fighting for love
by Douglas Messerli
Danièle Thompson, Patrice Chéreau, and Pierre Trividic (screenplay) Patrice Chéreau (director)Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) / 1998
Imagine joining Mike Newell’s film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) only for the funeral of Gareth (Simon Callow); and instead of Matthew, Gareth’s long- time lover Matthew (John Hannah)—the two representing the only gay couple in this hetero-normative celebration of marriage the two having been in a kind of marriage the others in Gareth’s intellectual clique could not recognize—delivering a beautiful eulogy by reading another “splendid bugger” W. H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues,” he were to deliver a short and bitter diatribe against his elderly lover. Or—if you haven’t seen that movie in which once again more demands that the gay charismatic figure must die so that the heterosexual others may celebrate their normative couplings—what if you were to attend a showing of Sidney Lumet’s stylish 1974 retelling of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express—featuring nearly every available British and Hollywood star of the day: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, and Wendy Hiller—set in a far less grand and crowded 2nd class train without the help of Hercule Poirot to untangle their relationships, some of them seemingly queer, and their connection with the murdered man Lanfranco Cassetti, alias Edward Ratchett onboard.
Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 work Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) puts it audiences in much the same position as I’ve just suggested, and takes it one step further by peppering his group of acolytes surrounding the painter/sculptor Jean-Baptiste Emmerich with just a few women (one elderly self-declared lover of Jean-Baptiste, Lucie, and the wives of some of the artist’s close male friends) among a group of gay and bisexual men, lovers of Jean-Baptiste or one another all endlessly milling about in the crowded train from Paris to Limoges where the pedagogue has determined to be buried—one of the largest cemeteries in the world. The Jean-Baptise character and the film’s title were said to have been based on the documentary film-maker François Reichenbach, some of whose films I’ve reviewed in these volumes.
One of the great joys—and frustrations—of the film is the requirement to piece together the soap-opera-like interconnections of the various characters we encounter on this mad train ride where cinematographer Eric Gautier’s hand-held camera weaves in and out of the train seat- and aisle- conversations while a child, Elodie (Delphine Schiltz) behaves almost as badly as Zazie in Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro (1960) as she steals candy, grabs photos central characters are studying, and basically attempts to create general havoc throughout. It is she, we later discover, who may inherit the dead man’s estate.
The train sequences were filmed over a fourteen day period in two carriages attached to regularly running trains between Paris and Mulhouse. It’s estimated that the cast and crew traveled 12,000 kilometers during two weeks in filming these early scenes. As Sight & Sound commentator Chris Darke wrote, “...The journey to Limoges is a triumph both of exposition and choreography.....Éric Gautier's use of handheld 'Scope cinematography gives the feeling of both buffeting movement and swooping detail." And, I might add, it helps to confuse our attempts to piece out just who is who, who they love, and, just as importantly, who they once loved or want to.
As I mention, this is much of the fun of
the first half of Chereau’s film, and if you desire that pleasure you should
perhaps put off reading the rest of this essay until you have seen the film for
yourself. But I do think that it is important to outline the interconnections I
was able to unravel—
Let us just begin by restating what by the end of the film is easily discernible: the painter Jean-Baptiste, who has a twin brother Lucien (both played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) has not only served as a blusteringly ingratiating guru for most of the males in this film, but has shared his bed with them. He has also apparently had a loving relationship with Lucien’s wife, who in reaction to Lucien’s revenge of silence, eventually kills herself, having remained in their relationship only for the sake of their son Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), who out of bitterness for his father also became an acolyte of, and perhaps was also buggered by, his uncle. The family fortune, overseen by Lucien, was apparently obtained through the production of shoes (rooms of their home are still filled with them), which, along with porcelain, is one of the two major industries of Limoges. Late in his life Jean-Louis evidently also had an affair with Lucie (Marie Daëms), who, having kept in regular contact with the artist, describes herself his “impossible woman”—an epithet to which another member of the group responds is perfect for the “impossible man”— evidently has made the travel arrangements for this group outing, and is the only one who actually seems to be grieving Jean-Baptiste’s death.
In the early scenes, we observe François (Pascal Greggory, Chéreau’s longtime lover) looking over slides and scrapbooks of the artist’s work, in seeming preparation for a eulogy he never delivers, the fact for which Lucie later criticizes him. He is later described by others as Jean-Baptiste’s “favorite,” and has been working for years on a book on the painter without evidently finishing it. Indeed, one of the subplots of this movie is how all of Jean-Baptiste’s friends and lovers, although sustained by him, broke with him due to the artist’s abuse, his fickleness, or insatiable demands.
