The family, friends and lovers all rush to make it to the train. We're thrown into a whirlwind of over a dozen characters all clamoring to get on board, and we soon learn that they are en route to the funeral of the mercurial painter, Jean-Baptiste. This man was a fixture in their lives - a hostile cad with a miserable sense of humor who kept them attached through sex, his vitality for life and encouragement to keep moving forward, whether he meant it or not.
In a boldly theatrical touch, Jean-Baptiste demanded that those gathering to pay their last respects must make a journey by train to his final resting place in Limoges, knowing full well that the damage he has done within their lives will come to a passionate, tumultuous head. As if to mock them, his body is being transported in a small white car driven on the road alongside the tracks.
Directed by Patrice Chereau, who seems to bring passion and vitality to any film he touches (his previous film was Queen Margot), you have to settle into his new film as though diving into the middle of a stormy sea. The main characters gradually emerge, and as they begin to talk about their loves, hopes, wants and needs, we quickly see that Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train will be a microcosmos of restrained but grand emotion.
The desire to be loved and the fear of death and humiliation are the elements of classical drama, handled as familial revelations in this movie. If it bears a passing similarity to The Celebration, it's only because those notions handled with a fresh and engaging eye. Chereau makes the lonely waiting areas of railway stations and the expanses of graveyards into the emotional battlegrounds of a John Ford western. There are no guns here, though - these characters don't need them. Words will suffice.
Jean-Baptiste is given a misanthropic run for his money in the form of Francois, whose prevailing attitude toward relationships is summed up as follows: "Loving people means putting up with their shit." Unfortunately, the dead artist has the last laugh by placing Francois' current dejected lover (Bruno Todeschini) on the same train as his previous one, Bruno (young Sylvain Jacques). Bruno still hates Francois, who deserted him upon learning that he (Bruno) was HIV positive.
Other potentially melodramatic subplots follow suit, including the tormented relationship between recovering drug addicts Claire (Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), who Jean-Baptiste played off of each other during the ten years of their marriage. Claire and Jean-Marie can barely speak to each other without erupting into horrible torrents of rage and fists.
Chereau plays out his scenes naturally, avoiding any trace of narrative exposition in his screenplay. He allows scenes to play out without turning into an overglorified soap opera. He also handles the gay and straight characters without the fanfare of American films, simply allowing them to be who they are.
Underscored by surprising doses of pop music (including Bjork and the Doors), it feels surprisingly free of the self imposed confines of "art house cinema". It has more in common with the feeling of watching Breathless for the first time, a tingling excitement of seeing something fresh and new.
Pascal Greggory lends intensity and a bitten back humanity to the role of Francois. The legendary Jean-Louis Trintignant, best known to modern audiences as the judge from Red, plays Jean-Baptiste's kind hearted brother who has a surprisingly tender moment showing large women's shoes to his transsexual friend, Viviane (Vincent Perez, a long way from The Crow: City of Angels).
The film thankfully never allows itself to wallow in dramatic moments, making each of them fleeting. The camera is quick to move among the characters and spread its interest in everything happening around it. By the time we have arrived at the beautiful final shots sweeping across highways, fields, cemeteries and houses, we feel a sense of interconnected lives which have touched each other, and are now drifting far apart, perhaps a little wiser.
Aka Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train.