French film explores anti-Semitism, identity, social issues

Renowned French director/writer Andre Techine draws on an actual incident that divided his country for “The Girl On The Train.” The film follows the life of a young French woman who makes an accusation of anti-Semitism, which ignites a chain of events. The film’s narrative is divided into two parts, first setting up the circumstances of the accusation and then its consequences. The story takes place in 2004 France, when a series of anti-Semitic incidents had the country on edge.

Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne) is an immature young woman living in a modest home in the Parisian suburbs with her single mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve). Jeanne travels by train to the affluent center of Paris, seeking secretarial work in the office of Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a successful attorney and out-spoken Jewish activist. With the recent incidents, Bleistein is a frequent media commentator on anti-Semitism and seems omnipresent on French TV.

It is Jeanne’s mother who urged her daughter to apply for the job the lawyer advertised, despite Jeanne’s own doubts about her qualifications. Jeanne and her mother are close but, while pleasant-natured, the young woman is not ambitiou – she prefers to spend her days rollerblading and only occasionally looking for work. Jeanne is more focused on her budding romance with Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a young man she met rollerblading. As it happens, Jeanne’s mother and Bleistein knew each other during World War II.

While the film teases out the nature of that relationship and follows the developing relationship between Jeanne and Franck, it also explores the Bleisteins’ fractured family relationships. Samuel Bleistein’s office is managed by his ex-daughter-in-law Judith (Ronit Elkabethz). His son Alex (Mathieu Demy) is returning from China as his grandson Nathan (Jeremy Quaegebeur) approaches his bar mitzvah.

Ultimately, there is Jeanne’s accusation of an anti-Semitic attack on the train, by black and Arab youths, followed by an explosion of media coverage, a police force manhunt and political outcry at the highest level. Jeanne claims the thugs thought she was Jewish, attacked her and drew swastikas on her body. The public embrace of the accusation brings to the surface unspoken French fears and guilt, issues of identity and social class divisions.

Writer/director Techine based his script on a play inspired by the real events of 2004, a false claim that divided that country. The director takes some liberties with the facts, as this is drama, not a documentary, but the choice brings out some deeper truths. Although the plot centers on Jeanne and the accusation, the film really spends as much time on the scattered Bleistein family, in an almost parallel story impacted by Jeanne’s lie.

The young actress who plays Jeanne, Emilie Dequenne, won top acting honors at Cannes in 1999 for her role in “Rosetta,” and her portrayal of this often-puzzling young woman is compelling as well. Michel Blanc is excellent as the knowing Samuel and his scenes with Deneuve crackle with unspoken tensions.

The old saying about French films, that nothing happens until the end, is not true for this one, as what seems a gentle romantic film takes a violent turn midway. Director Techine keeps the story moving and involving, using some striking cinematic techniques. There is one especially dramatic scene, where what Jeanne sees is superimposed on her horrified face, a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Techine gives us little glimpses into the characters’ inner life but always something more is hidden.

However, this is not a flawless film. Repeated scenes of Jeanne on trains, perhaps to symbolize her search for identity or unthinking life, do little to tie the story together. Perhaps too much remains hidden and unexplained at the end, despite hints and innuendos. The loose ends and enigmatic characters will likely frustrate some film-goers but if you are willing to tolerate some uncertainty, “The Girl On The Train” is worthwhile for what it says about identity and media. It also offers some fine acting and flashes of visual style.

The Girl on the Train

* Running time: 1:45

* No rating

* In French and Hebrew with subtitles

* Opens April 30 at Plaza Frontenac