The Girl on the Train is based on a true story of a young French woman who falsely claimed to have been attacked by thugs who took her for Jewish, marked her with swastikas, verbally humiliated her, and roughed her up.
Precisely how closely it is based on the actual events is, as always, hard to discern. It’s safe to assume it’s not all that close, since movies supposedly based on true stories routinely give themselves great leeway to fictionalize.
It matters here more than in most “true” story movies, because this isn’t just about what the protagonist Jeanne did, but why she did it. You’re given considerable evidence about her and what was going on in her life at the time, and invited to attempt to infer what the causes of her behavior were, what her motives were, and more generally why people do things like this. But if a certain amount of the evidence is false, then how valid are such inferences?
This is the same kind of thing I’ve written about in multiple essays before, including my recent essay on The Believer.
So maybe it’s best just to approach The Girl on the Train as a work of fiction, and to understand that speculations about this character do not necessarily apply to any real person or to the general phenomenon of hoaxes like this.
The fake attack does not even occur until an hour or so into the movie. Up until that time we learn what we can by observing Jeanne and her relationships. If you came into this movie cold, not having read that ultimately it’ll turn out to be about a hoax anti-Semitic attack, it would probably just seem like one of those slice-of-life indie films with minimal plot, where you spend a certain amount of time with certain people and then the movie ends. But if you know the context of what’s coming, there’s a certain amount of suspense to it; it feels like a mystery or psychological investigation.
In this pre-hoax period, Jeanne comes across as fairly normal. There are no signs of significant mental illness—that I can see at least—nor is she unusually corrupt. It’s not hard to identify imperfections and ways in which she’s messed up, but all that is well within the ordinary range for a 20-something woman.
At the beginning of the movie, she lives with her mother (Catherine Deneuve, solid as always). Soon she acquires a boyfriend, a top-rated amateur wrestler hoping to compete in the Olympics. Their relationship mostly develops promisingly, but is then derailed when the boyfriend is stabbed and nearly dies.
It turns out that in order to secure a place where he and Jeanne could live together, the boyfriend had agreed to watch a store that was a front for drug dealing while the proprietor was away, and then had had a run-in with someone who showed up at the store expecting to pick up some drugs. Now even if he recovers he’s looking at a long prison sentence for his rather peripheral involvement in the drug trade.
Jeanne herself is not implicated, as she knew nothing of any of this until after the fact. But though she is not herself in trouble, certainly she’s traumatized by what’s happened to her boyfriend, especially after he goes off on her, ranting about how this is all her fault and he never wants to see her again. (Because he did this all because he loved her and wanted them to be together, and hence if he had never met her he never would have done the things he did and lost his future. So, you know, her fault.)
Meanwhile there’s a whole additional narrative about a lawyer and his family, connected to the main story by the fact that the lawyer had decades ago been in love with Jeanne’s mother, who married his army buddy instead, and now Jeanne’s mother is hoping through an appeal to their past to prevail upon him to give the chronically unemployed and underemployed Jeanne a clerical job in his law firm.
The lawyer’s son and his wife are estranged, and are trying to stomach each other long enough to get through their 13 year old boy’s upcoming bar mitzvah.
As long as the set-up is, the actual hoaxed event takes almost no time. We’re shown Jeanne writing on herself and cutting herself, but as far as what she actually then did we can only pick up the gist of it from overheard TV reports and such.
Because the story she concocted mentioned the lawyer, and because her mother seeks his legal assistance for her daughter, the lawyer hosts mother and daughter (as well as his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson) for a weekend in the country where they hope to get to the bottom of what really happened.
In contrast to that first hour of the movie, when Jeanne was a more-or-less normal young woman, whose quantity and quality of communication was more-or-less normal, for the rest of the movie after the hoax she drifts along as a sullen or shocked enigma, speaking little.
Interestingly, pretty much everyone in her life guesses almost immediately that she made the whole thing up. It turns out some of them have some evidence of inconsistencies in her account, but even beyond that there seems to be a general assumption that a hoax like this would be the kind of thing to expect from her.
I say interestingly, because I didn’t read her as a particularly dishonest or fantasy-prone person. What I instead took from the film—whether this was intentional from the filmmaker or not I don’t know, though the very last scene makes me suspect something roughly like this was indeed a theme—is that a certain level of dishonesty permeates modern culture (or maybe any human culture), and so really all she’s guilty of is a sort of socially awkward version of what in most contexts is accepted as just the routine way you make your way in the world.
From fudging a resume, to not being fully forthcoming about why you’re contacting a person from your younger days, to haggling, to the bitter little passive aggressive swipes exchanged by a divorced couple, to the spin practiced by lawyers, politicians, law enforcement, and the mass media, Jeanne’s world—our world—is one where language is a pragmatic tool, where you’d have to be hopelessly naïve or morally pure to always mean what you say and say what you mean.
It’s unusual, and perhaps an indication of mental illness or more likely short term trauma, that Jeanne concocted a story that had little or no advantage for her. (There’s no indication she expected to make money, bask in a great deal of favorable public attention, further some political position, etc. from her hoax; it seems to have been more of a random thing with no coherent motive behind it.) But the lack of commitment to truth, the tendency to fall back on falsehood when you feel cornered or uncertain of yourself, is anything but unusual.
This theme of the phoniness of social reality, the way we’ve accepted that untruth is just a normal part of life (especially in commercial and public contexts, and to a lesser extent in private interactions) is something I’ve thought a lot about, and even fantasized writing at length about or making a film or doing some other project about, so it’s certainly possible I could read it into a work of art that doesn’t contain it. But as I say, there’s enough in the film to make me think this idea was intentionally incorporated into it, in spite of the characters attributing Jeanne’s fabulizing to some individual character flaw or quirk of hers.
I’m not going to say The Girl on the Train is anything great, or a movie that had such an impact on me that I’ll remember it more than the majority of those I’ve written about, but it’s an intelligent, professional, thought-provoking movie deserving of at least a modest recommendation.