François’s lover of the past few years, whom another of the group members, Bernard (Olivier Gourmet) gauchely refers to as François’ fiancée, is Louis (Bruno Todeschini), a beautiful man who seems to be attending the funeral simply as François’s friend, but who apparently has also come to know Jean-Baptiste through their mutual visits. We never know if he might have been one of the original disciples or whether François met him through the artist. But, oddly enough, it is Louis who becomes one of the major figures by film’s end.
Before I describe the complexity of Louis’ character, however, I should finish Bernard off, since he is later characterized by Jean-Baptiste himself as an “a loser and an ass-kisser,” who when he is mocked by the others, presumes it is because his wife Lorette is mad. If nothing else, he actually has written a small book about the author. But in his sudden recognition that he being laughed at for his own behavior, not his wife’s, he is so hurt he abruptly leaves the wake—which we might better describe as an “awakening” for the guests. But enough about this hanger-on.
On his way to the train itself, he again spots the boy, and when Lucie becomes terrified at having lost one of their members, Louis quickly volunteers to go back in search of her, obviously to seek out the mysterious boy once again.
In fact, he does reencounter him, this time on the train itself. After sitting for a while with François he rises to seek out the boy, discovering him in a train aisle, where he tells him a strange story that seems almost stolen from Alain Resnais’ L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961)—the many film associations I make throughout are obviously not unintentional. As the two furtively embrace and kiss, he tells Bruno, whose name he is now told, that he has seen him once before, three years earlier at the same station, Gare d'Austerlitz, almost to the same day. It’s possible, the boy responds, since he often travels from Paris to his home in the south of France. Louis suggests they go for a coffee, or jokingly asks, “or should we retire the men’s bathroom for a quickie.” Actually they eventually choose the latter, kissing, embracing, and Bruno pulling down his pants, but allowing Louis only to stroke his ass without actually having sex.
This brief encounter clearly effects Louis, and when he returns to his seat next to François he tells him “I love you.” His lover responds, “We’ve been together too long for such declarations.” And when Louis asks if he still agrees with their original commitment to being completely honest with each other, François hands him a handkerchief which, he jokes, his mother sends him in large quantities. “She thinks I’m too sensitive. Everyone knows I’m not.” He pauses before delivering the zinger, “So don’t use kid gloves. I’m listening.”
Louis goes on to describe the boy, admitting that “I love him.”
“Has it been going on long?”
“No, just since the station. I’ve known him for ages. But we never met or spoke.”
“Are you kidding?”
“It’s sudden, I’m crushed.”
If this appears to be a slightly surreal conversation, it almost immediately turns even stranger as François inquires:
Did he tell you he was HIV positive? [Pause] Bruno.
Because he didn’t tell me. He told me long after.
Shocked by his lover’s intense knowledge of the boy, he also discovers that he didn’t find out until six months later.
“Then it wasn’t a fling? It was a real affair.”
“Since about a year. Didn’t Jean-Baptiste tell you?”
Louis turns toward François, rising to say, “You’re a scumbag.”
During their conversation, the train has made an unscheduled stop at La Souterrane, and Louis gets off and enters the station, Bruno soon joining him. When the train is finally ready to move on, Louis does not reboard, while Bruno does, making it apparent that the boy is still in some sort of relationship with François. As the elder later asks the boy: “Was I such a bastard because I left, or because I stayed.”
Previously, we have seen Claire (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) in the bathroom taking a pill and stuffing several boxes of pills into her coat pockets. When she enters the main car to speak to her husband, Jean-Marie (Lucien’s son if you recall) will not even speak to her. We soon learn that because of her drug addiction the two are breaking up, and she has refused to even answer his letters with regard to property rights and other matters. The two rightfully are furious with each other with seemingly no means of reconciliation.
What Jean-Marie doesn’t know is that apparently Claire has given up drugs, and the pill she has just popped, and the others stuffed inside her coat are to help relieve her body from the complications of her being pregnant. She is afraid that if she were to tell him, he would even doubt that it was his child. Throughout the rest of the voyage the two glower and snip at one another, and because of their broken relationship Jean-Marie has grown so bitter that he delivers the spiteful eulogy of which I’ll soon report. Certainly, there seems to be no hope for their reunion, particularly since Jean-Baptiste has long warned his pupil about the dangers of a woman like Claire, obviously resenting that his nephew has chosen to marry a woman.
