The fine line between “excellent” and “oy gevalt”

It’s one thing to watch a film and, hours later, be completely uncertain whether you thought it was good or bad (“good” here meaning “worth recommending”); it’s quite another to watch a film and, while watching it and for a while afterward, be completely uncertain whether it’s the type of work that makes you say “wow” or the type of work that makes you say “oy vey” (which isn’t to suggest that one can’t say both).  Patrice Chéreau’s “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” (1998) is definitely closer to the latter of these two indeterminate experiences.

“Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” is very self-involved. Superficially its subjects include many of the usual suspects: mortality, various correspondences between the spheres of art and life, love’s status as a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t bear-trap, etc. But, like I said, these are only its ostensible targets: just as quickly as it poses a question it moves on, posing another, then another, then another, so on and so on, roll credits.

So long as I’m addressing the surface of “Those Who Love Me…” I might as well point out how similar it is to Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale,” at least in terms of organization. Yet “Those Who Love Me…” isn’t nearly as skanky as “A Christmas Tale”; it is, on the other hand, much more authentically wounded, its characters much more damaged and much more pleasurably unpleasant to spend time with.

It’s also tough to know what to make of Chéreau’s occasional excursions into a poppier style, one in which songs with intelligible lyrics and swooping crane shots are deployed to attract much of the spectator’s attention. These techniques effectively make the film stylistically overdetermined, that is to say, a difficult machine sputtering and flailing wildly in 7 or 8 directions at once.

But, again, “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” is nothing if not drunk off its own vibes, a 200-lb. love letter addressed to itself. Normally, this quality would be insufferable; but the film is dysfunctional enough and self-consciously glitchy enough to sustain even an easily irritated viewer’s engagement with it. There’s a certain air of self-satisfaction emanating from all of the film’s constituent elements, yet at no point does this amount to a kind of arrogance. It’s quite the tightrope act.

If only the film’s narrative conceits were as intriguing as its difficult aesthetics, then Chéreau would’ve achieved something like 2005’s “Gabrielle”: an intensely chewy work in which the drag race between story and style ends in a dead heat.

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