Without preparatory exposition,
director Patrice Chereau has a dozen or so characters catch a 6:55 train to Limoges, where painter Jean-Baptiste will be buried. I could related to the disorientation, as I felt about the same way when searching for the right train to catch from Paris to Auvers with only a rudimentary knowledge of French. During the controlled setting of the train ride, Chereau sorts out the characters and their relationships with each other and sets up Those Who Love Me Can Catch the Train (Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train).
Jean-Baptiste must have been quite a charismatic character—he established himself as a touchstone in all these people's lives as a sexual liaison, friendship, or mentorship. He certainly knew more about them than they did about him, and his strange request to be buried in old familial haunts and for his family and friends to catch the train to Limoges sets up inevitable dysfunction and confrontations. It turns out the old artist had quite a misanthropic and cynical side to him. Adding to the surreal scene is the specter of Jean-Baptiste's coffin racing alongside the train in a white station wagon, giving the passengers a focus and something to distract them from their own problems.
Editor Francois (Pascal Greggory) prepares a eulogy for the dead artist, with whom he may have shared an intimate relationship at one point but long term relationships are difficult for a cynical man who believes, "Loving people means putting up with their shit." The lonely man can only do this for so long before moving on to another, but he puts up a confident facade. Ironically, his current lover, Louis (Bruno Todeschini), eyes young pretty boy Bruno (Sylvain Jacques) on the train, beginning an affair with Francois' past lover. Still incensed at Francois for dumping him after he discovered that he was HIV-positive, Bruno is just one of the angry men on the train.
Former drug addict Jean-Marie, played very naturally by Charles Berling (who portrays similar relationship problems in How I Killed My Father), has long been estranged from his father and can't speak with Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) without erupting into a violent rage. For years the two married druggies had been manipulated by uncle Jean-Baptiste, but his death brings likely dissolution of their turbulent relationship, as Jean-Marie now seems determined to end the family line with himself. For the most part, the emotions are held in check during the train ride, allowing the audience to become familiar with the characters; however, once the train stops for a break, all Hell breaks loose. Pent-up feelings burst wide open, and the drama begins.
Fortunately, Chereau maintains control, and these swooning melodramas are satisfyingly brief. Longer scenes focus on relationships and some sweet moments. He doesn't include many lighthearted moments in the generally darkly lighted frames, but profound encounters with Jean-Baptiste's twin brother in Europe's largest cemetery and whimsical moments with transsexual Viviane (Vincent Perez) balance the intensity of the other scenes. Viviane has a thing about high heeled shoes, leading to one of the film's richer moments.
In the space of two hours Chereau captures surprising intimacy with an eclectic set of characters that feels very true to life, and poses questions that invite us take stock in our own relationships, hopes, and dreams. Avoiding sentimentality and refusing to wrap everything up in a nicely resolved Hollywood ending, Those Who Love Me Can Catch the Train fulfills by the end while leaving room for hope--perhaps some of these characters will find a way to put up with each other's "shit." The final shots panning the French countryside indicate that life will go on, and we've been enriched by an intensified examination of the eternal human comedy that is very similar to paths we all tread.