The conflict at the heart of French drama “The Girl On The Train” is the plucked-from-the-headlines, real-life story of a gentile girl who claims to be the victim of a violent, anti-Semitic attack on the Parisian Metro. Yet the movie is about a lot more — and a lot less.
For one, it provides no answers whatsoever on lead character Jeanne’s motivation for inventing the crime. The audience is only given her sheepish admission of “I don’t know … I wanted to be loved, and the opposite happens.”
Instead, director André Téchiné takes us inside the summer of a French teenage girl, complete with the angst of being unable to find a job to pay for her Italian vacation (oh, such woe) and the requisite boy drama. In fact, throughout the entire movie, the only undercurrent of threat emanates from her relationship — the made-up crime is entirely out of left field, with no foreshadowing for its development.
Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) lives with her mother (Catherine Deneuve), and seems to have few interests besides her headphones and roller-blades. That is, until she meets the inscrutable and intense wrestler Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle). The whirlwind courtship leads the couple to become caretakers of a warehouse full of questionable wares for the summer — the problem of no money for an Italian vacation solved. After a violent incident, however, Franck and Jeanne’s relationship implodes. Even though up to that point, Franck’s deadpan delivery, intense stares and questionable background make his motives mysterious at best and threatening at worst, it turns out that he had gotten involved in the shady dealings for her sake.
Rather selflessly, he just wanted to give Jeanne a summer vacation, and after the incident, the burden of consequences falls entirely on him, while Jeanne comes out unscathed. This is what makes her invention of the hate crime that follows next all the more bizarre — she wastes no time in grieving or processing what happened with Franck.
Instead, her outlandish reaction to the death of her relationship and her ruined summer, is to fabricate a story emulating the anti-Semitic attack stories she had seen covered on the news. Her story, however, is full of holes — therein lies the race relations commentary of the movie. The media are quick to jump on it — the president even calls Jeanne to offer condolences because this is such a “hot” issue. The matter is all the more convoluted because Jeanne is not Jewish and claims to be mistaken as such because she has the business card of a Jewish lawyer in her bag.
Her story unravels within a matter of days because it is that tenuous and outlandish. The interesting part, however, is that neither her mother nor any of the other characters in the movie actually buy it from the very start. Jeanne names “dark-skinned” inner city youths as her attackers, making this all the more perverse. By playing the victim, she victimizes a minority group.
Dequenne plays Jeanne’s role with an endearing youthful naiveté and Deneuve’s performance as an impossibly patient, bemused mother is also superb. The cinematography is also excellent — Jeanne’s rollerblading is a nice allegory for her floating through life. Had this been a summer vacation story, it might have been more successful. But by not really engaging the story of Jeanne’s lie, it leaves the viewer wanting.