Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #14: The Girl on the Train (La Fille du RER)

France, 2008. Directed by André Téchiné. Starring Émilie Dequenne, Michel Blanc, Catherine Deneuve, Ronit Elkabetz, Mathieu Demy.

This film is based on a true story that caused a major media frenzy in France back in 2006. If I heard about the case back then it has since fled my mind and doesn't ring a bell, and I wasn't aware of the film's source when I sat down to watch it. I'm not going to divulge any details so that a viewer who reads this can go into it cold like I did if they choose to; a brief google search using the film's title should give you the information you need if you don't care.

The absence/presence of background information has given me a lot to chew on in the days since I watched this. Even if you look the story up on google, you will never be able to experience the sensation the case caused in France, any more than someone who had never heard of or seen Michael Jackson could experience the peculiar disconnect a lot of people who grew up in the 80s felt upon hearing of his death. This is important because a French audience would know about the pivotal plot point in this film, and be waiting for it throughout the entire 60 minutes that elapse before it happens, their entire experience of what they're watching coloured by their knowledge of what was coming and how they felt about those events when they were all over the TV and newspapers and internet a few years earlier.

Many viewers already feel a bit alienated when they watch any foreign film, conscious that something is not only being lost in the translation of the subtitles but also in the cultural differences. An acquaintance of mine once told me he didn't watch any Japanese period films because the principles of conduct and honour that would be implicitly understood by the Japanese audience made it seem to him like he may as well be watching martians for how alien the behaviours and logic were to him.

All of this would not be as pertinent to me if not for the fact that there is a puzzle at the heart of this film: why a key character does something particular. It's a relatively straightforward film, but the big catharsis/breakdown/explanation that a Hollywood version of the story would deliver never comes. This didn't especially bother me; it's not uncommon for European films to keep some key elements ambiguous, to keep the film turning in your mind, chewing over the motives and ideas raised. And knowledge of the case doesn't make the difference, either: the question troubles the major characters as the film closes, leading one of them to ponder an extensive personal investigation, maybe as a book? Or a film?

André Téchiné is a terrific director, and this is one of his most interesting films of recent years. His work with actors is always notable, and all of the leads shine, especially Dequenne as the title character.

Ultimately, my recommendation is to go into the film cold, if at all possible, though obviously it isn't crucial, since it could not be reasonably expected of its homegrown audience. I thought the plot was heading clearly in one direction, only to be thrown for a loop several times, ending up far from where I thought I would. And in a film that tackles the mysteries of the human mind, maybe the curve balls often thrown by real life aren't such a bad thing.

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