‘The Girl on the Train’ delves deep into character’s psychology

By Andy Tybout

‘The Girl on the Train’

Directed by: André… ‘The Girl on the Train’

Directed by: André Téchiné

Starring: Émilie Dequenne, Michel Blanc

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SBS Films

Grade: B+

From “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Munich,” hate crimes have served as cinematic fodder since the film industry’s inception. But in the French film “The Girl on the Train,” acclaimed director André Téchiné throws a wrench into the formula — what if, Téchiné asks, the hate crime was fake?

Based on a real incident in 2004, the film follows a young woman, Jeanne, through her slow psychological deterioration, culminating in her impulsive decision to cast herself as the victim of a fabricated anti-Semitic crime.

Jeanne’s descent accounts for nearly half the film. At the beginning, she seems a stable, if submissive, young woman when she falls for a brash young wrestler, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who promises her money, and, in time, marriage.

After a few flings, the couple decides to take their chances and abandon their former lives for a life together.

But when an accident nearly claims the life of her would-be husband, Jeanne takes the trauma and the subsequent falling out to heart — in an effort “to be loved,” Jeanne draws a swastika on her stomach, cuts herself and tells the police she’s been attacked by anti-Semites.

It’s a somewhat baffling turn, and it takes the rest of the film — set mostly in the solitary reserve of a country estate — to unpack the logic behind her actions. It’s an original, and mostly effective, narrative arc — allowing time to both examine Jeanne’s background and explore the consequences of her actions.

The film’s strongest aspect, as is the case with the best psychological dramas, is the acting. Jeanne, Franck and the concerned adults encircling them exercise a range of emotion perfectly tailored to Jeanne’s bizarre predicament. It seems everyone in this film teeters on the brink of debilitating sadness — a modern melancholy borne of missed opportunities and dreams unfulfilled. By the end, viewers get the sense that all these characters, not just Jeanne, have suffered some sort of breakdown.

Émilie Dequenne is especially deft in her portrayal of Jeanne — making it impossible to dismiss her character as merely “stupid” or “naive.” As a result, viewers may feel more sympathy towards the fraud’s perpatrator than any other character.

The emotional weight of the film’s end, however, comes up a bit short. Because the story’s centerpiece — Jeanne’s breakdown — falls precisely in the middle of the film, the subsequent action serves as a sort of calm, extended resolution. In contrast with most movies, the most powerful scenes are found in the middle — the moments when Jeanne is most vulnerable and most devastated. There, at least, the audience feels there’s a real danger — a frailty that’s profoundly affecting.

I’m not sure if this emotional dissipation is a problem the film could ever fix, given the fact that a faked hate crime requires both background and consequence to fully comprehend. But when the credits roll, it may seem the emotional weight of “The Girl on the Train” has disappeared.

Make no mistake: “The Girl on the Train” is an excellent study of Jeanne’s fragile psyche, and in most other respects, an excellent film. Just don’t expect it to break your heart.