Identity, whether anchored in family, eros, or heritage, is at the root of The Girl on the Train, a fitfully compelling drama by André Téchiné derived from a real-life incident of a young Parisian woman who falsely claimed to be the victim of an anti-Semitic beating. Twenty-one-year-old Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne), jobless and breezily adrift, spends the early days of summer rollerblading along the Seine with earbuds in place, leaving her mother (Catherine Deneuve) to fret about the girl's employability and direction. Soon after Jeanne hooks up with an aspiring Olympic wrestler (Nicolas Duvauchelle, perfectly embodying slack-jawed trouble) and cluelessly shares a drug-front store's “caretaking” duties with him, disaster strikes, and her romance and self-esteem spiral into a fateful decline. Moved to empathy by Holocaust footage and a failed job interview with a Jewish activist-lawyer old flame (Michel Blanc) of Mom's, the Gentile femme takes a marker and scissors to her body in concocting a hate crime.
With something of a reverse structure to that of Téchiné's last film, the sneakily powerful AIDS period piece The Witnesses, Girl on the Train bounces between the two families headed by Deneuve and Blanc before bringing them together to sort out the moral and media firestorm unleashed by her daughter's fabrication. But too many of the narrative strands are a muddle; the lawyer's globetrotting son and ex-daughter-in-law (Mathieu Demy, Ronit Elkabetz) bicker so passionately you can't doubt they'll fall into bed, while their jaded adolescent son (Jérémy Quaegebeur), approaching his bar mitzvah, is bound to bring some balance to Jeanne's attraction to Judaism as a guarantor of social significance and comfort. (“I only have the right to shut up,” the boy mouths off to his religious mother and secular father.) In his fruitful last decade of work, Téchiné has regularly made such novelistic complexity hum, but the connections and themes are muddled here. Where Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu made a particularly rich late-life twosome in Changing Times, she and Blanc's awkward dynamic seems tacked on and shortchanged, along with details like the death of Jeanne's father while serving in the army in '80s Afghanistan.
Téchiné stages a seductive and slightly menacing foreplay-by-webcam scene, and still portrays the self-deceptions and failures of French bourgeois life with some sting, particularly through the condemning words of Quaegebeur and Duvauchelle. But Dequenne's Jeanne is something of a dullard to center even a busy ensemble tale upon; as her outlaw boyfriend finally tells her, “You're an airhead.” Her character holds not the mystery of an enigmatic liar, but the clichéd neediness of “I just wanted to be loved.” There might have been deeper currents of envy and displaced shame to plumb in the case of Girl on the Train, but for once this reliably penetrating filmmaker hasn't found them.