarity. The more attuned you are to such intangibles the more enriching your experience of this wonderful film.

Superficially the French production (English subtitles) appears quite bound up in the ordinary.

Little more than a record of the events leading up to and following a heist, it records the chance encounter of a retired school teacher and a bank robber.

But within this unadorned context it resonates with the poetic subtleties that shimmer on the surface of being.

Written by Claude Klotz and directed by Patrice Leconte, "Man on the Train" derives this resonance from the delicate unfolding of the metaphorical lotus that is the heart of the gunman Milan (Johnny Hallyday) in response to a spontaneously identical event in Manesquier (Jean Rochefort).

Manesquier, a retired teacher of poetry, has spent his entire life in the same house in the same quiet town doing the same things year after year. But he is neither a dullard nor a recluse.

In life, as in the poetry within which he immerses himself, Manesquier's attentive aesthetic derives an unbounded universe of expressiveness from experiential simplicities. His is a rich life.

But he has never been a bold man. Until now.

In four days time he will undergo some potentially dire form of surgery and he is transformed by this confrontation with mortality.

He does not panic, however; he is never less than elegant, sublimely reflective, sweetly bemused.

Through a chance encounter he meets Milan, who, in this quiet town, can find no lodging though he too has an important engagement in four days.

Apparently the opposite of Manesquier, whereas the lover of poetry surrounds himself with books, very old, leather-bound tomes of infinite cultivation, Milan's world is one of guns, many guns.

Whereas Manesquier is voluble Milan is the epitome of reticence.

Whereas Milan exists in a world of calculated aggressiveness and deadly gunplay, Manesquier occupies a world of fantasy and make believe.

The poet pretends he's a gun-totin' marshal fixin' to bring law and order to Dodge City while Milan, in an unguarded moment, reveals he is merciless.

In a marvelous scene reinforcing this play of opposites the director, Leconte, allows the connoisseur of refinement to illumine the qualitative essence of bedroom slippers to a man who has never worn any.

Having done so, a bond is established through a magnanimous gesture involving these seemingly innocuous footwear. In this singular brilliant moment, poetry has ceased to be constrained by the page upon which it is written; it has embraced the criminal in its evanescent form: an act of kindness.

It is not long until Milan's poetic nature manifests, but through glimmers of that which has touched his soul; never so clumsily as in verse. Hereafter the film abounds in myriad forms of poetry: visual, conceptual, emotional.

Milan's getaway driver, a hooded, taciturn thug, utters but one sentence per day at precisely 10 a.m. Hardly arbitrary, these sintered filigrees of philosophical insight dash past with the impassioned radiance of ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Another member of the gang, a crumpled, unkempt lout consumed by alcoholism, has temporarily eschewed his Bacchanalian impulse for the sake of the caper.

Meeting Milan in the local art museum he proceeds to extemporize on the aesthetic merits of the various watercolorists on display. Clearly he too is a man transported by beauty, a man whose interior is as poetic as his exterior is base.

In Viviane, Manesquier's beloved inamorata, poetry further reveals the fluidity of its composition. Though mature her physical beauty is unquestionably poetic in nature; she incarnates grace.

Further, her soul and heart one, she is not disturbed by Milan's intemperate intrusions into her relationship with Manesquier. Rather, there is a poetic resilience to her character; her responses to the gunman's brusqueness flow with the honeyed impenetrability of mercury.

Finally, there is poetic justice. As we have come to know these men, to observe their individual transitions, we find ourselves distraught at what may become of them.

Will Manesquier survive the knife, Milan, the gun?

And should they survive, now that Manesquier has become physically emboldened will he make real the caprices of his soul?

Can Milan find enduring respite in the world of refinement and grace to which he has been introduced?

It will matter to you because of the quality of the film, the actors and the story.

To watch "Man on the Train" is to appreciate why, despite the never-ending flow of brightly colored irrelevancies that pass through the multiplex, film is still considered an art form.

Celluloid memories: Another absolutely delightful subtitled French film concerning an intimate male relationship, "The Two of Us" (1968) is directed by Claude Berri and stars Michel Simon and Alain Cohen. It is a simple story of a young Jewish boy sent to the countryside to survive the Nazi occupation of Paris and how the boy's presence changes the life of the curmudgeonly old anti-Semite to whom he is entrusted. For something completely different have a go at the American film "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) directed by a Frenchman, Louis Malle. You should know that my mother kept looking at her watch during the course of the film. Perhaps you should also know the entire film is a record of a conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory that takes place in a restaurant booth.