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Girl on the Train, The (2010)
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by Jay Seaver

"Oh, girl, what are you doing?"
4 stars

"The Girl on the Train" is based upon an incident that drew a fair amount of attention in its native France, but makes an unusual choice or two in telling the story. Director André Téchiné and co-writer Jean-Marie Besset (who had previously done this story on the stage) pay little attention to what the incident meant for the public at large, instead trying to get inside the head of the girl in question.

There's nothing extraordinary about Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne). She's quite pretty, maybe a bit spoiled by her mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve). She spends most of her time rollerblading around Paris, catching the eye of Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a handsome young man training to be an Olympic wrestler. Her mother encourages her to apply for a job with Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), who served in the army with Jeanne's father, while Franck gets them set up as "caretakers" of an electronics shop that mainly serves as a front for moving drugs. An incident there leaves Jeanne shaken, leading her to...

Well, now we're getting into stuff that happens relatively deep in the movie. Let's just say it kicks up a stir, and Louise turns to Samuel for help. In many cases, we'd see that stir, and it would serve as a reason to examine the tensions that exist in today's France, and Jeanne's behavior would be a symptom of those troubles. That's not the case here, though; instead, we spend a lot of time watching Jeanne do things that establish her as quite unremarkable, and if she's an exemplar of some societal ill, it's not the one that gets headlines after she goes to the police.

Instead, it's instructive to note that her mother works in child care, watching infants and toddlers in their home, and in a lot of ways Jeanne is still like a child: She spends her days playing,with Louise or Franck taking care of her needs. She tells what seem like harmless lies to please them, and her motivation for moving on to larger ones is simple and direct. In the last act, the older generation doesn't confront her directly, as one would an equal, but again treats her as one would a wayward child. It's not just Jeanne, either; though Samuel's son Alex (Mathieu Demy) has a boy of his own, we see that he still also has some growing up to do.

As much as they are immature, neither Jeanne nor Alex is a caricature of that trait. Émilie Dequenne has an especially fine touch with Jeanne; another character hurtfully (but accurately) describes her as an airhead at one point, but she's got few of the grating qualities that the word generally implies. Dequenne elicits sympathy from us by showing us Jeanne's discomfort in the moments when someone expects her to be more than she is, and by not overselling Jeanne as selfish. It's a bit of a thin character, but Dequenne makes her real enough that the audience has enough affection for her to dread the bad decision they see her about to make.

Deneuve and Blac do an excellent job of presenting the contrast to Dequenne's Jeanne. They are mature but also still playful, and while there's some exposition about their history, it's almost unnecessary; the happy look that jumps across Blanc's face when Louise first calls Samuel and the way the pair plays a potential rendez-vous without words tells everything that needs telling. The rest of the cast does good work, too; it's a group that is quite deliberately not larger than life, but they all manage to present as interesting and generally even sympathetic, even when at cross-purposes.

That's a lot harder than it looks. Téchiné, his collaborators, and his cast deserve much praise for it. The easy routes would be to play up the more obviously dramatic elements of the story, or exaggerate some of the characters; instead, they manage to make a surprisingly compelling movie by avoiding those tricks.

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originally posted: 05/20/10 09:03:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 18-May-2010


  DVD: 18-May-2010

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