Slippery Wit

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A man gets off a train in a small town in provincial France. He has a bad complexion and an aggressive beard and wears a tough-guy leather jacket. He is Milan (Johnny Hallyday, the durable French rock star), and he is a thief, in town to meet his gang and rob a bank.

In a drugstore he meets Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a retired schoolteacher puttering his life away with jigsaw puzzles and piano playing. Manesquier is awaiting a life-threatening operation, scheduled for the same moment as the robbery.

Talkative Manesquier puts up silent Milan (the local hotel is closed) and quickly senses he's up to no good. That's all right with him. He could use a little vicarious excitement in his life. He talks Milan into giving him shooting lessons. The hard case, tired, increasingly at odds with his none-too-bright fellow criminals, begins to like rambling around the teacher's big old house in carpet slippers. Dullness, predictability, a spot of poetry now and then — how bad could that be?

What's this? A philosophical heist movie? Not exactly. Claude Klotz's script for Man on the Train has a wintry wit about it, and the modest incidents that define the two figures toying with transformation have a believable, saving naturalism. Director Patrice Leconte, whose specialty is lonely eccentrics (The Girl on the Bridge, Monsieur Hire), is at his best with these impeccable actors — a noncommittal observer of half-realized dreams and, in this case, the creator of an elegantly polished little film.