Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Téchiné’s Girl on the Train

With an influx of immigration from Islamist states and an upsurge in Neo-fascist activity, anti-Semitic violence is a growing problem in France. Of course, many would prefer to ignore the problem, which is why hate crime hoaxes like the “RER D Affair” (so-called for the commuter train on which it ostensibly occurred) are so counter-productive. Based on that 2004 incident involving a non-Jewish woman who claimed to have been attacked by an immigrant gang mistaking her for Jewish, veteran French director André Téchiné deftly handles some very hot-button issues in The Girl on the Train (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Much to Louise’s eternal frustration, her daughter Jeanne is not particularly ambitious. It is a major victory just to get her to interview for a secretarial position at Samuel Bleistein’s prestigious boutique law firm. Frankly, she is not qualified for the position and rather underwhelming presenting herself, but when Bleistein realizes she is the daughter of a late army colleague and Louise, the woman for whom he once carried a torch, he at least willing to give her a fair hearing.

Not cut out for responsible living, Jeanne instead takes a questionable job with her boyfriend Franck, an impulsive collegiate wrestler, as caretakers of a dodgy electronics warehouse. Though Franck keeps her in a state of willing obliviousness, the violent reality of their criminal enterprise eventually intrudes on Jeanne’s vacation from reality. Unfortunately, Jeanne responds by compounding her troubles, fabricating an attack supposedly motivated by anti-Semitism that will directly involve Bleistein and his family in a burgeoning media frenzy as well as her own personal drama.

Samuel Bleistein is a character many New Yorkers will find distinctly foreign. Yes, he is the leading Parisian spokesman against anti-Semitic violence, but he is not a media huckster looking to capitalize on each new controversy. He truly believes in the rule of law, which is why he seeks to defuse the situation created by a story he has reasons for knowing to be false.

Téchiné has a reputation as a sensitive director and indeed he guides his excellent ensemble cast to some very fine performances. As frustrating as her character might be, Emilie Dequenne is quite convincing, essentially playing a psychologically underdeveloped personality. However, the film is probably best defined by Michel Blanc’s outstanding supporting turn as Bleistein, providing the film a shrewdly unsentimental but deeply humanistic perspective on the controversies that unfold. Of course, for many fans of French cinema, no one will up-stage Catherine Deneuve, playing a bit against her typically chilly type here as Louise, the justifiably concerned mother.

Even though Train hinges on a fabricated incident, the film never has the effect of minimizing the reality of anti-Semitism in France. Again, it is worth noting that it is the film’s Jewish characters that act to debunk Jeanne’s dubious claim. Train is a smart drama that powerfully captures the aimlessness of youth and the volatility French society through some richly rewarding performances. It opens Friday (1/22) in New York at the IFC Center.