André Téchiné, The Girl on the Train, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Left: Jeanne and Louise (Émilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve). Right: Jeanne and Franck (Émilie Dequenne and Nicolas Duvauchelle).

ANDRÉ TÉCHINÉ’S EIGHTEENTH FEATURE, a disclaimer notes at the end, is “a work of fiction inspired by true events”: the RER D (a Paris commuter line) affair of July 2004, in which a non-Jewish young woman falsely claimed to be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack by six men, whom she identified as Arabs and blacks. As in Téchiné’s previous film, The Witnesses (2007), about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the fiction surrounding the facts in The Girl on the Train too often branches off into a series of distracting plot threads. Writing with frequent Chabrol collaborator Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Besset, Téchiné overstuffs his putative observations on contemporary French society and politics with dizzying melodrama: Couples form, split, and reunite; old loves are revisited; rites of passage are undertaken.

The girl of the title, the unemployed, twenty-ish Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne, best known for her role as the eponymous teenage protagonist in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film, Rosetta), is constantly in motion: if not on the RER train that goes right by the house in the Paris suburbs that she shares with her widowed mother, Louise (Téchiné regular Catherine Deneuve, flourishing in another great maternal role), then on Rollerblades. Gliding through a park, Jeanne meets thuggish wrestler Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who becomes her boyfriend and sets up house with her, tending to a warehouse of stolen goods and smack. Louise urges Jeanne to apply for a secretarial position with Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a lawyer and Jewish activist, once in love with Louise, who specializes in hate crimes—and acts as intermediary between his son, Alex (Mathieu Demy), squabbling with his Orthodox ex-wife, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), about whether or not their son, Nathan (Jérémy Quaegebeur), should have a bar mitzvah.

“I never met such a submissive girl,” Franck says of Jeanne, whose motives for her unconscionable act Téchiné maddeningly insists remain unknowable; indeed, the character is a nearly mute blank amid the voluble hysterics around her. By the time Jeanne finally confesses to Bleistein, the larger questions of anti-Semitism, racism, and media frenzies have been buried underneath a pileup of mini–soap operas. Though shot by cinematographer Julien Hirsch with exceptional visual immediacy and fluidity, The Girl on the Train derails, unable to carry its heavy load.

Melissa Anderson

The Girl on the Train opens Friday, February 19 in Los Angeles.