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Viscerally exciting, dramatically riveting, emotionally overwhelming, Patrice Chéreau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train definitely is one of the finest works of modern French cinema. That's easily said. The hard part is citing the fact that it's also the greatest gay film ever made.
We all know the drill. To label a film as gay is to automatically confer on it a lesser value. If it's a gay film, then it's about "them" and "their" world. It can't possibly have the universal appeal of a narrative in which heterosexuality is the understood "us." But that's precisely what makes this picaresque tragicomedy about a funeral and its aftermath so extraordinary. It refuses to treat its characters (most gay, some straight, and one transgendered) as cases or types. As a result it confers on same-sex love the passion and grandeur that the heterosexual mainstream has heretofore regarded as its birthright.
The train of the title is en route from Paris to Limoges, home to Europe's largest cemetery. On board are the lovers, friends, and blood relatives of a famous Francis Bacon-like painter called Emmerich (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who, having suddenly died from a heart attack, has left those who shared his disordered life in a more chaotic state than usual. Chief among the mourners is François (Pascal Greggory), an ex-lover who was still part of Emmerich's life despite having moved on to another lover, the younger Louis (Bruno Todeschini), who elected to take up with Bruno (Sylvain Jacques), an HIV-positive street hustler who once had a fling with François.
This triangle of François, Louis, and Bruno provides the linchpin of Chéreau's Altman-in-a-Cuisinart design. Also involved are Emmerich's nephew Jean-Marie (Charles Berling) and his wife Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), a couple of drug addicts caught in a can't-live-with-can't-live-without circle of desire and dependency. There's also Viviane (Vincent Perez), an old trick of Emmerich who is now a pre-op transsexual. A scene in which Viviane tries on heels to the delight of Emmerich's straight but equally randy twin brother (Jean-Louis Trintignant again) is one of the film's high points.
The essence of Those Who Love Me can be found in the scene where Thierry (Roschdy Zem), another controlled-substance abuser (and Emmerich-ex), is driving the coffin to Limoges. "There's Daddy!" says his bratty daughter Elodie (Delphine Schlitz) from the train, pointing at the car with the coffin as it swooshes by, the other mourners on the train watching raptly. Her words are rich in meaning, for while she's referring to the driver, she's also, inadvertently, speaking of the "Daddy" in the coffin. If there's one thing that Those Who Love Me is out to prove, it's that in this era of family values, gays not only have families, but families that are far more emotionally consanguineous than straight ones.
Patrice Chéreau is one of the protean artists of our time. The world of opera is still grappling with his late-Seventies radical rethinking of Wagner's Ring Cycle, performed in Beyreuth and widely shown on PBS. Those lucky enough to have seen his staging of Genet's The Screens and Marivaux's La Fausse Suivante in Paris in the Eighties know the kind of all-out physicality he has been able to create for the theater. And while he has become a familiar face for his performances in films as varied as Andrzej Wajda's Danton, Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans, and Claude Berri's just-released Lucie Aubrac, only two of his prior films as a director (the 1983 coming-out drama L'Homme Blesse and the 1994 historical spectacular Queen Margot) have been made available in the United States.
But now American audiences can experience his wonderful talents. With a score that features Jeff Buckley, Gustav Mahler, and "Save the Last Dance for Me," a style of staging that turns a crowd on a railway platform into virtual Valkyries, and an eye capable of making shots taken from a helicopter seem intimate, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train marks Chéreau as the French cinema's last best hope.
And if you're a gay man who has been to a lot of funerals, you shouldn't miss this one.
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