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Sympathy Pains

A new French film examines a case of philo-Semitism gone terribly awry

Allison Hoffman
January 22, 2010
Émilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve in The Girl on the Train(Strand Releasing)
Émilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve in The Girl on the Train(Strand Releasing)

Life isn’t easy for Jeanne Fabre, the character at the center of the new French film The Girl on the Train. She’s a flighty airhead stuck in the Parisian suburbs with no job, a boyfriend who’s caught up in some shady business, and an overbearing mother pretty enough to be played by Catherine Deneuve. One night, while mourning her own minor tragedies, she sees a documentary on television about the Holocaust and bursts into tears. Such terrible things happened to the Jews, she seems to be thinking: My problems aren’t so bad!

Except she isn’t. Jeanne isn’t empowered by the heroism of Jewish survivors; she decides she wants to be a victim. She goes into her bathroom one morning, draws some swastikas on her taut belly, and cuts her pretty face with a knife. Then she goes to the police and files a report claiming that she’s been attacked on a train by a gang of Arab youths who mistook her for a Jew. Voila, sympathy! News anchors detail her plight and bemoan the latest example of anti-Semitism, and the president’s office calls to offer support. It’s just what she thought she wanted: to become a victim, deserving of sorrow.

Usually, when non-Jews talk about their desire to access some of what being Jewish has to offer, they talk about spirituality, or lox, or Bar Rafaeli. But Jeanne is after something else: a kind of public martyrdom. “At the heart of Jeanne’s lie is the desire to become Jewish in the mode of persecution,” the film’s director, André Téchiné, explained in press notes for the film, which opens today in New York. “It’s an identification.”

In other words, it’s anti-Semitism turned inside out. Instead of fearing Jews, Jeanne envies some imagined special quality; what’s strange is that she expresses her philo-Semitism by claiming to be the target of anti-Jewish hate.

Jeanne’s story, as it happens, is based on real events. In July 2004, a 23-year-old woman, Marie Leblanc, went to the police and reported that she and her 13-month-old baby were violently assaulted on a suburban light-rail train by six young Muslim men who thought she was Jewish. France was already on alert; the previous fall, the president, Jacques Chirac, had announced a crackdown on anti-Semitic incidents. “When a Jew is attacked in France,” he’d said, “it is an attack on the whole of France.” He also called on French citizens to be vigilant against anti-Jewish outbursts. Perhaps as a result, the Parisian paper Le Figaro was quick to compare Leblanc, who claimed 20 fellow passengers watched the attack in silence, to Kitty Genovese, the New York woman whose neighbors famously failed to respond to her cries for help as she was brutally stabbed to death in 1964.

Within days, Leblanc’s tale was revealed as a hoax. Chirac, who had publicly called for the alleged perpetrators to be hunted down and held to account, apologized and instead demanded that Leblanc be punished for her “manipulation” of the racial tensions roiling the nation. (Leblanc was quickly sentenced to probation and ordered by French courts to seek psychiatric care.)

Leblanc wasn’t the only one that summer to fabricate an anti-Semitic attack for attention. According to the New York Times, police took a “mentally unstable” Jewish man into custody on suspicion of setting a fire at a Jewish community center in Paris where he worked as a security guard, and another man in Lyon admitted scrawling swastikas on Jewish tombstones after the press failed to notice that he had assaulted a Muslim man with a hatchet. But Leblanc was the only one who seemed to actually want to tap into something about being Jewish, without any particular interest in stoking the inevitable public scapegoating of Muslim immigrants that followed.

And the film—which Téchiné adapted from Jean-Marie Besset’s 2005 play about the Leblanc case, RER, named for the Parisian regional train network on which the attack supposedly took place—adds another wrinkle to the story. Téchiné introduces a prominent Jewish civil-rights attorney who appears, early on, as a talking head on television condemning anti-Semitism. Though he is an avowed atheist, he is also in the midst of refereeing a family debate about whether or not his 12-year-old grandson should have a bar mitzvah. It sets up a neat parallel: Jeanne, so preoccupied with claiming her share of the noble victimhood she believes constitutes the Jewish legacy, is utterly shocked to discover that actual Jews have a relationship with their heritage that is far more complicated, and far more interesting.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.