Thankful for World Cinema: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train, the latest film from French auteur André Téchiné perhaps most well known for his film Wild Reeds, examines the ramifications of the allegations by a girl who claims she was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. Note: this review may contain spoilers.

The film is interesting in how it structures itself. It sets itself up in two parts. Part one is called “Circumstances” and part two is called “Consequences.” As expected, they each examine both what lead to the attack and what happened afterwards as a result of it. Sectioned films are not uncommon and it would be an interesting case study for film students to show that you can build your story in a very rococo fashion, as Rohmer did at times did, and still make it intriguing.

The Consequences section is very focused and really only shows the impact on Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) and her mother (Catherine Deneuve). There is an overheard media report and they receive a letter from the president, and an interview. However, you don’t really feel the frenzy as much as you might think because they go into hiding and then to an acquaintance’s country house. So there are both positives and negatives to the singular focus.

Unfortunately, this is one of those films whose logline tells you the midpoint of the story, as does the synopsis. So if you go in as a blank slate you’re fine, otherwise you’ll wait a bit.

A shortcoming of this film is that once the twist is unveiled it truly doesn’t attempt to examine Jeanne’s psyche and see why and for what cause she did what she did. It’s kind of like burying the lead, or as Ebert wrote in his opinion of Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (which I disagree with) that it missed the story. We see someone who did what they did, show no real remorse and then eventually confess, apologize and it’s over. What have we really learned? Not enough, if anything.

While the film struggles a bit with pace and scenes where our lead was just skating about could have been truncated if not excised completely there were some good things in the edit. Specifically, the film frequently fades to black putting a cap on a certain portion of the story and allowing you to reflect on it these were rather good more often than not. Towards the end it is not serving the story more often than not.

In the two young leads you get characters you just watch and don’t necessarily identify with that greatly, which is not necessarily a bad thing but it magnifies shortcomings in the execution of the tale. First, there is Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who makes a nuisance of himself until he wins over Jeanne, then falls into very shady business dealings and doesn’t inform her though he makes her an accomplice, then the character we have somewhat followed changes completely and in this regard the film leaves us as spectators and not participants, as opposed to the fades which do the opposite. This is a confused vision in this regard. It should be one or the other.

Catherine Deneuve in this film is just there again. It seems as if it’s been quite some time say since 8 Femmes since she’s been outstanding and not just part of the cast, however, hers, like many foreign filmographies is incomplete stateside.

The Girl on the Train is an interesting albeit flawed film that just missed the mark but still ultimately worth viewing and judging for yourself.

5/10

Thankful for World Cinema: North Sea Texas

This past weekend the Belgian Film North Sea Texas opened in New York and Los Angeles. I was fortunate enough to watch this film in July when it screened at Q Fest in Philadelphia. Based on the plot synopsis I had hopes that it would be a good film, what I didn’t expect was for the film to be somewhat groundbreaking in the annals of gay cinema, and, yes, I feel that the way in which the film handles its subject can render it universal. However, the fact remains that it will be pigeonholed as such due to what it’s about. The way in which it’s groundbreaking is startlingly simple: it’s a positive, affirmative film that essentially says love conquers all. Now, on the surface you might think you’ve seen that done a thousand times, and you have for a film about heterosexual romance. It happens less often in gay-themed films, and is even more infrequent in gay-themed films about first love.

Now, cinema, for the most part, has evolved past the point that is excruciatingly illustrated in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, which deals with the depiction of LGBT characters in Hollywood films up to that point. However, film in general, even when titles mean well, are beautifully, sensitively crafted and acted; still gravitate towards the quasi- and flat-out tragic tales when it comes to gay or lesbian protagonists.

This is not being judgmental, these are facts, and it’s a case wherein films are attempting to reflect realities. The examples are plentiful such as: This Special Friendship (Les Amitiés particulières) even being French, and dealing with the specifically named and ridiculed boarding-school romance, this is tragedy. Then you have films that deal with repression like Brokeback Mountain, Far From Heaven or even The Hours.

Then there is the kind of film that I expected this one to end up being like: Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages), which is a tale of first romance that is all too typical: best friends one fall for another, there is experimentation but only one feels an emotional attachment because only one of the two is actually gay. It’s a first love deception that is commonplace and fair game for dramas.

However, what North Sea Texas strikes upon, and what makes it work so well and so important is that it’s an idealistic tale. It reminds me of a debate I and a professor had about the Indian film Fire in college. His criticism of the film was that the revelation of, and the familial objection to, a sexual abuse situation was unrealistic. My assertion was “Why should it be?” If you’re trying to make a point be it societal, political or otherwise, there are times when the best way to make it is to seek out an ideal and illustrate it, rather than just illustrating that the problem exists.

Not to say there isn’t drama, conflicts or struggles in North Sea Texas but the resolution to the the dramatic question the film poses is an overwhelmingly positive and beautiful one, made even more powerful because of how rarely it is seen.

It is also an extraordinarily timely one. With equality issues coming to the fore in many countries around the world, principally the United States, it is extremely useful and reassuring to see an illustration of it “getting better” and not merely being told that. Furthermore, this is not merely an assertion I’m making based on my read of the film, but it is also included in the credits where the film is dedicated to the kids whose parents refused to allow them to participate in the making of the film.

North Sea Texas is a wonderfully rendered artistic film that should win over any and all open-minded fans of film, but any film has its target audience and for the audience targeted here there are few films that ever so firmly, staunchly and beautifully espoused its over- and underlying messages. Few films can really said to be of social significance beyond just being a film. This, I believe, is definitely one of them. It may take time, but this film is one that I believe will stand the test of time and become quite a milestone. You may even try to dismiss it as a fairy tale if you want, but that could well be the point. For who doesn’t deserve their happily ever after?