Character studies on film hedge heavily on one factor: our ability to relate to the character on-screen. If we can’t make the connection, whatever strife or happiness the character faces will fall flat; we’ll see a static figure, not a full, round and relatable person.
At first glance, “The Girl on the Train,” a French and Hebrew film with English subtitles directed by Andre Techine, deals with anti-Semitism, a topic familiar to so many Chronicle readers. So immediately, a bridge is established. But “Girl” isn’t about anti-Semitism; rather, it’s about a girl craving just to be seen and heard so desperately that she’ll stage a violent anti-Semitic attack for some attention. She’s not even Jewish, but she knows her family and the press will come running.
In that sense, the film’s anti-Semitism could be any hot topic; it is merely the vehicle on which the girl, Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne), rides through her perpetual haze in order to feel like she actually exists.
But why anti-Semitism? In France, the topic is certainly timely. In 2004, a non-Jewish woman claimed she was attacked by six men in a supposed anti-Semitic rage. The event caused a stir not only among Jews, but across the world. Especially, as it turned out, when the woman revealed that she’d faked the whole thing.
“The Girl on the Train” uses a similar premise to comment on identity, or lack thereof, but gets lost in its own blocky movement.
The film’s first half gives us Jeanne pre-fake attack: a lost soul riding through Paris on rollerblades, half-heartedly fumbling job interviews and dodging her mother’s “become an adult” pushes. When she meets thuggish wrestler Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), she’s smitten, unaware that the apartment the two house-sit together is a front for a drug ring.
And like that, everything seems peachy. The space cadet Jeanne has finally made contact. Until Franck’s drug dealer identity is violently revealed and police question Jeanne, pushing her further into alienation than when the film began.
Out come the scissors to slash her own face and chop her hair, the marker to adorn her chest with swastikas — suddenly, Jeanne is on the evening news. She chooses to ignore her lost intimacy with Franck by inviting in quite the opposite — full media attention.
Why does Jeanne choose to fake an anti-Semitic attack? Techine doesn’t give us those answers intentionally — this isn’t a character study of one specific woman. Jeanne is the idiosyncratic weirdo in all of us, without answers for her actions, just the emotions that caused them. She’s looking for something, but not sure what.
Unfortunately, the film falls to the same fate. With a more coherent plot and a deeper look at Jeanne, this highly stylized drama could’ve said something — not about anti-Semitism, but rather about our inane grabs for love, for attention, for emotion in a world that often seems horribly sterile. Instead, we’re left with an underdeveloped subplot involving Jeanne’s mother’s lost love with a Jewish lawyer, a suggested sex scene between Jeanne and a 13-year-old bar mitzva boy and tons of stilted dialogue.
Though “Girl” may lack fluidity in plot or character development, as a piece of purely visual art it’s stunning. Techine’s shots are close, often awkwardly focused on the human face, and the colors of Paris pop and crackle.
When Jeanne and Franck type to each other in one scene, their half-naked bodies transported to the other through computer Web cams, the stop-start conversation mixed with the dimly-lit rooms and silence make for a thing of intimate, ultra-personal beauty.
Ultimately, though, we understand Jeanne’s drive to do something horrible just to feel again. Who hasn’t gone to extremes in times of desperation? We simply need to see under her mysterious shroud to connect with her. “The Girl on the Train” buys the ticket of portraying the oddness human nature, but it never takes the ride.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Want to go?
“The Girl on the Train,”
opens Friday, April 16,
Manor, Squirrel Hill,