“Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train,” is a French film that takes off from a remark by someone who asked to buried in a family plot away from Paris, which friends complained would make it hard to visit his grave. But the tone and content are transformed by expanding the thought to an enactment that becomes a “roman” (a novel) about a train (chemin de fer) and adds the trope of a big old disintegrating house.
Rather off-puttingly, the film leaps into a crowded train station with confused people trying to find the cars reserved for their traveling group. They are types, but also individuals. “Where’s Frederic?” they ask. A missing son. “Do you know Claire’s secrets?” She’s an addict, but has other secrets as well. There are two fat old women, one who does her best to get things organized and one who thinks only of mythologizing herself. And the men -- they revolve mostly around two figures: the publisher who is objective, stoic in the face of gut-ripping developments, always truth-telling; and the waif, a rent-boy, instantly loveable even for the film viewer.
Traveling on the road alongside the train is a private car where the coffin rests behind the driver, the dead man’s nurse and drug source, an addict himself, of course. It takes a while to figure all this out, though there is a guiding “voice over” taped interview and occasional glimpses of the dead man in his studio, still alive. One of those powerful, grandiose narcissistic artists -- not quite so good as Francis Bacon, we’re told. The studio is dominated by a huge truncated bit of ancient marble, a nude man with no legs or arms or head. Still really alive is the artist’s twin, who is quite different, the one who stayed in Limoges to run the family business, which was shoes -- not china. He wasn’t good at the business part.
In short, this is just the sort of movie I really like. Ambiguous, complex, full of old tropes renewed, clichés made unique. It has a good deal of cynical bite to it. I know a few of these types and love some of them.
Once the train arrives in the station (by now the car with the dead man has run off the road and is stranded in a field of grain) there is another swirl of local relatives, not so different from the “Parisiennes” after all. Car doors slam and slam and slam. An amazing cemetery, mile after mile, then a brief interment. All that remains is passing the “stormy night” in the decrepit house.
“Frederic” is found, at an awkward transgender stage that is deeply absorbing for both the characters and the viewer. All through, “her” behavior is wildly appealing but by the end we are looking at her literally stripped. She has comforted others, delighted in the old twin’s endless stash of fabulously sexual shoes (prick heels, insides smooth as vaginas -- slip in your foot, my dear), and advised the pregnant recovering addict who will soon reunite with her husband, dopey as he is.
All through, even while the group discovers the old man’s hoard of dry bread he keeps to feed ducks and converts it into French toast (oh, the metaphor of it all!), the poker-faced editor watches and the boy with the beautiful suffering face revolves around him. The boy is HIV-positive and the older man knows it. At this event they realize they share a lover. (The boy may be the only one who truly and innocently loved that demanding, twisted old man. But now, in grief, he reaches out.) How can this possibly turn out happily?
In the end, there is only resignation and the passing landscape. The iron snake of desire curves through all our lives, coming and going. Buddhists advise us to avoid pain by letting desire go, but standing at the station is no way to live.
Recently I reconnected with a friend from undergrad years (’57-’61) and found him also in a mood to reflect on the group that traveled together for four years. If you’re up on theatre, you’d recognize some names, both Broadway and Hollywood. The guys in our little circle were mostly gay, but I’m told they never talked about it even though they roomed with each other. I knew it. Never gave it a second thought. I was in an extended latency period. All had platonic female friends and often lived with them in friendships that have endured for decades. Some have married and had children, others not. Some are in same sex marriages. He says, “Love goes deeper, into your heart of hearts, soul of soul -- sort of like nudity on stage. In acting school we were taught to bare our SOULS -- which is more difficult.” And, he advises, “Potency wanes, desire never.”
We were repressed, I suppose, but we forget today how dangerous sex was before the pill and when a reputation, conformity, was sometimes all we had. There were suicides. Acting -- or even preparation for acting -- is no way to be stable. It is psychotherapy with no analyst, no small safe room. It is trapeze work without a net -- just upturned eyes, watching, gasping. The two suicides we’ve identified were both jumpers. Our caution has mostly protected the gays among us from AIDS. The women who have died so far have been cancer deaths. But have we missed out? Would our talents have grown more vivid, larger, if we hadn’t been so cautious? Did we squander our genius?
But the fact that we were so repressed and yet so self-analyzed, so acting out but mostly onstage, has given us all a kind of protection from soul death. It has also somehow compressed us, made us more sturdy. Maybe we have a sense that there are many acts in a lifetime, unlike the traditional three in a play, and that developments might be completely unexpected. There might be footnotes.
In “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” one of the last scenes is the transgender person in the bathtub. By now the water in the old house has gone cold and even the cold water has run out. The tough alpha guy answers the phone wearing only a towel. He is asked by his lover to enter a sort of marriage to “raise” the HIV-pos waif. He refuses. He has run out of courage. The transgender person, who has bravely suggested that she is pregnant with her new self, also runs out of courage and sobs on the edge of the tub. Will they find new courage? The tough Alpha male with all his resources and the vulnerable new woman who is her own tender creation? I sure hope so. I forget they’re fiction.