Bucking the trend of recent weeks, this Tuesday yielded a bumper crop of good films appearing on home video for the first time. Writer-director Oren Moverman's The Messenger, which holds the all-too-rare distinction of having received Oscar nominations it actually deserved (for its screenplay and for Woody Harrelson's supporting performance), came out, as did the compelling podium-shock documentary American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein. Clint Eastwood's generally well reviewed Invictus, also new on video, didn't do much for me, but if you are induced to nap during it as I was (that slow-motion rugby sank in like a lullaby), you can rest assured that what you're missing is all very dignified.
But the best thing arriving on the heels of its theatrical release just might be Andre Téchiné's The Girl on the Train, aka La Fille du RER. (It's also available "instantly" for Netflix subscribers.) The film's scenario is ripped from the headlines—specifically headlines like "Frenchwoman Says She Lied About Anti-Semitic Attack," which blanketed France in the summer of 2004. But the tone here is far from muckrake-or-bust. Though early headphones-on Rollerblading sessions have a curious teenybopped quality, and (doomed) love later blossoms via video chat, veteran writer-director Téchiné (Rendez-vous, Wild Reeds, and most recently The Witnesses) stays trained on the characters and their complex interrelationships; throughout, his focus remains on fleshing out the imagined backstory of the fabricated attack, not its lurid fallout.
Emilie Duquenne (Rosetta) plays Jeanne, a young woman who lives in the Paris suburbs with her mother, Louise (Catherine Deneuve). Louise is perhaps a little too insistent about finding Jeanne employment--the mother asks her daughter if she can take a crack at writing a cover letter--but in these early scenes their seemingly happy domestic situation calls to mind the father-grown daughter dynamic in Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum (the superficial similarities between the films also extend to the narrative prominence of suburbs-traversing commuter trains).
But then Jeanne takes up with Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a tattooed wrestler she meets while Rollerblading, and eventually moves in with him while he looks after an electronics store. Things then take some turns for the worse that I should probably not divulge here, other than to say that in a desperate bid for attention Jeanne winds up slashing her face, drawing swastikas on her stomach, and claiming six rabidly anti-Semitic men were responsible. After the "attack," the family of a high-profile lawyer, Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), whom Louise knows from long ago and whom Jeanne early in the film has a job interview with, takes on an increasingly important role.
A hard story to synopsize succinctly, and at times it also threatens to spin entirely out of Téchiné's control, but the director's digressive energy and the often ambiguous motivations of his characters contrast interestingly with the film's diptych structure. Téchiné and co-writer Odile Barski, adapting a play by Jean-Marie Besset, split the story into two distinct parts--titled "Circumstances" and "Consequences"--making The Girl on the Train the second French film reaching the U.S. this year to call attention to life's loose ends by way of a neatly bifurcated narrative (the other, the superb The Father of My Children, also inspired by real-life events, opens in limited release next Friday).
While Duquenne and Deneuve are both terrific, The Girl on the Train's shifts in mood from scene to scene are its most memorable aspect. The film begins with a blast of bagpipes from Robert Bresson's Lancelot of the Lake as a train snakes through a dark tunnel, and from there Téchiné proceeds to make the most of a string of odd-but-somehow-spot-on soundtrack cuts (Jeanne listens to Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" during one of the many scenes of in-line skating). Strung together, these pop-scored pocket environments make The Girl on the Train feel not so much disjointed as believably lived in. Téchiné repurposes old national news into a full-immersion character study—but his film still draws you in like a well-turned lede.