I went to Europe for the first time in the summer of 1984. One afternoon we were riding the Metro in Paris … one of our companions was Peter, at the time only my future brother-in-law and now my ex-brother-in-law. Peter epitomized Europe for me: he was English but born in Spain and educated in French schools, and he spoke the native language of every country we visited. So it was that Peter served as a translator for me and a Parisian I chatted up on the train.
I knew very little of French pop culture … I made the early mistake of mentioning Plastic Bertrand of “Ca Plane Pour Moi” fame, only to be told with a glare that Plastic was Belgian. (In my American stupidity, I barely knew the difference … I probably thought Belgium was a province in France.)
There was one French pop star who seemed to be everywhere, a man I’d heard little about, although at least I knew his name. Happily, he was French … actually, it turns out he was born in France of Belgian parents, but he famously took on French citizenship … anyway, his named was Johnny Hallyday, and when I mentioned him, the face on my Parisian friend lit up. “JAW-NEEE!”
In my stupid touristy way, that guy on the train became my “Frenchman.” And Johnny Hallyday became the perfect representative of French pop: wildly loved in his home country, virtually anonymous everywhere else. His music, I assumed, was crap, like all French pop that wasn’t called “Ca Plane Pour Moi.” (Even now, I can’t speak knowledgeably about Johnny’s music … I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it, and he’s not available on Rhapsody.)
Twenty years later, I’m glad I had that conversation on that train, because it helped me to understand The Man on the Train. It’s a slight tale of two aging men whose paths cross for a few days in a small French town. Slight, but charming enough, thanks to the acting of the two leads: Jean Rochefort and, yes, Johnny Hallyday.
It’s a real stretch to say this, but The Man on the Train is a kind of lazy Gallic version of Performance, thirty years down the road. You’ve got the fading mansion where one stranger puts up another; you’ve got a riveting acting turn from a big pop star; you’ve even got a “did they switch personas” ending that is, to be honest, completely out of character with the rest of the film.
But mostly, what you’ve got is Johnny Hallyday playing a man approaching sixty. I imagine this has a lot more resonance in France, but you take what you can get, and I can remember my own train ride from twenty years ago and recall a glimpse of “JAW-NEEE,” and it adds depth to The Man on the Train. Hallyday was known as the French Elvis … watching this movie, you can’t help but wonder, what if the real Elvis had made it through the 70s, what if he’d been rediscovered later in life as a character actor, what if he’d shown up in something like Jackie Brown?
The ending throws The Man on the Train off the tracks, but it’s only 90 minutes long, so I’ll be forgiving and give it a seven on a scale of ten.