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Identity Poetics

In the opening scenes of Patrice Leconte’s new movie, Man on the Train, a stranger wearing that uniquely Parisian air of well-groomed despair gets off a train in a sleepy provincial town. Played with languid grace by France’s most enduring rock icon, Johnny Hallyday, the man, whose name is Milan, appears in almost painful close-up, his craggy face huge, his gait fluid and confident, his fringed leather jacket sexily hugging his body. He seems almost to swim in the cold, gunmetal light that frames him, his blue eyes dead as those of any defeated cowboy — an effect compounded by the twang of the lone guitar that marks his progress down a cobbled side street. Then, in the kind of tonal shift that tends to occur in Leconte’s loopy creations, Milan (named after the spaghetti-Western character actor Thomas Milan) walks into a pharmacy in search of aspirin. There he meets Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), an old man in a sensible raincoat, who invites him home for a glass of water, then suggests he stay until Saturday, when both men have urgent appointments to keep. As garrulous and forthcoming as his guest is silent and evasive, Manesquier rattles around in an old house cluttered with the paraphernalia of a past (his habitat is colored a warm sepia) he shared with his now-dead mother. Rochefort, who’s starred in many Leconte films (most famously, The Hairdresser’s Husband), has the sad, pulled-down features of an exhausted bloodhound, but there’s wisdom in his baggy eyes and in the wry, self-deprecating banter he lobs at the taciturn Milan. (The caustically urbane screenplay is by Leconte’s longtime associate, Claude Klotz.)

A retired poetry teacher and a creature of habit, Manesquier conducts himself like a man relieved of the need for social proprieties. Though unfailingly hospitable to his guest, he thinks nothing of rummaging through Milan’s drawers and finding the three gleaming guns the mystery man has hidden there, or of harassing his own beloved but timid sister into admitting that her husband is a “fat prick.” But if living unburdened by the expectations of others has been his liberation, it is also his tragedy. Manesquier has lived a life untouched by adventure or risk. We see him whispering a Wyatt Earp monologue into his mirror, and it’s inevitable he will fall in love with what he imagines to be Milan’s wild life. Just as it’s inevitable that Milan, whose chosen career has left him bereft of family, love and poetry, will come to envy the old man his comfortable old slipper of a life.

Odd couples are practically a franchise in Leconte’s films. His best work — the dumpy tailor spying on his gorgeous neighbor in Monsieur Hire, the little boy fixated on the hairstylist in The Hairdresser’s Husband, the engineer-aristocrat and the scientist’s daughter in Ridicule, the knife thrower and his assistant in Girl on the Bridge — uses the blueprint romantically, to create a privileged space in which outcast couples thumb their noses at bourgeois convention. For all their apparent antic looseness, though, his movies are meticulously high concept, hovering on the brink of — and sometimes tipping into, as in the dull and pointless The Widow of Saint-Pierre — programmatic whimsy. Leconte himself seems a touch too addicted to the pat reversals of bourgeois comedy — in addition to Milan and Manesquier, Man on the Train features an art-loving burglar and a thug who dispenses high-flown aphorisms. Man on the Train is far from a spontaneous movie — the passage of this relationship is mapped from the get-go — but it is warm and deep, and its visual style bespeaks a new maturity in Leconte. Man on the Train is a meditation on aging, on the passage of time and the tyranny of habit in every life. It speaks to the quixotic desire to know what it feels like to be someone else, someone utterly different from ourselves — the reason we talk to strangers, the reason we go to the movies. By most standards Man on the Train doesn’t have a happy ending, yet Milan and Manesquier have given each other the gift that good films will always give to us. They’ve completed each other’s dreams.

In cinema as in life, identity politics have proved a mixed blessing. The upside is that since the ’60s, the movement has cleared spaces, albeit of unequal size, for minorities to make movies about themselves. That can’t be bad, but once you’ve been given a voice, you still have to figure out how to use it well. On the debit side, “identity filmmaking” has bred a certain arrogance, an entitled claim that movies made on the social margins are by definition noble and exempt from the usual critical standards.

A Family Affair, a lesbian romantic comedy by Helen Lesnick, with little going for it but the first-time director’s desire to bare her dispiritingly unimaginative love life to the world, has made the rounds of dozens of gay and lesbian film festivals, where it has unaccountably won some prizes. The movie has a lively reverse premise to its credit — it’s about the trials of a lesbian whose parents, so far from being shocked and appalled at having a gay daughter, are overfunctioning members of the support group PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Sardonic lesbian Rachel Rosen (played by Lesnick in eye-rolling standup mode) returns from New York to her home town, San Diego, to recover from a breakup. Within minutes, she moves in with “Ms. Rightowitz,” an excruciatingly wholesome shiksa jockette named Christine (Erica Shaffer), whose loving maturity throws the commitment-phobic Rachel for a loop. Her parents (Arlene Golonka and Michael Moerman) dote on the new lover and push for an early wedding, but just as the skittish Rachel is coming around, her former lover (played by Michele Greene, who once delivered a pioneering girl-to-girl kiss on television’s L.A. Law, and whose professionalism throws the hamming of the other “actors” into sharp relief), blows into town, threatening to gum up the works. You see where this is going.

A Family Affair is barely competent. The pacing never accelerates beyond sluggish, and Lesnick’s script is an awkward pile of gag lines. The message is coyer and more thoroughly girl-next-door traditional than any straight movie I’ve seen in a long while. Worse, in the production notes Lesnick trumpets a proud disdain for the training and experience most aspiring filmmakers expect to go through before they strike out on their own. (How Small Planet Pictures, which released the well-received Tully last year, was persuaded to distribute this amateur effort is a mystery, unless they thought all those festival-audience awards assured box-office success.) Lesnick is trying to ride two horses at once. She wants to reap the privileges of an oppressed minority while persuading us that gays are just like everybody else. She’s also wedded to the preposterous idea that gays spend 24 hours a day being gay. There’s no longer any need for such special pleading. Gay film, if such it can be called, has been out for a while, and the best of the bunch — I think of the extraordinary Parting Glances, Love and Death on Long Island, The Opposite of Sex, Boys Don’t Cry, L.I.E. and Far From Heaven, among others — neither shriek gay identity nor try to cuddle up to straights. Their directors know how to make movies, and they give us a world of which gayness is a part. Until she can do that, Helen Lesnick may want to spend some time at the drawing board.

MAN ON THE TRAIN | Directed by PATRICE LECONTE Written by CLAUDE KLOTZ | Produced by PHILIPPE CARCASSONNE | Released by Paramount Classics | At Laemmle’s Fina Arts and Laemmle’s Royal

A FAMILY AFFAIR | Written and directed by HELEN LESNICK | Produced by VALERIE PICHNEY | Released by Small Planet Pictures | At Laemmle’s Fairfax and Laemmle’s Town Center 5