Catherine Deneuve, one of the screen's legendary beauties, has never looked less glamorous than she does in "The Girl on the Train." I mean this as a compliment. Normally, it's pure affectation when an actress known for her deluxe looks dresses down for a part and goes the no-makeup route. But Deneuve, playing a widow named Louise who makes a living baby-sitting, seems blissfully free of vanity. She was never a great actress, exactly, but she was something rarer – a great movie icon. In "The Girl on the Train," she seems to be saying to us: "I have more to offer you than my legend."
The director and coscreenwriter André Téchiné has worked with Deneuve seven times now, and more than any other filmmaker he has brought out in her a plangent mysteriousness that goes way beyond chic. He has also, especially in this newest film, expunged the goddess from her repertoire. How else could Catherine Deneuve convincingly play, of all things, a baby sitter?
As Louise's daughter Jeanne, Émilie Duquenne is contrastingly ethereal. A compulsive roller blader, she takes up with Franck (Nicolas Devauchelle), a heavily tattooed wrestler with shady business connections. Jeanne's rollerblading is symbolic of the way she conducts her life: She glides in and out of predicaments with an almost scary abandon.
The crux of the film is a disastrous lie that Jeanne perpetrates for no apparent reason. She claims to the police that she was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack on a Paris commuter train and, to back up her story, has cut her face and drawn a swastika on her stomach.
This episode is actually based on an infamous true story from 2004 that scandalized France.
Jeanne is not Jewish – neither was the actual girl. Her story, even after it unravels, stirs up a caldron of ethnic fear and retribution that takes on a life of its own. It remains for Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a prominent Jewish lawyer and an unrequited lover of Louise's, to play the deus ex machina.
Téchiné flows the stories of these people into one another. At times we are watching a movie about Louise, then we swing into Jeanne's whirligig world. Three generations of Bleisteins are also prominently displayed. The film never quite settles into a pleasing, or even discordant, pattern, and this is both the film's distinction and limitation. Téchiné is in love with the sensuous surface of depravity, and he presents Jeanne as a beautiful blank.
This approach has its large attractions, especially since Téchiné is such a gifted sensualist, but there's a shallowness here, too. It's not so much that Téchiné hasn't provided us with enough answers to the riddle of Jeanne. He hasn't provided enough of the right questions, either.
Despite the fact that Jeanne is drawn from real life, she is, ultimately, a filmmaker's figment – a movie vamp drawn equally from Hollywood noir and early Godard. (Jeanne the betrayer could be a soul sister to Jean Seberg in "Breathless.")
Téchiné's movies are always worth seeing, and "The Girl on the Train," for all its faults, has moments that resonate. The relationship between Jeanne and Franck is barely sketched in, and yet it has an eroticism that is almost tactile.
The scenes involving Louise and Samuel are even better. Widowed himself, he still loves her but is past the point of ardor. She sees in his eyes the woman she was. Their relationship could have sustained a movie all on its own, but be thankful for the movie we have.