Also on board is that obnoxiously charming girl and her mother Catherine (Dominique Blanc). We only discover their reason for traveling with the others as they all see, out the window, Elodie’s father Thierry (Roschdy Zem) speeding by in a station wagon carrying the coffin of Jean-Baptiste to take the body from Paris to his designated burial plot in Limoges. Thierry is clearly another of Jean-Baptiste’s many male lovers, but not through his tutelage, but rather through meeting the artist after he had a serious heart attack and was hospitalized in the institution where Thierry worked as night nurse. When the frail man finally was released Thierry, as he describes it, carried the body home in his arms and nursed him to health, obviously developing a relationship to him so close that Jean-Baptiste eventually came to describe Thierry and Catherine’s daughter Elodie as his granddaughter, and accordingly, bequeathed her his part of the Emmerich estate.
Thierry, as we gradually begin to discover, is a kind of wild man who picks up a hitchhiker—who understandably is a bit wary of riding in a car with a corpse in the backseat—tossing him out of the car when the driver discovers that he has to take a detour. Later, Thierry, who since it is later intimated provides drugs to Jean-Marie may himself be on drugs, spins off the road steering the car to a rest in the middle of a wheatfield. The car eventually arrives in Limoges via a tow truck.
As we slowly untangle their relationships over the first frenetic hour of this film, we realize, as Lisa Nesselson observes in Variety, “There’s not a happy camper in the bunch.” This ensemble, she asserts, “makes the average Woody Allen film seem like a picnic for the well-adjusted.”
The first thing Jean-Marie does upon the group’s arrival in Limoges is visit the impossibly gargantuan cemetery in order to visit his mother’s grave, the only woman we feel that he was ever truly able to completely love. There he encounters his father who admits his own faults, particularly his ineffectual attempts to offer his wife something that might take the place of Jean-Baptiste’s attentions. Lucien is now even afraid in facing the group of mourners, that they might blame him for his wife’s suicide, as Jean-Marie has already made clear to others, he does. Yet here, actually confronting the man he has hated for so many years, Jean-Marie assures him that his mother was a manic-depressive and that everyone know that fact.
Yet only an hour or two later, Jean-Marie, speaking to the small band of would-be grievers blames all of them, including himself, for letting down Jean-Baptiste, for not living up to his expectations. Obviously still furious with his own failed marriage and stung by the artist’s condemnation of it, he virulently expresses viewpoints that we know and further discover to be completely false:
He [Jean-Baptiste] wouldn’t have wanted to be a
father. I wonder whether anyone wants to be a father.
He didn’t want any children.
The battle ground is set up for a violent encounter between the two sexually confused married bi-sexual men, both bitter for their own failed marriages, and also both now fighting for the right to inherit what Jean-Baptiste has left them—although it is really in Lucien’s hands who has told Catherine that he does not intend to contest his brother’s will. In the midst of the battle Thierry slugs his wife as she attempts to intervene, upon which she warns him that if he ever strikes her again she will take her daughter and leave him. Jean-Marie, having attacked nearly everyone in sight, goes running off for rest of the night.
Viviane seems the most rational being
still standing, and as Lucien—hearing that she is a “shoe freak”—offers her a
pair of new shoes from the enormous stock that still remains in his house, the
Having made his way to Limoges, Louis has been trying to telephone, and finally reaching the house talks to François with Bruno listening in on another phone. He restates his intense love for Bruno and attempts to convince his lover that since they both love him they should take him under their care as a kind of son. François scoffs at the idea, and when Louis repeats that he cannot live without him, the self-declared “insensitive” man queries Louis if he truly believes he will be able to care for Bruno as the inevitable begins to happen. But Louis is implacable and is certain, if nothing else, about his love die Bruno.
Unpredictably, François, the man who as Nesselson posited is the “one serene presence...whose cynical acceptance of every possible chamber in affairs of the heart allows him to glide above the fray,” at film’s end is only one left without someone else. As he witnesses from the taxi Louis and Bruno hugging in the hotel window, sees Claire and Jean-Marie walking together along the street, and watches Thierry, Catherine, and their daughter driving off, the art historian returns to Paris almost as a villain, a man who because he has been unwilling to fight for love, to shed tears into those dozens of handkerchiefs he is sent by his mother, will have no one but himself to blame for his lonely nights ahead.
Patrice Chéreau died in Paris on October 7, 2013 from lung cancer at 68 years of age. He was not buried in Limoges, but in the great Paris cemetery Père Lachaise. The film above was not much appreciated by US viewers, despite the fact that it won the Best Director and Best Actor César Awards. I loved the film so much that although I wrote the piece above based on a DVD viewing from Netflix, I also ordered my own copy so that I might watch it over a regular intervals for the remainder of my life.
Los Angeles, March 28, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).