THOSE WHO LOVE ME CAN TAKE THE TRAIN (Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train)

(director/writer: Patrice Chéreau; screenwriter: Danièle Thompson/Pierre Trividic/based on an original idea by Ms. Thompson; cinematographer: Eric Gautier; editor: François Gedigier; music: Éric Neveux; cast: Pascal Greggory (Francois), Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (Claire), Charles Berling (Jean-Marie), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Lucien/Jean-Baptiste Emmerich), Bruno Todeschini (Louis), Sylvain Jacques (Bruno), Vincent Perez (Viviane/Frederic), Marie Daems (Lucie), Delphine Schiltz (Elodie); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Charles Gassot; Kino Video; 1998-France-in French with English subtitles))

“There’s little substance to the dialogue or the plotless narrative, but the intense actors seem to put everything into their performance and give it an air that something big is taking place.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Patrice Chéreau’s (“Queen Margot”) unpleasantly bleak and contrived psychological drama, a Big Chill themed mood piece with little comedy that has a gathering over for a funeral for an elderly misanthropic, bisexually active minor painter Jean-Baptiste Emmerich (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The painter has become a father figure to a disparate group of intimates, who have curried favor with him fearful that his sharp barbs would otherwise be directed at them. It’s based on an original idea by Danièle Thompson, who also cowrites the confusing and superficial script with the director and Pierre Trividic.

The title refers to the dying words said by the painter — which happen to be the last words spoken by filmmaker Francois Reichenbach, who died in 1993 (“Medicine Ball Caravan,” this 1971 flick featured a group of some 150 musicians, hippies, and counterculture types invited aboard a cross-country train to spread the word about love and peace).

A group of about twelve family, friends, lovers, hangers-on and assorted weirdos leave Paris by train for a four-hour trek to Limoges, where the artist’s funeral will take place upon his request. His coffin is on a station wagon traveling parallel to the train and being driven by drug addict Thierry (Roschdy Zem), husband of Catherine (Dominique Blanc), who’s on the train with their bratty daughter Elodie. On the train the cast of characters fill us in on why the artist, an admirer of Francis Bacon’s sadism, was revered even if he was a bastard. It also brings out other gossipy revelations, as we increasingly learn details about the group’s turbulent relationships and their dysfunction. There’s little substance to the dialogue or the plotless narrative, but the intense actors seem to put everything into their performance and give it an air that something big is taking place. It plays on being naturalistic. The direction highlights interesting shots of intensity from the passengers in the claustrophobic moving train and when reaching Limoges, a city of 140,000 residents that holds the largest cemetery in France with 185,000 corpses, it captures the chilly atmosphere of the artist’s birthplace and introduces us to the rest of the artist’s family including his morbid shoe merchant twin brother Lucien (Jean-Louis Trintignant, in a double role). He’s in a worried state about dying, losing his estate and still holds some deep resentment for his selfish brother. Lucien exclaims that his brother took his wife and son Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), and left all of his estate to Elodie.

Some of the mourners on the train include art historian Francois (Pascal Greggory) and his lover Louis (Bruno Todeschini), who has a quickie with the attractive teenage Bruno (Sylvain Jacques) aboard the train and finds himself in love, and then discovers from Francois that Bruno was his lover and is HIV-positive. Jean-Marie is a former drug addict who has long been estranged from his father Lucien and has a volatile relationship with his pregnant wife Claire (Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi). They are both junkies who have been badly advised by uncle Jean-Baptiste, who had an affair with his nephew. Jean-Marie upsets everyone at the funeral with his eulogy, where he says “Nature is efficient, it kills things that are half-dead.” This is meant to be his swan song from the family. Also along for the funeral is Frederic (Vincent Perez) who under Jean-Baptiste’s influence had a sex change operation and is now Viviane, and flirts with Lucien as he purchases a pair of red high-heels from him.

Eric Gautier’s jumpy camera succeeds in conveying in the mourner’s expressions a great sense of loss, but the narrative intellectually fails to give off any gravitas except in showing the mourner’s deep feelings in their life and death struggle to find a way to cope without their leader’s guidance. It’s an arty reunion film that might please some more than others. The film’s most profound and hopeful quote goes like this “Loving people means putting up with their shit.” Something that has more truth to it than many might care to admit.

It should be noted that music runs throughout in the background and becomes the story when the dialogue is punctuated. The gut wrenching soul music ranges from Jim Morrison to Freddie Perren.