The road not taken winds through every life. In the low-key French drama "The Man on the Train," it winds from the train station where a stranger disembarks one early evening to the squeaking gate behind which another man waits for something to happen. That these men are destined for each other is a given, not only because opposites attract even in French movies, but because when the proper small-town bourgeois, Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), sets eyes on the outsider, Milan (Johnny Hallyday), he can't keep his eyes off him.
It's no wonder. With his coat-hanger shoulders and his startling physiognomy, Milan (and Hallyday) is something to look at. Hallyday first burst on the French music scene during the 1950s, doing covers of American rock 'n' roll hits; since then he's nurtured a thriving singing career, making regular forays into movies, most forgettable, some not.
In this film he fills the screen up like a colossus. Director Patrice Leconte opens the movie with a shot of Hallyday that gets us close enough that we can marvel at the singer's bumper-sized lips and the way his skin stretches over his peaked cheekbones as tightly as the skin of a drum. He's only riding the suburban rails, but as far as Leconte is concerned, he might as well be riding the Mystery Train.
Even if you'd never heard of Hallyday, everything in this Mt. Rushmore moment -- the ravaged landscape of the face, the intimacy and duration of the shot -- speaks of a legend, and the promise of something weighty. It's disappointing, then, that nothing of great consequence or interest happens in "The Man on the Train," despite the two appealing leads, the vaguely menacing atmosphere and the moody blues of Jean-Marie Dreujou's cinematography. Tucked inside Manesquier's dusty house, the men drink, break baguettes and discuss poetry, the cosmos and, of course, women. Milan tries to set up a heist, and Manesquier eloquently voices regret about the placidity of a schoolteacher's life.
In time, the men appraise their life choices. For one, the road was perilous but thrilling; for the other, it was as uniform as his temperament. The conversations continue, and something of a plot emerges. More strangers descend; a plan is hatched, a heart imperiled; and an ending starts scratching at the door. Both actors are fine company, particularly Rochefort, a favorite of the director.
Leconte has made a handful of whimsies, some charming ("The Hairdresser's Husband," also with Rochefort), some pleasurably creepy ("Monsieur Hire") and some a daft amalgam of both (notably "Girl on the Bridge").
As a filmmaker, he doesn't have anything profound to say but does say his something with craft, visual flair and professionalism. Depending on your mood, that can be either too little or just enough.
'The Man on the Train'
MPAA rating: R, for some language and brief violence
Times guidelines: Adult language, some bloodshed
Paramount Classics and Philippe Carcassonne present a Cine B, Zoulou Films, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, FCC Tubedale Films, Pandora Film Produktion, Cinema Parisien, Media Suits co-production, in association with Film Council, with the participation of the Region Rhone-Alpes from the Centre National de la Cinematographie, and of Canal +, with the support of Eurimages, in association with Sofica Sofinergie 5, Natexis Banque Populaires Images 2, released by Paramount Classics. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Cecchi Gori Fine Arts Theater, 8566 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330, and Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 477-5581.