When you mention the name of director Luc Besson, most people think of his recent mainstream movies like 'Leon/The Professional' or 'The Fifth Element', while only his most ardent fans or film buffs may recall his second feature 'Subway'.
It's a movie positively bursting with style, whether you take that to be the way its stars were dressed or the way the film was shot with plenty of wide angle camerawork or even the use of a soundtrack by Eric Serra.
Christophe Lambert with his 'Sting' look, spiky blond hair and dinner suit. Isabelle Adjani looking beautiful in her party frock or French 'chic' chequered outfit. I was particularly struck by how beautiful her eyes were in the close ups. Breathtaking!
The movie was a huge box-office hit in its native France upon its release back in 1985 and as a result of the rising popularity of its lead actors became something of a cult film in the UK. 'Subway' can be seen as almost a partner to Jean Jacques Beineix's earlier art-house classic, 'Diva' (1981). Indeed, I often confuse the two movies. Together, these two films were part of the then newly dubbed "cinema du look" movement; that saw a younger generation of French filmmakers harking back to the days of Godard and Truffaut while combining that sense of playful experimentation with elements of early 80's pop culture. It was the film that finally introduced director Luc Besson to a wider commercial audience outside of the confines of the French art-house.
'Subway' was blessed with 13 nominations in the 1986 Cesar Awards, the French equivalent of the Academy Awards, and on the night took home three trophies including Best Actor for Christophe Lambert as well as Best Production Design and Best Sound.
The film has one of the best openings ever -- sharp, frenetic, and a forerunner of the great car chases in John Frankenheimer's 'Ronin'. It looks, at the very outset, a bit like a French 'Blues Brothers' - with trendy suited types involved in a car chase around the city which culminates in a car being driven down the steps to the Paris Metro. A strange combination of comedy, violence, fantasy, and suspense - it tells the story of Fred (Christophe Lambert), a safe cracker who is hiding in the dark tunnels of the Paris subway system after stealing documents from a shady businessman. His wife, Helena, a beautiful woman from the wealthy suburbs is drawn to the man who blew up her safe and she starts to envy him. Meanwhile his antics and encounters whilst hiding out in the Metro reflect the spirit of the '80s Punk movement in Europe and we see a new sub-culture replacing the old establishment. If it wasn't for the sheer energy of Subway, and the fact that it manages to capture the spirit of change during a decade where youth felt disillusioned by the old-system then this would be a much slighter movie. However it does have those qualities, although set in a very confined environment, it reflects wider society and brings to the screen the rebellion of a decade which saw massive change throughout Europe.
But back to the characters. In direct comparison to Fred, Helena feels crushed in her wealthy yet unhappy marriage. She seems to live a rigid life adhering to strict social etiquette, meanwhile Fred is carefree - meandering through the underground, disregarding authority, and stopping to enjoy the buskers. He shows her that rules are meant to be broken. Fred finds love with Helena, robs a train, and starts a rock band.
This is an odd film in as much as it isn't conventionally entertaining, yet I found that the artistic value was good enough to hold my interest. There's little actual plot but the characters are intriguing. There's an obvious message with members of society turning their backs on the 'normal' way of life and sticking two fingers up to society. The soundtrack dominates and the band performances will have you smiling and tapping your feet.
The acting performances are not overly emotional. There is a general coldness, but we find ourselves liking the characters all the same. It would probably be accurate to say that the characters are 'cool', both in the modern connotation and in their feelings.
Christophe Lambert, as Fred, takes whatever life puts in his way as he moves from situation to situation. Isabelle Adjani as Helena is also 'cool' in her dealings with Fred, just as she is with her husband. Together with the visually impressive camerawork, Ms Adjani adds to the on screen beauty and 'wow' factor.
Jean Reno as the drummer, provides another slightly offbeat character to hold our gaze and it's good to see him in one of his earlier performances.
The man out to catch the rogues and vagabonds, Inspector Gesberg, is played by Michel Galabru with a hangdog expression that conveys a world weary cynicism and sarcastic turn of phrase that often amuses. He refers to his two 'star' Policemen with disdain as Batman & Robin and his primary request is that they get him a cup of coffee - almost as a test of their skills and an insult into the bargain.
Despite the collection of slightly unusual characters, it's the cinematography by Carlo Varini that is the real star of the film. It has impact, flair and the use of wide angle lenses draws the audience into the frame. The close-ups make the most of Isabelle Adjani's unlined 'visage' while exploring her big eyes. The photography has a light, breezy and 'European' feel to it which is pleasing to the eye. It really should have won an award. He wuz robbed.
'Subway' displays the dark underworld of Paris. The characters are colourful, the action is fast paced and the visual style is consistently inventive.
Some might say that it is a triumph of style over substance - but not me for I enjoyed the film and I believe that it warrants a repeat viewing.
The trip into the Paris Metro is interesting and fun. Look out for composer Eric Serra as the Bass player in the rock band and also for director Besson as a train driver.
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