‘Subway’ is a French comedy drama film directed by Luc Besson. Released in 1985 it starred Christopher Lambert and Isabelle Adjani and was classified as part of the then newly-dubbed “cinéma du look” movement. This was a brief French cinematic resurgence that witnessed a younger generation of filmmakers looking back to the days of Godard, Truffaut and the ‘Nouvelle Vague’; combining a sense of playful experimentation with elements of early 80’s pop culture.
Upon release ‘Subway’ was a huge box-office hit in its native France and became somewhat of a cult film here in the UK. It has subsequently been seen as a companion piece to Jean-Jacques Beineix’s earlier art-house classic, ‘Diva’ (1981). Together, these two films can be seen as both the development and continuation of the concerns and preoccupations of early 80’s pop culture, centred on somewhat doomed relationships and an irreverence to money.
It would be the film that finally introduced Besson to wider commercial audiences outside of the confines of French art-house and features an ensemble cast which includes Jean Reno, Michel Galabru, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Richard Bohringer and Éric Serra.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Fred (Lambert) is a safe cracker on the run after stealing some compromising documents from a powerful gangster/businessman. We learn that Fred had been invited to a party by the gangster’s young trophy wife Héléna (Adjani) where he blew their safe and preformed the robbery. This is a concept which is both somewhat comedic and intriguing at the same time.. ..mainly because Fred is so nonchalant as to his actions and subsequent predicament.
Having escaped the gangsters enforcers, by speeding through Paris he takes refuge in the underground world of tunnels and stations of the Paris Métro. He quickly meets and befriends several colourful characters, including others who are hiding in the subway to avoid detection from the authorities. These include a thief (Anglade), who traverses the tunnels on roller skates (complete with headlights); a drummer (Reno) who seems to roam the subway tapping tunes out on whatever he can find; a florist (Bohringer) and a body builder.
As the gangsters henchmen search for Fred, he develops a romantic relationship with Héléna. She is simultaneously annoyed, intrigued with and attracted to Fred; being bored with her gilded, but loveless life.
“Stop! Tell your story to someone else.. ..because I don’t give a fuck about all this bullshit.” Héléna [to La préfète]
As the police also start to close in on Fred (seemingly indifferent to his danger) he forms a pop band with some of his new friends, including “the drummer” and Enrico (Serra), who composes the songs. Meanwhile, Héléna’s husband sends his consigliere to pressure the police and the florist into finding Fred. The roller-skater, who has been wanted by the police for a long time, is finally captured by Commissioner Gesberg (Galabru), who has been hindered by his inept supporting officers, whom he sarcastically refers to as ‘Batman’ and ‘Robin’.
“Police. Handcuffs. Prison.” Commissioner Gesberg [to the Skater]
Fred and the florist, carry out a train robbery planned by the skater.. ..the florist departing with his half, leaving Fred with his. He uses his new funds to pay off a concert band scheduled to perform a Brahms recital in the subway.
His new band replaces them and they start their debut performance just as the consigliere closes in on Fred. Héléna desperately tries to reach Fred through the crowds coming to watch the band perform, but he is shot by the gangster just as she reaches him.
The film ends with a distraught Héléna kneeling beside Fred letting him finally know she has feelings for him. As she then argues with the gunman, Fred is lying on his back, looking content and singing along with the band who are being applauded by the audience in the background.
The characteristics of the ‘cinéma du look’ movement involved preoccupations with doomed love and alienated Parisian youth, applied to plots that were both cool and iconic to their 80’s setting. ‘Subway’ is perhaps the pinnacle of the movement, with its mixture of ‘film noir’ conventions, pop music, youth-culture, action and broad attempts at humour.
As others have noted over the years, the film and the style that it employs are very much of their time; presenting a very 80’s take on listless youth replete with a central characters with iconic looks, fashions and hairstyles to match.
