Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cine-Simenon: The Last Train

Women, children, and the well-to-do sit up front.  Prostitutes, ruffians, and the socially marginalized hunker down in the cattle cars bringing up the rear.  Of course, they were Georges Simenon’s kind of people and they turn out to be more fun to travel with in Pierre Granier-Deferre’s The Last Train, an adaptation of Simenon’s tragic romance set amid WWII evacuation chaos, which screens during the Anthology Film Archives’ Cine-Simenon retrospective.

Julien Maroyeur is a shy radio repairman in a sleepy French village on the Belgian border. His out-of-his-league wife is probably the only notable thing about him. Given her very pregnant state, they are reluctant to leave home, but news of the advancing German army convinces them.  The nuns find a place for Madame Maroyeur and their young daughter in a respectable compartment, but he will be stuck in the back of the train.  However, along with the dregs of society, he will share his car with the mysterious Anna. 

Initially, the beautiful woman says very little.  The knuckleheads seem to think her accent sounds German, but she seems more anxious than anyone to avoid the National Socialists.  Effectively segregated from his family, Maroyeur takes a protective interest in the woman that quickly evolves into something far deeper.

Considering Simenon’s controversial wartime years, The Train is a bit of an oddity in his oeuvre.  Nonetheless, it is wholly fitting Granier-Deferre, the Simenon specialist, would be represented in Cine-Simenon.  Incorporating archival WWII newsreel footage into the film, he keeps viewers fully cognizant of the wider geopolitical horrors throughout what is admittedly at times a rather melodramatic story.

Indeed, Granier-Deferre vividly captures the strange nature of the flight.  With everyone losing sight of previous responsibilities, it becomes almost a madcap vacation, punctuated by moments of abject terror.  Tellingly Maroyeur himself admits they have all “lost perspective.”

Last Train might have an odd tonal shift here or there, but it is hard to go too far wrong with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider as the not-so secret lovers.  Their chemistry is quite convincing, because it is clearly rooted in their respective characters’ personalities.  The quiet moments shared by the screen legends have affectionate warmth beyond mere erotic heat.

Much like Man on the Eiffel Tower, there are some less than optimal dubbed prints of Last Train in circulation, so it is worth noting AFA will screen it in its original French with English subtitles.  Despite the often jarring editing, it is a good, solid film, offering a unique perspective on the French civilian war experience.  Anchored by the haunting Schneider, The Last Train is recommended for French film connoisseurs when it screens this Tuesday (8/20) and Wednesday (8/21) at Anthology Film Archives.