Arguably France’s most unsung living filmmaker, André Téchiné makes dense, novelistic movies paced like thrillers. Go find My Favorite Season (1993) and Wild Reeds (1994)—two films that typify the director’s ability to combine formal elegance with spontaneity, a fondness for ambiguity in human relationships with a willingness to examine how historical wounds shape modern French identity.
Téchiné’s latest, The Girl on the Train, tackles a hot-button true-life case: A few years ago, a suburban wackjob in her 20s falsely claimed to be a victim of a violent anti-Semitic attack, setting off a public frenzy that had journalists hyperventilating, French politicians apologizing, and Israel calling for Jews to flee France. (The kicker: She was a goy.) Unsurprisingly, Téchiné takes an off-center approach. Instead of documenting the controversy, he reimagines the series of circumstances, relationships, and emotions that might have led this young woman to cry wolf.
The film’s first half—in which aimless Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) job hunts, fools around with a bad-boy wrestler, and placates her fretting mother (a convincing Catherine Deneuve)—has a nervous energy and some brilliantly observed moments of twentysomething dislocation that hint at the curveball to come.
But this time, Téchiné’s angle feels too off-center. His camera is as fluid and unpredictable as ever (check out a virtuoso scene of flirtation on Rollerblades), yet one can’t avoid the sense that he’s dancing around the subject without getting to the heart of the matter: France’s complicated relationship with its Jewish citizens. The Girl on the Train nods at the sociopolitical significance of the case in a second act that deals with a Jewish lawyer and his grandson’s upcoming bar mitzvah, but it feels rushed and never tied convincingly to the portrait of a young woman adrift. We don’t come close to understanding Jeanne’s very particular choice of fabricated victimization, and Téchiné, erring too much on the side of enigma, doesn’t seem to, either.