A very stylistic movie, it is supported by a (typically 80’s) synthesiser heavy soundtrack with two specially composed ‘New Wave’ pop songs. It has a somewhat indescribable feeling that you often get from many French films of the same era, including ‘Buffet Froid’ (1979), ‘One Deadly Summer’ (1983), ‘Moon in the Gutter’ (1983), ‘First Name: Carmen’ (1983) ‘Hail Mary’ (1985), ‘Betty Blue’ (1986), ‘Mauvais Sang’ (1986), ‘Jean de Florette’ / ‘Manon des Sources’ (1986) and Besson’s own subsequent picture, ‘Le Grand Bleu’ (1988). Not that ‘Subway’ has much in common with these films in terms of style or content, but it has that similar languid feeling, bizarre eclecticism or eccentricity, and an atmosphere that feels very much true to the country and the time it was produced. Although very much a French film, it became quite cult in the UK; both because of its imagery and sardonic view of wealth, the latter reflecting the growing dissolution with 80’s Thatcherite Britain.
In many ways, the film could be seen by many as something terribly lightweight; with the whimsical plot, colourful characters combined with a continual assault of cinematic style over substance. Like Besson’s previous ‘Le Dernier Combat’ (1983), the ultimate problem with the film is that it can’t quite decide whether or not it wants to be an action or art film; the combination of the two very different styles never quite achieving congruence. The opening car chase and initial descent into the subterranean underworld of the Paris Metro system seem to suggests that the film will be high-style and high-energy. However, it quickly takes a step back, giving us some cool, neo-noir like interaction between Lambert’s pithy safe-cracker and Adjani’s bored trophy wife, while the opposing forces of police and gangsters begin closing in on them. ‘Subway’ is a film that will definitely appeal to perhaps a more mature audience, those who are open minded to cult European art cinema, or perhaps maybe a dedicated audience interested in seeing how the director of such highly acclaimed action thrillers, such ‘Nikita’ (1991) or ‘Leon: The Professional’ (1994), started out. In general, it is an easier film to get into than some of those listed above.
Upon viewing the film for the first time a sceptic may feel that it has no real story and is more an experiment in cinematic form and indulgence. However, there is more to it than this and the story whilst admittedly shallow does shine through, particularly on repeat viewings. This is when you start to see the allure and attraction of the characters of Fred and Héléna, who are clearly struggling throughout to maintain face and make the right decisions in a world that neither of them truly understands. Indeed, Lambert’s character seems to care little as to his own welfare, hinting that Adjani may be his only saviour.
As a result, it might just be the kind of film that takes a few viewings to truly captivate you, especially after drawing us in with the aforementioned car chase (which nods to Claude Lelouch’s iconic 1976 short film ‘C’était un rendez-vous’, and William Freidkin’s earlier, 1971 ‘The French Connection’). But ending with a far more subtle finale, based loosely on the ending of the 1960 film ‘Breathless’.
Subway clearly isn’t a masterpiece. Like his first film, 1983’s ‘Le Dernier Combat’, and the more recent ‘Angel-A’ (2005), it shows Besson at his most inventive and experimental, sampling from a variety of different genres and producing something that is chic and stylish, without ever being truly captivating. It is however an interesting film and one that will no doubt appeal to fans of some of the aforementioned films.
Lambert is amazing as the stylish rebel gangster with a heart (a fact seemingly not unnoticed by Irvine Welsh or Danny Boyle, as Sick Boy poses more than a passing resemblance). Adjani is stunning but, deeply annoying — she just exudes arrogance from the first time we see her. On the side-lines we see an impossibly young Jean-Hugues Anglade, Jean Reno and Jean-Pierre Bacri.
Éric Serra‘s score and other musical pieces from the soundtrack, such as Fred’s band’s song, “It’s Only Mystery” (also written by Serra), were released on vinyl and compact cassette in 1985. The soundtrack sold over 100,000 copies in France. The soundtrack was released on CD in 1996.
I really like ‘Subway’ and always have, it exudes 80’s style and captures it in a way that many films have simply failed to achieve. Whilst the story is ultimately shallow the performance of the actors really shines through and makes this a pleasure to watch.. ..particularly with repeated viewings. As described above, for many reasons, this film is a rarity in that it gets better to more times you watch it.
It is also interesting to look at ’Subway’ as part of the natural progression of Besson’s career. This is not only because it seems light years away from his first film, the wordless science fiction parable, ‘Le Dernier Combat’ (1983), it is fascinating to compare some of the obvious experimentation he used in ‘Subway’ with some of his latter creations, particularly ‘Nikita’ (1991) and ‘Leon’/’The Professional’ (1994); films that went on to make him an internationally regarded director.
‘Subway’ and film still © 1985 Gaumont Film Company, All Rights Reserved. Used under fair dealing and fair use for research and commentary purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.