Phantom Self at the Movies – Man on the Train

If you’re in the mood for an intelligent movie about personal identity, I recommend Patrice LeComte’s Man on the Train (­L’Homme du Train, 2002).  It’s the story of a minor gangster, Milan, and a nearly-retired poetry teacher, Manesquier, who come together by chance. As they learn about each other, they are attracted to one another’s lives.  Manesquier, bored with his quiet existence of jigsaw puzzles and tutoring in the house he grew up in, envies Milan’s freedom, mobility, and toughness. Milan, who looks as if he’s been living rough for too long, appreciates the civilized comforts of Manesquier’s home, and is impressed by the generosity and trust of the older man, who doesn’t lock his doors. Milan recalls two lines of a poem which Manesquier is able to finish for him—an ability which the poetry teacher takes for granted and values little, but which the hoodlum feels painfully lacking in himself.

The two men sleep in the same house, sharing meals and conversation, for the better part of the week leading up to Milan’s planned hit on a local bank. During that time their envy of one another morphs into imitation. In the low-key atmosphere of companionable trust that develops between them, you can almost see the mirror neurons at work. The gangster learns a bit of poetry, and picks out a simple tune on his host’s piano. In a café, the gangster is roughly pushed by a pair of young men horsing around. Manesquier is appalled that Milan does not retaliate, but Milan, who has been in a few fights, explains that it’s only in movies that one man can beat two. Outraged, Manesquier confronts the young men and tells them to behave themselves. Milan is impressed: “That took guts.” Manesquier too seems surprised by his boldness. Later Manesquier, on a visit to his barber, requests a change from the straggly professorial hairstyle he has worn for decades—“something between World Cup soccer star and fresh out of jail.” He contemplates growing a goatee—while Milan, in Manesquier’s bathroom, shaves his off. Giddy with thoughts of aiding Milan in the holdup, Manesquier forgets an appointment, in his home, to tutor a student of French literature. When the pupil shows up, Milan, who is at the house, tells him, “Your lesson is with me today,” and makes a sincere, if wingy, attempt to give it. Throughout the movie, pieces of the personalities of the two protagonists mingle and interchange promiscuously, like scraps of DNA.

The filmmaker is clearly alive to the idea that persons are not separate solitudes. Most of what we are, we’ve copied from others.  As Milan and Manesquier become involved with one another, they participate emotionally in each other’s ambitions and activities. Their personal futures mingle and fuse. Put another, more conventional, way: they become friends who care about each other. But to put it the conventional way misses the point. As they absorb aspects of each other’s personality, the distinction between the two individuals is blurred and lost; Milan’s life is Manesquier’s, and vice versa.  In LeComte’s world, persons merge, mutate and branch through ordinary channels of communication, without need of the advanced technologies I describe in the stories Coed and Forking.

The story ends in death, as stories about personal identity often do. I was a little disappointed in the final scenes of the movie, which had enchanted me until then. I felt the makers did not know quite how to wrap it up, and did not go far enough, finally falling back on an outdated metaphysics of the soul. The idea of transmigration stands on as weak a footing as that of a disembodied afterlife. Both depend on the basic notion of a substantial soul or self, a pervasive, stubbornly rooted idea from which, I argue, it is time we move on.  The self is not substantial, and the human interplay that animates all but the last ten minutes of Man on a Train delightfully illustrates that point.

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One Response to “Phantom Self at the Movies – Man on the Train”

  1. Claudia says:

    Traits may be swapped for good or ill. I’ve often wondered what causes great shifts in zeitgeist. Why did millions of Germans accept Hitler’s evil and crazy ideas? Why do millions of Americans adopt the voodoo economics of the tea partyers? This observations may be part of the explanation for something I’ve always considered quite mysterious.

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