One of my favorite kinds of film, when it’s done well, is the kind that mimics reality so faithfully you feel as if you’re watching life unfold. Directors like Mike Leigh, Rahmin Bahrani, Laurent Cantet, and Jia Zhang-ke keep the neorealist flame burning in their movies, using a lot of improvisation and mixing real people with gifted professional actors to tell documentary-style fictions about a particular place and time and the people who live there. The plots of these movies are sometimes so loosely constructed they barely provide a through line, let alone a neat dramatic arc, but the insights and interactions they capture keep them interesting, whether they’re character studies of a person, like Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, or of a place, like Zia’s studies of the monumental changes taking place in China these days.
André Téchiné may not be part of the nuclear family of neo-neorealists, but he’s definitely a member of the tribe. The Girl on the Train, which I missed in theaters earlier this year but caught last night on pay-per-view TV, fits into that tradition, with its artful mix of fact and fiction (a title card at the end identifies it as “a work of fiction inspired by true events”) and stalwart refusal to fit reality into too neat a box. In the end, The Girl on the Train was a little too shapeless and inconclusive even for my taste, but I’m glad I saw it, as there was a lot in this beautifully shot meditation on human nature that I loved.
The actors bear a lot of the burden of making movies like this succeed, and Téchiné lined up some world-class sherpas to do his heavy lifting. Émilie Dequenne, who looks like a cross between Drea de Matteo and Alia Shawkat, is enigmatic yet sympathetic as Jeanne, the “girl” of the title (she’s really more of a young woman, stuck in that awkward place between adolescence and adulthood). But most of my favorite parts of The Girl on the Train involved watching the mesmerizing Catherine Deneuve, who plays Jeanne’s mother, Louise. Deneuve is something of a muse for Téchiné (she’s been in six of his movies, starting with 1981’s Hôtel des Amériques), and he gives her as much screen time here as anyone else but Dequenne. That gives the actress space to develop a nuanced portrait of a woman who leans back from life, though she can be warm too. I loved watching this cool character interact with the toddlers she tends to at her in-home day care. She also has great chemistry with the emotionally accessible Michel Blanc, whose sad-eyed stillness helped center The Witnesses and who plays a lawyer here.
Jeanne and Louise still live together and are very close (Jeanne describes them as inseparable), yet they seem emotionally distant too, each one enclosed in her own private world. So it’s not too surprising that her mother is taken completely by surprise when Jeanne draws some swastikas on herself, cuts herself up a bit, and claims she was attacked by anti-Semites on the train. Louise has no idea why her daughter would have done such a thing, and neither do we, since the film offers no explanations. Not even Jeanne seems to understand why she did it, but the second half of the movie offers some markers that may light the way to the truth.
Earlier, when Jeanne’s boyfriend is arrested as an accomplice to a drug dealer, one of the cops who questions Jeanne tells her she needs to “learn to open your eyes.” That pretty much sums up what we see of this clueless young woman, who seems to be drifting through life with no discernible interests other than rollerblading and travel, no common sense, and no marketable skills (when she applies for a job, her interviewer muses: “Your exact skills escape me”). The camera sometimes shoots her through a scrim of trees or water, the visual equivalent of our murky sense of her inner life.
That murkiness can feel a little frustrating, and there’s a lot of business with a bar mitzvah in the lawyer’s family that seems irrelevant except as a way to shoehorn some Franco-Jewish culture into a movie touching on French anti-Semitism. But I appreciate the fact that Téchiné didn’t invent some tidy reason to explain why inchoate kids like Jeanne—and Tawana Brawley, to name just one from our own recent headlines—do this kind of thing every so often. And whatever motivates them, as this movie implies, you probably can’t find it by digging too deeply.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.