The Girl on the Train, last week’s top box-office film, is so thoroughly lousy that it augurs a horrible future for the American movie-going plebiscite. This woman’s revenge story (dramatized in triplicate, with Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, and Rebecca Ferguson as suburban white women who suffer psychic abuse by a male) promotes perverse “feminist” sisterhood. Their intertwined distress converges in politically correct sentimentality and self-justifying pathos, with trips through voyeurism, prostitution, alcoholism, abortion, and murder. Such ugly, violent, anti-human misandry is so opportune that, naturally, it became both a New York Times best-selling novel and a Hollywood blockbuster.
To understand how this trite thriller manipulates cultural sensitivities, retrace the history of its purloined title. In 2009, superb French director André Téchiné beat American filmmakers to social consciousness with a film released in the U.S. as The Girl on the Train (original title: La Fille du RER). Téchiné based his film loosely on the real-life story of a woman who fabricated a story about being the victim of a hate crime committed by black and Arab youths who mistook her for a Jew; starting from this scandal, which rocked France, Téchiné’s film showed how the media’s coverage of the event exploited race, gender, and religious sensitivities. (In the film, even France’s president commented, exposing Europe’s conflicting new attitudes on ethnicity and gender relations.) During a Q&A after the Film Society of Lincoln Center premiere, Téchiné’s screenwriter, Jean-Marie Besset, noted that the story could well have been based on New York’s Tawana Brawley scandal, and the audience gasped.
That shock felt by Upper West Side Manhattanites is calmed by The Girl on the Train that opened last week. The film reassuringly escapes into white feminist privilege, utterly divorced from the “diversity” that mainstream movie culture unconvincingly advocates. The story’s Westchester County suburban-commuter locale exposes Hollywood’s unconscious race and class preference and its notable solipsism.
As the hysterical divorcée Rachel, Blunt wallows in so much sorrow that her envy of other women never develops into empathy. Director Tate Taylor fractures the three lives and shuffles time sequences in a crude attempt at suspense. He also butchers any possibility of achieving the compassion conveyed in his previous film, the ludicrous civil-rights drama The Help.
When Alan Rudolph dealt with female oppression in the murder mystery Mortal Thoughts (1991), he not only guided Demi Moore’s richest characterization; he also reflected deeper social conflicts within the working-class milieu. Taylor’s film is tightly bonded to the white upper-middle-class status quo. Lacking the complexity of Téchiné and Rudolph, Taylor is grisly and mawkish. The closing lines (“Rachel’s right. She’s always right.”) are wheedling proof that Hollywood regards female moviegoers — all moviegoers — as easily susceptible and uncritical.
In Téchiné’s new film, Being 17, a white French youth falls in love with an Algerian teenager while contending with adolescent urges and stress that are not all biological. Both boys are outsiders, and while Téchiné wittily acknowledges their physical similarities, their class differences are more intriguing: Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) is the only child of a doctor and a military officer; Thomas (Corinten Fila) is the adopted child of a farming couple. Global politics, if not pronounced in the story, are still in the air. This makes Being 17 the most perceptive movie I’ve yet seen to deal with Europe’s contemporary turmoil as evident in its characters’ moral lives. (In a Spanish-language class, the boys translate an essay on exile and migration.)
A Hollywood film with comparable characters would probably check off partisan points crudely and be full of sloganeering and self-congratulation. But Téchiné’s breezy style is always attentive to nature, weather, and fluctuating emotions. Damien and Thomas do not settle into ideal ideological figures; they (and their parents) are constantly experiencing and learning. Téchiné’s sensitivity honors the benevolence that once moved critics in an earlier era to acclaim Jean Renoir as cinema’s unparalleled humanist. Téchiné matches Renoir’s generosity when Thomas (the adopted Algerian boy) emerges from his lonely fear and cradles his parents’ newborn infant. He’s not caressing another oppressor but realizing an amazed capacity to love an Other — this flip portrays the deepest cultural merging.
Téchiné depicts romance as an awakening to desire. In a uniquely Téchiné scene, Thomas and Damien set aside their homework to engage in an intellectual swordfight about the difference between need and desire. One reads Leibniz’s definition of desire as “a willful striving toward a goal” and something that is “particular to mankind.” The other challenges with Plato’s Symposium, in which men find “mutual satiety in their relation.” Even after the boys’ fully shared yet unsettled sexual entanglement, Damien wears a T-shirt emblazoned My Dream Is Alive, which might seem heavy-handed except that his face beams. In addition, Téchiné’s impassioned style visualizes that catch phrase (the French countryside is alive with feeling such as Olivier Assayas failed to convey in his alienated travelogue The Clouds of Sils Maria).
Being 17 takes in worldly troubles — a moving Skype conversation between Damien’s parents (Sandrine Kiberlain and Alexis Loret) brings home our allies’ participation in Afghanistan — but it is the film’s personal ardency that raises it to overwhelming beauty. One wonders why Americans do not make films about sex, class, and ethnicity to equivalent effect.
In The Accountant, blatancy overtakes sincerity. Ben Affleck plays a CPA on the Asperger’s spectrum but with a special difference: His clients are global terrorists laundering their filthy lucre. They don’t scare this accountant, whose martinet father schooled him in self-defense; plus, his commissions provide him with military-grade weaponry (and a secret stash of original Renoir and Pollock paintings). As absurdly convoluted as The Girl on the Train, this film stays blatantly politically correct, with its subplot about a woman-of-color (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) hunting down the secretive accountant and rising through Treasury Department ranks. Adding more absurdity and routine violence, director Gavin O’Connor eventually gets to his usual Cain-and-Abel theme (like his 2011 Warrior) — all to say nothing useful or new about global politics, sex, class, or ethnicity. Affleck’s morose performance looks like homework for his role in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman opus. Except for Snyder, the future of Hollywood movies looks grim.