Girl on the Train: Controversial Film by Andre Techine

Andre Techine is the director of the new French film “The Girl on the Train,” starring Emilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve.

What memories do you have of the “RER D affair,” which took place on July 9 2004?

That of the most media-blitzed and polarizing news item of the last ten years. But it was Jean-Marie Besset’s play, “R.E.R”, that helped me remembered the case. I was shaken by the violence of this young woman’s act of, and  what came out of it. This story became the mirror of all French fears, fears that are deeply anchored in our society, it was a revelation of what we call the “collective unconscious”. How can a person’s lie be transformed into truth with respect to the community at large and its fears? It’s a truly fascinating subject.

The film is divided into two parts. First, the circumstances, and then the consequences of the lie.

Yes, one of the first ideas was to split the film in two. First, one would relate the genealogy of a lie, then the incredible consequences that this fabrication was to bring about, all the way to the final court judgment. I kept The documentary work which existed in Jean-Marie Besset’s play, all of which belonged to the public domain. On the other hand, the more intimate part, the work I did on the characters and their relationships, was completely changed. I reproduced exactly as they were the statements made at the time. I simply emphasized the fact that the whole thing was based on an empty judicial case.

But did you invent the romance between Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne) and Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle)?

The real woman at the center of this affair was closely attached to her companion and her mother. When she was interrogated as to the reasons for her act, she answered that she wanted to “exist more” in the eyes of these two people. The triangle is therefore quite real. But it’s only a reference. From that point on, I invented everything.

To “exist more” is somewhat vague. The great mystery remains the motivation behind this lie…

The motivations of the woman are not transparent. They can’t be. Her lie is bigger than her. It was important for me to preserve her enigmatic character. Even if I tend to think that it was a need for love which took on monstrous proportions, it remains puzzling and disturbing. When you get right down to it, I think that it was the scandalous and monstrous aspect of this character which led me to make the film. I’m a bit fed up with wishy-washy characters in films. With Jeanne, there was suddenly something inhuman which came to the fore. She became an “extra ordinary” character, both a real one and one from a fantasy film. She might be what is called as well a “subversive character”, I really don’t know. We hit a wall if we try to understand. With a film, one always pursues the invisible. And, at the same time, it was out of the question for me to imagine her as a pure alien! On the contrary, she has a certain joie de vivre, she glides along on her rollerblades, both physically and dream-like. In any event, I wanted to love this woman, without making her a darker or lighter person than what she was, she who was at the root of the whole scandal…

She believed she had happiness at her fingertips, and suddenly everything was taken away from her…

As far as the romance with Franck is concerned, I followed Jeanne step by step, from the moment they met until their final separation, without any ellipsis. I wanted their desire to build from sequence to sequence, and for a bond to be created between them. It was both a cinematic and erotic experience to give birth to a couple. I had no preconceived program for that. It wasn’t in the script. For example, I showed their dialogue as if filmed by a Webcam, as an explorer of sorts. I was not familiar with this extremely modern and widespread way of establishing personal contacts. It takes place in a time which is the same for both people, but in a space which is different. It defies the traditional rules of shot/reverse shot, and moreover, it’s quite realistic. Their looks cannot cross. Their presences are both virtual and real. We find ourselves at the heart of an intimate yet highly sexually charged imaginary. By contrast, when I show the news on television, we are transported to the collective imagination of the news and truth. It was important for me to present the true victim of an anti-semitic aggression according to the TV version. Raw footage was inserted in the film. This certainly played a role in the fabrication of Jeanne’s lie. This is the case of many elements in the first part of the film that were distorted in her false statements. In any event, until the blow of the knife, which arrives only after one hour, there is no drama in the film. What I was looking for instead was a sense of pleasure and availability. I used her rollerblades to give her freedom of movement, that feeling of joy of being on the ground yet being able to take off. I wanted something light, like a dance. In this first part, above all, I had to avoid the narrative predictability of the upcoming storm. I hate the “shadow of the impending drama” aspect. It was necessary to simply show moments of happiness.

In the second part of the film, the focus is on the consequences of Jeanne’s lie and the media explosion

This is the second part. For me, it’s almost a second film, which begins. When the affair is suddenly picked up by the news, and her mother (Catherine Deneuve) announces to her that she’s being talked about on TV, Jeanne can’t believe her ears. The fiction she had invented, cooked up in with the few elements at her disposal (including the authentic rise of anti-Semitism in the shape of physical aggression), suddenly becomes a “success”. All at once it catches on! And the story, which everybody starts talking about, which everybody must have an opinion about, totally escapes the distress of this young suburbanite mythomaniac woman. In her world, she would have gone straight to the police station to lodge a complaint, but her attacker wouldn’t have been found, since there wasn’t any, and the story would have been over and done with. The entire affair could have and would have stopped then and there. But it didn’t. So, whys? How can we explain the “success” of this piece of fiction? The film exposes each stage of the whirlwind, but leaves it up to the audience to find their own answers. Each person will have to attempt to understand why this affair became so blown up out of proportion. Above all, I didn’t want to make a message film or a controversial film. The most striking point of view is that of Mathieu Demy’s character when he says that it was the State that literally invented the whole RER D affair out of thin air, and not this unfortunate woman! But what makes this case so rich and interesting is that not only does it reflect all our fears but also the very danger of our moral order.

The film plays with elements of both tragedy and comedy. This story is tragic but the exaggeration which follows is almost comical…

One should never be afraid of these elements! It’s only when it’s comical or tragic that a story proves its true vitality. I do each sequence for itself, for the emotion which it conveys, not how it fits into the rest of the script.

What emotion were you seeking, for example, in the dealer’s scene?

For the dealer’s scene, it’s like a stab in the back. It had to hurt. I was told, “Watch out for whodunits!”, “Watch out for blood and gore!” Little matter! It was important to discover that Frank, the wrestling champ, is a human being too, just like you or me, made out of flesh and blood. I depicted the action with the greatest precision possible, without any special effects such as slow or fast motion, playing with the shifting balance of power, with the illusion of real time and use of concrete space.

The film is not linear. There is the presence of the past and of an entirely different family, in counterpoint to the mother-daughter couple represented by Emilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve.

In the very first scene of the film, we see the mother looking for a job for her daughter on the Web. And then the name of Bleistein appears, a name she has long forgotten and now all at once resurfaces. It’s this Jewish name which sets the story off. It cannot remain abstract. I decided to show the individuals who bear this name. Three generations, the son, father and grandfather, each in his own singularity. And then there is the character of Judith, the stranger who is both integrate and out of place. All this human matter forms a small world of its own, like a little film in parallel. And then, interferences are created with Jeanne’s story, even narrow connections. In the end, grandfather Bleistein will write a book about her and his grandson. Nathan sends his first declaration of love from Venice. I wanted to make a film-song where poetry and story fuse, the very opposite of a “case” film.

In the heart of the film the theme of identity…

Precisely, since at the heart of Jeanne’s lie is the desire to become Jewish in the mode of persecution, it’s an identification. And then there is the question of the Bar Mitzvah for Nathan who becomes both a stake and source of conflict for the family members. It’s also strange that belonging to the community entails that Jeanne is held for questioning and for justice to be carried out, while for Nathan, it is through the religious ceremony which connects him to a community. I put these two related experiences in parallel at the end of the film. But as to the question of identity, so relevant in our times, a single and seemingly rigid direction would have been fatal. If identity is not plural and fragmented, it quickly becomes the absence of freedom.