Saturday, 5 June 2010

'The Girl on the Train' review: Téchiné's latest fails to satisfy...

‘The Girl on the Train’, a new film directed and co-written by the multi-award-winning André Téchiné, is very much a film of two halves. Apparently loosely based on a real-life event infamous in its native France and set within the context of a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes, the film follows a young girl named Jeanne who one day tears her clothes, cuts herself and draws swastikas on her body, before claiming to the authorities that some youths attacked her whilst she rode a train. She adds to the recent concern about racist attacks by claiming that she was singled out because she was carrying the business card of a Jewish lawyer, also suggesting that crowds of people on the train saw the incident and did nothing to intervene. The media quickly buy into this lie and run with the story sparking popular outrage across France. Soon Jeanne’s mother is taking calls from the nation’s President expressing his sympathies for the attack. The second half of the film deals with Jeanne telling the lie and its aftermath (much of which is based on reality), whilst the first half is Téchiné’s attempt to understand why she told this lie and deals with the (highly fictionalized) events leading up to it.

If Téchiné is considered one of France’s most significant post-New Wave filmmakers, then it is only fitting that the film does not come without names of top acting pedigree also. The Belgian actress Émilie Dequenne (who won the ‘Best Actress’ prize at Cannes in 1999) heads up a well-respected cast as she plays the titular girl, Jeanne. Her troubled and well-meaning mother, Louise, is played by the Academy Award nominated Catherine Deneuve (a frequent Téchiné collaborator), whilst the Jewish lawyer and hate crime activist, Samuel Bleistein, is played by Michel Blanc (a star of Téchiné’s last film, ‘The Witnesses’). Finally, a rising star, Nicolas Duvauchelle (who was also in last year’s Claire Denis film, ‘White Material’), plays Jeanne’s streetwise boyfriend Franck. It is their love affair which dominates the film’s first half and attempts to go some way to explaining Jeanne’s later actions.

The cast do an able job with the material they are given, however the film feels strangely like a low-budget television drama. There are some nice shots and many scenes (notably those in the sunshine) are pleasantly lit, but it is paced far too slowly and outstays its welcome fairly quickly. There are whole scenes which seem to serve no obvious purpose in advancing Jeanne’s story. For instance, there is a sub-plot (involving a bickering divorced couple who later sleep together and then finally reconcile) which could easily have been excised from the film entirely. When I first saw the film I was unaware of the “true story” element and (not having read a synopsis) did not know that Jeanne was going to stage a racially motivated hate crime by beating herself up. The fact that when she did it came as a huge surprise to me (and seemed to alter the tone of the film so completely) I think counts against the film, as the first half which leads up to the event and is supposed to provide some sort of character motivation and simply fails to do so. I am still none the wiser about Jeanne's motivations.

We are left asking questions, such as: did she do it for attention? But we could have asked those questions had the film only depicted the “true story” events. Téchiné sheds no light on this extraordinary lie and its consequences. He depicts Jeanne watching a holocaust documentary and weeping. He also shows that she has seen the news reports of the previous (genuine) hate crimes against Jewish people. But neither of these moments really add up to pretending you've been persecuted. Perhaps Téchiné is suggesting that she feels marginalised and suspects that the only way she can get her voice heard is by capitalising on this media event. We are left intrigued to find out more about the real-life case, but not especially thrilled by or satisfied with Téchiné’s film.

'The Girl on the Train' is out in the UK now on a limited release, including one showing at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse on July 20th. The film is rated '15' by the BBFC. Jon and I covered it in the latest Splendor Podcast also.

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