Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne) is a beautiful, aimless young woman who spends her time rollerblading through the streets of Paris. She lives in the Paris suburbs with her dour mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve), who babysits small children out of her home and implores Jeanne to find work of some kind. There is something lonely and a bit sad in the circumstance of these women who live in close quarters but communicate little and harbor unspoken anxieties. Each woman is trapped in mute isolation. Louise tries to secure a job for Jeanne working in the offices of the prominent Jewish lawyer Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), who comes to play a significant role in Louise and Jeanne's lives in the second half of the film.
When an intense, forceful young man Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) catches sight of Jeanne rollerblading, her life comes into focus and seems — at least for Jeanne — to have direction and meaning. Franck's motivations are more unclear. He appears obsessed with Jeanne but also shows signs of cruelty and a disturbing desire for control. They skate side by side, make love, and watch each other with the anxiousness and yearning of two people utterly enchanted by each other. Franck devises a way for them to be even closer, making them caretakers at a shop where Franck is secretly supervising a cache of drugs, a situation that unravels disastrously.
While the majority of The Girl on the Train centers on Jeanne's relationship with her mother and with Franck, the crux of the film is based on a real-life 2004 incident — which director André Téchiné (Wild Reeds) introduces in the second half of the film — instigated by Jeanne after Franck's arrest. Jeanne acts out in a way that suggests both a desire for attention and an element of masochism. She scrawls swastikas on her belly, cuts herself, and claims it was a gang of non-white Paris youths who did the deed. The attack, and subsequent revelation that it was faked, captivated the nation and illustrated the racial tensions underlying French society. For Téchiné, there appears to be yet another agenda behind the faked attack. The charge of anti-Semitism suggests the fatherless Jeanne's conscious or unconscious effort to win the affection of Samuel Bleistein, a kind of substitute father figure who also harbors some affection for Louise.
But Jeanne's feigned attack — unless you are familiar with the real-life story — comes as a bit of a shock. It's a strange detour from what, until this moment, had been a convincing, if vague, character study of a flighty, lovelorn girl. Téchiné uses the incident to tentatively explore the racial tensions simmering beneath French society. But the social commentary feels wildly underdeveloped. Téchiné is more invested in these physically close but emotionally alienated characters than in explaining the rationale for the headline-grabbing scandal that consumes Jeanne and her family.
At its heart, The Girl on the Train is a character study of an ultimately enigmatic woman whose motivations can be guessed at but never truly known. Jeanne seems to be searching for love and the way she falls quickly and totally for Franck suggests as much. Jeanne is in many ways a pitiable, tragic figure who makes one understand the strange, irrational behavior that can define some people's lives more than plans or intent or logic. Jeanne is not just young; she's pitifully immature, and it is to Téchiné's credit that he makes us see her vulnerability even as we lament her dangerous, bizarre behavior.
But Téchiné's film is its own enigma. In this film about a girl whose own boyfriend cruelly writes her off at one point as an "airhead," Téchiné can often privilege a great deal of airiness of his own. The film can feel slight, unmoored, and absent of something insightful to say about what this girl's act means for her or contemporary France. There are passing references made to what the media's willingness to jump on Jeanne's scandal says about the country's own prejudices. But it is a small blip in a film that otherwise spends most of its time observing but never really penetrating Jeanne and her motivations. Téchiné clearly enjoys leaving questions unanswered, but the extent of The Girl on the Train's mysteries may befuddle and aggravate many members of its audience.