Unable to find a hotel in the provincial French town, Milan (Johnny Hallyday) is invited into the home of an eccentric poetry teacher Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) as talkative as the stranger is reticent. Manesquier lives a comfortable if dull existence in his dead mother's richly appointed mansion filled with oil paintings and overstuffed furniture and seems to welcome the outlaw's provocative presence.
The dynamic of the film quickly shifts from a sense of expectation for the heist that has surely brought Milan to town, to a more philosophical, melancholy-tinged drama about two men who are slipping into old age and looking back on the lives they've made for themselves.
Milan and Manesquier at first appear to have little in common, but find they are united by a shared sense of aging that has made them reflective and rueful. Though Manesquier seems frivolous and superficial, over time he conveys a real cynicism that matches Milan's similar weariness over the clowns and half-wits in his criminal demimonde. When Milan asks if he was a good teacher, Manesquier quips, "not one pupil molested in 30 years on the job," as if keeping one's hands in one's pockets was the only real requirement for social respectability.
The two men try on each others' identities, at first playfully and then with an earnestness that strikes a more melancholy note. Each is seduced by the foreign glamour of the others' life, more imagined than real. The road-hardened Milan asks to borrow a pair of Manesquier's lounging slippers. He stuffs his cigarette tobacco into Manesquier's pipe, playing the country squire as he flips through a magazine.
Manesquier, seduced by Milan's cowboy glamour, in turn asks for target practice lessons and, deducing why the outlaw is in town, asks if he might join him on his bank robbery.
The sight of this fusty aristocrat pining for a cowboy's life is both touching and comical. And when the hard-edged Milan settles into Manesquier's comfortable, bourgeois world, it suggests his own life of wandering and uncertainty is not always the one he would have chosen for himself.
The subtle message of Patrice Leconte's absorbing film is, once a life has been carved in stone, it is very hard to break out of the shell we have created for ourselves. With a pained longing each man contemplates the others' existence, because each realizes the inevitability of their own course. And the sense of cautious experimentation the men undergo has a finality to it; a last ditch contemplation of what could have been before they enter life's final act.
Leconte also examines how the cinema has fueled our expectations about life's potential for glamour. It plays with our expectations about the thriller we come to anticipate. It further questions why we love cinema for its ability to distract us from our own course in life, and to tantalize us with a notion of some alternative reality. As Milan tells Manesquier at one point, "You watch too many thrillers." The statement is an indictment of Manesquier's vivid, overactive imagination, but also our own. Leconte's film, from 70-year-old Claude Klotz's script, has a self-referential element to it, eviscerating the very medium from which it emerges.
Man on the Train mocks the conventions of the stranger-pulls-into-town Western and questions our allegiance to the movie-fueled fantasy of our lives that runs parallel to our real ones. If we become too distracted by what our lives could be, Leconte suggests, we may miss them altogether.