Andre Techiné has the flu. Appropriately if unhelpfully, the conference call line from Paris is also a bit buggy, but the filmmaker is insistent on completing an interview, repeatedly cutting off his assistant and his publicist when they try to bring the conversation to a halt before he is finished making his point.
That, too, is appropriate, because Techiné’s films, including “The Girl on the Train,” which opens Jan. 22, are insistent, probing and highly intelligent like their creator.
His latest effort takes as its starting point a real incident from July 2004, the false allegation by Jeanne, a troubled non-Jewish girl that she was the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime while riding the Metro. However, “The Girl on the Train” is focused more on the title figure’s emotional and mental disturbance (wonderfully incarnated by Emilie Duquenne), as the titles of the film’s two halves — “The Circumstances” and “The Consequences” — clearly indicate. In a sense, “The Girl on the Train” is less about the state of French Jews than it is about a culture that encourages a certain victimolatry in the media; Jeanne (Duquenne) watches a documentary about the Shoah, tears running down her face, the night before she alleges she was attacked. Clearly, in a world dominated (and a film dominated) by the visual tropes of the mass media, she is incapable of understanding the implications of the larger historical realities or even, it would seem, her own foolish actions.
It was the lie itself that drew Techiné to the project first.
“It’s very simply the question of how to tell the story of a lie [that intrigued me],” he says. “What I wanted to show was how she found in reality the information she proceeded to report, the elements of fantasy and news that she completely distorted. She deformed the reality in order to make it coincide with her own desire. And she doesn’t realize the seriousness of what she has done.”
One of the distinguishing marks of Techiné’s films is his extraordinary concern for and rapport with young men and women. Troubled adolescents and young adults are never far from the center of most of his films, from “Rendez-vous,” which gave Juliet Binoche her first starring role, through “Wild Reeds,” which launched the career of Elodie Bouchez up to the new movie. “Girl on a Train” features three stunning performances from younger actors, Duquenne, Nicholas Duvachelle, who plays her whip-smart, cheeky boyfriend, and Jérémy Quaegebeur as Nathan, the 13-year-old grandson of the Jewish lawyer with whom her family history is intertwined. He also elicits the usual brilliant performance from Catherine Deneuve, a Techiné regular, as Jeanne’s mother.
Of course, it is Jeanne’s story that is central to “The Girl on the Train,” and Techiné readily admits that even he isn’t entirely sure what motivated her actions.
“I only know the real person through the research and the documentation that I used,” he explains. “She had a very hard time finding her place in a society that did not want her. At least that’s what she claimed.”
The scene in which she watches the documentary about the Shoah suggests that Jeanne is someone whose capacity for empathy has far outstripped her grasp on reality. It is significant that she makes her allegations the following day.
Techiné was concerned that the film “not overanalyze” her behavior, but he acknowledges that his version of Jeanne is becoming incapable of distinguishing between image and event.
“My impression [is that] she was too close to her mother and too protected, and that is part of what made her lose touch with reality,” he says. “Her mother is a child-minder, and spends her life telling stories to children. In reality we know that she wanted to tell the lie in order to exist in the gaze of her mother and lover. The figures of both lover and mother are very important.
“In the real story,” Techiné continued, “Jeanne was very attached to two figures, both mother and boyfriend. She was trying to break away from her attachment to her mother, and when the man rejects her it leads to despair and distress. Her world is falling apart. The media blitz completely overwhelmed her. She was living in a dream when reality caught up with her, a reality that keeps catching up with her. Strangely enough, I think the Shoah, the biggest horror in human history, has become her only rampart against her own self-disintegration.”
But what redoubles the irony, Techiné concludes, is that her lie is made possible by a terrible fact, not just the historical fact of the Shoah but the continuing existence of anti-Semitic violence in France in the past decade.
He explains, “Violent anti-Semitic aggression really does exist. I show that in the first half of the film [with news reports about a rise in the level of anti-Jewish hate crimes in France]. It’s very important for me to show the reality of anti-Semitic violence was based on really existing victims and images.”
And therein, he concludes, “is the paradox: hers is a lie that speaks the truth.”
“The Girl on the Train” opens on Friday, January 22 at the IFC Center (Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place) and the City Cinemas 1, 2, and 3 (1001 Third Avenue at 59th Street).