Dir: Patrice Leconte. France. 2002. 90 mins.

One of the real audience-pleasers in competition at this year's Venice festival, The Man On The Train (L'Homme Du Train) pairs veteran French actor Jean Rochefort with rocker Johnny Hallyday in a changing-places comedy drama that manages to be both quirky and moving. Although both leads, and director Patrice Leconte, have far greater currency in Francophone Europe than elsewhere, this small but perfectly-formed fable is Leconte's most successful title since Ridicule. It should easily out-perform its predecessor at the box office, travelling beyond France (where Pathe releases it on Oct 2) to enjoy widespread distribution, especially on the arthouse circuit.

Milan (Hallyday, in a covert reference to Spaghetti Western character actor Thomas Milan), arrives by train in a small, provincial town somewhere in France in order (the audience later learns) to rob a bank. By chance he meets Manesquier, (Rochefort, the Quixote of Terry Gillian's aborted La Mancha-set film) a retired schoolteacher who lives alone in the gloomy neo-Gothic pile where he was born, surrounded by books, family heirlooms, and not one but two spare toothbrushes. As the only hotel in town is closed, the older man invites Milan to stay in the family mansion, in the one room where the rain doesn't cascade down the walls.

In three days' time, Manesquier will undergo a triple bypass operation and Milan will hold up the local bank. In the interim, the unlikely couple develop a firm friendship based above all on gentle envy. Manesquier has always dreamed of being the stranger who walks into town with the gun and the impassive face, while tough-guy Milan' secret desire is to sit in front of the fireside in slippers, smoking a pipe and reading a slim volume of poetry.

It's a slight and potentially schmaltzy premise, but good pacing, sharp comic dialogue and a restrained but effective use of minor characters to sidelight the main duo provide moments of high comedy and postpone the real pathos until the very end.

Hallyday has a face pitted by the pock-marks of time, and it's this, and his on-screen presence, rather than his rock-star fame, that Leconte fastened onto in casting him here. Although he may not be a great actor, he is perfect in this role of a hard man disillusioned by rootless wandering and the existential ennui of the criminal life. All he has to do is to play it flat and taciturn while Jean Rochefort acts up to the height of his considerable comic abilities as the retired dreamer.

Jean-Marie Drejou's lucid photography shifts the mood from a warm painterly sepia for the interiors of Manesquier's house to a more unearthly blue and green for the final bank and hospital scenes. Meanwhile Pascal Esteve's original score underpins the action nicely, alternating Ry Cooder-style guitar twangs with more classical riffs, providing each character with his own musical signature.

Prod co: Cine b
Fr dist:
Int'l sales:
Pathe International
Philippe Carcassonne
Claude Klotz
Jean-Marie Drejou
Prod des:
Ivan Maussion
Joelle Hache
Pascal Esteve
Main cast:
Jean Rochefort, Johnny Hallyday, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Charlie Nelson, Pascal Parmentier, Isabelle Petit-Jacques