Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train
When the filmmaker François Reichenbach was dying, he told his friend, the screenwriter Danièle Thompson, that he was going to be buried in his family plot in the country town of Limoges, and that any of his Parisian friends who really cared would have to take the train to visit him. These words, so charged with meaning and feeling, became the centerpiece of Thompson's script for Patrice Chéreau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. The title phrase represents a dying man delivering a last command to those he gathered around him in life, his friends, relatives and lovers: come see me, take a journey, because paying your respects won't be easy. The geographical displacement transforms the funeral and its aftermath into an adventure, into something grand and epic, freighted with meaning: it's like a pilgrimage, where the distance traveled adds to the spiritual and emotional impact of what's experienced at the destination. By delivering this commandment, Reichenbach's stand-in for the film, the "minor painter" Jean-Baptiste Emmerich (Jean-Louis Trintignant), turns his death into a test for his friends, an opportunity to bring them all together, a last game for him to play.
The film is thus a prolonged meditation on death, on friendship, and especially on families, both the ones we're born into and the ones we make for ourselves with those we meet in life. A huge, unwieldy cast of characters gathers at a Paris train station, finding one another through the bustle and chaos: various friends and enemies, ex-lovers and estranged friends, all of them bound together by complicated relationships. All of them also revolve around the common nexus of Jean-Baptiste, who in life seems to have been a much-beloved central figure in many people's lives, but also a figure of destructiveness, causing much pain to those around him, all these people now journeying so far for his funeral. Jean-Baptiste himself remains an enigma in the film, never present directly: he speaks on the soundtrack periodically, his voice preserved for a magazine interview, and he appears, silent and brooding, walking around his art studio in elegiac interludes that Chéreau inserts into the loose flow of the narrative.
Mostly, though, Jean-Baptiste is present in the stories and recriminations of the people attending his funeral. For his nephew Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), he was a "spiritual father," much preferred to Jean-Marie's real father, Jean-Baptiste's twin brother Lucien (also played, later in the film, by Trintignant). But Jean-Baptiste also determinedly injected strife into Jean-Marie's marriage to the drug-addicted Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), to the point that the couple is now on the verge of divorce, barely able to speak to each other. There's also Jean-Baptiste's ex-lover François (Pascal Greggory), traveling with his new lover Louis (Bruno Todeschini), who's instantly distracted by the appearance of the young, HIV-positive pretty boy Bruno (Sylvain Jacques), who has also slept with both François and Jean-Baptiste. Other cast members hang out around the fringes. The mean-spirited Thierry (Roschdy Zem), Jean-Baptiste's former nurse, drives his patient's coffin across the countryside, sometimes parallel with the train, while his wife and kleptomaniac daughter Elodie (Delphine Schiltz) ride with the others.
Nearly a dozen other characters drift through the film, part of this crowd traveling to Limoges for a man they all loved and hated in roughly equal measure. In the film's frantic opening scenes, Chéreau shows little concern for stabilizing the audience, instead letting his handheld camera bounce and jangle through the crowded station and train, picking out the faces of the principals as though discovering familiar friends within the chaos. Facts and details start to accumulate, stories start to take shape, hints of the past appear as bitchy rumors or harsh accusations, and names are thrown about with little concern for identifying anyone or making the relationships truly clear. It's an audacious opening, thrusting the audience into the midst of this well-established network. Chéreau simply lets the stories and characters emerge naturally from his dense, free-associative montage. Little details stand out: the charged glances between Louis and Bruno, the sprite-like smile of Elodie before she steals a pack of cookies, the frazzled urgency of Claire as she hastily prepares herself in a shaky train bathroom before going out to meet the others.
Once in Limoges, the film settles down into an explosive melodrama, as all these people, many of whom haven't been in the same room with one another for years, are reunited, bringing up old fights and jealousies, as well as further opening the cracks in their current relationships. It's all tense and brilliantly acted, and Chéreau navigates these unstable conversations and arguments with his fluid camerawork, sometimes gliding gracefully through a scene, letting the rigid blocking define the relationships, while at other times cutting fast and ragged while the handheld camera spins and shakes to follow the action. Thompson's script deserves a lot of the credit as well, for saying so much between the lines, leaving important matters unspoken, but also knowing how to have the characters just blurt things out without allowing it to verge into naked exposition. There's a wonderful scene, late in the film, where a phone call between François and Louis, with Bruno listening in, becomes a beneath-the-surface conversation between François and Bruno instead, with the former indirectly apologizing and explaining himself, letting his ex-lover know why their relationship fell apart. It's all handled subtly, with discrete exchanges of closeups and pointed dialogue that seems to be directed at Louis but delivers an entirely different meaning to the eavesdropping Bruno.
There's a similar grace and subtlety in the treatment of Viviane (Vincent Perez), a transsexual once better known to the assembled guests as a man. Now she drifts, mysterious and strange, through the crowd, unrecognized, provoking murmurs of wonder about who this stranger could be. Chéreau communicates this mystery in the way he has her move, her hair falling around her face, through the Emmerichs' palatial but decaying family home, and then pulls aside the curtain of mystery in a series of scenes, late in the film, where Viviane increasingly bares her soul to Claire in intimate conversation, and then literally bares her/his body for the camera. She arrives late but winds up being one of the film's most fascinating characters, particularly during an unlikely seduction/flirtation between her and the melancholy Lucien, who comes alive, free of the weight of the past, when talking to her.
This lovely, powerful film boasts a wide assortment of strong performances, as well as Chéreau's self-assured direction. He deliberately montages together the tightly cramped Cassevetes-like improvisation of the messier crowd scenes with formalist deep-focus shots, complex tracking movements in which characters are constantly moving in different directions, the camera following different ones at different times, and those stark, silent intervals in the dead man's studio, reminders of the film's triggering personage. His soundtrack is equally bold, encompassing a broad array of pop songs, many of them sung in English: Jeff Buckley, Portishead, Björk, Nina Simone, even Cake's deadpan, halting cover of "I Will Survive." These musical choices are sometimes absolutely perfect: the late appearance of Portishead's gorgeous "Western Eyes" is wonderfully suited to Chéreau's slow track along the exterior of the Emmerich house as the lights are put out in one room after another. At other times, however, the soundtrack is invasive and distracting. The taste in songs is impeccable, and there's no arguing with the quality of the music in general, but the way Chéreau uses it sometimes causes the music to sit uncomfortably against the images rather than really enhancing and supporting them. Using Jeff Buckley's "Last Goodbye" for an otherwise moving scene where the train's passengers see Thierry's car speeding along on a parallel road, carrying Jean-Baptiste's coffin, is certainly too spot-on, too obvious and sentimental a choice. The music sometimes becomes like a pop radio collage layered over the images, slightly muted to allow for dialogue, then clumsily bursting back to full volume when the characters aren't speaking. In a film that's otherwise so nuanced and perfectly pitched, the occasional distractions of the soundtrack definitely stand out.
On the whole, however, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train is sublime and exciting. Its filmmaking is visceral and intuitive, fluidly shifting gears as required, encompassing a wide variety of approaches to the expansive, Altmanesque drama that comprises its core. Chéreau's approach is as bold and free-spirited as his title's ultimatum, suggesting a challenge: either love this film, in all its messy excitement and excess, or get off the train.