• Ravi Swami

"Subway" Dir: Luc Besson, 1985



I was certainly aware of Luc Besson's 1985 film "Subway" at the time, promoted with a striking image of its' star Christopher Lambert sporting dyed blonde hair and holding a very lightsaber-ish fluorescent tube, but any curiosity stopped short at actually going to see the film in the cinema - in that year my interests revolved around science fiction such as "Blade Runner" and the many other films that featured visual effects in the mid-1980's in the midst of a post "Star Wars" visual effects boom.


In the professional sphere, personally, 1985 was a kind of watershed year when I was busy working as an animator on pop videos and TV commercials and the odd (and only) feature film like "Highlander", which coincidentally also starred Lambert in a lead role in the following year, when Lambert suddenly found himself thrust into more acting roles on the heels of his role as "Tarzan" in Hugh Hudsons' "Greystoke".


Of course the other big boom of the 1980's that followed was the rise of MTV and music video and I was working within the centre of that in London - suddenly the other type of film appearing in popular cinema invariably featured the latest pop music in their soundtracks as a big selling point to the mostly young and upwardly mobile youth of the seeming prosperity of period.


That type of popular cinema - the type of film that might be termed a "date movie" - held no particular attraction to me so I deliberately missed the key films of the era like "The Breakfast Club, "Top Gun" or "Ferris Buehler's Day Off" and only really caught them decades later, if at all, on TV, and "Subway" falls into that category, besides which, it neatly sums up the obsessions of the mid 1980's in fashion and music, even if its' spirit was really at least a decade out of step by the mid-80's in being essentially "Punk".


Besson became part of what might be considered to be part of a new French New Wave cinema characterised by the elements mentioned above - music and fashion - a genre termed by a film critic disparagingly as "Cinéma_du_look" and featuring stylish visuals and music inspired by fashion photography and the obsessions of the New Romantic movement in pop music - in short, an emphasis on appearances and attitude rather than meaningful content.


In common with many of the young directors of the period fresh out of film or art school who cut their teeth on TV commercials or pop videos, the latter often referencing and riffing on the work of an earlier generation of film-makers in a medium marked by low to no-budget fast-turnaround content to feed the appetite of the new music TV channels - in the scrabble for ideas directors would often just cherry-pick from their favourite films and "Subway" wears its' influences on its' Armani sleeve.


"Subway" has a rather thin plot concerning Lambert's character, known simply as "Fred" in the film, who is on the run after breaking into the safe in the home of a gangster/entrepreneur after being invited to a party there and stealing documents which he then uses to blackmail the gangster's young wife, played by Isabelle Adjani, into giving him a ransom in exchange for the stolen items.


His character in the film is a sort of gentleman thief along the lines of "Arsene Lupin" with an added Punk twist and the stolen items are really just a "McGuffin" around which the plot turns.


The film opens with a furious breakneck car chase through Paris as Fred is being pursued by the gangster's henchmen who have been ordered to retrieve the documents and if necessary, kill Fred. However he manages to outsmart them at every turn before abandoning his car in an underground car park and making a dash for the Paris Metro system.


The whole sequence is a very obvious reference to the car-chase in "The French Connection" in the sense that it uses real locations rather than the tricks of an earlier era of studio films like back projection and miniatures, which gives it an added edge of risk and excitement.


The rest of the film is located in the bowels of the Metro system, which appears to extend several levels under Paris, revealed in a series of atmospheric sequences as Fred descends into a literal underworld to discover it's odd denizens of purse-snatchers, eg "The Roller", who goes everywhere on roller skates in pursuit of the purses and bags of commuters, a flower seller who only emerges in the daytime while keeping an eye out for security guards who may be transporting money to rob from, and itinerant musicians.


Early in the film we get the sense that Adjani has a thing for the louche and roguish Fred and it transpires that she is bored with her life with her husband, which seems to involve endless rounds of parties and soirees with his well-heeled friends while she is his kept woman wrapped in the latest fashions and not wanting for anything.


She appears in the role in various iconic 80's fashion items such as large shouldered jackets and with swept up hair which she eventually ditches for the scavenged second-hand clothes of the underground dwellers as an act of rebellion and to seem less conspicuous to her husband's henchmen.


Meanwhile a bumbling duo of policemen dubbed "Batman and Robin" by their world-weary detective inspector are assigned the task of tracking down the various criminals who operate on the underground system, with "The Roller" high on their list since up to that point he has remained elusive.


There are a number of references to other classic films, for example, when Fred resurfaces, now dressed in a tatty overcoat after giving his tuxedo to the flower seller, he is standing on a subway platform and behind him a commuter is battering a cigarette machine before giving up and walking away, a detail that is a nod to a similar shot in Jules Dassin's "The Naked City", though where Dassin captured this almost by accident on a real New York subway platform, here it clearly staged.


Of course the other similarity to Dassin's film is the use of real locations throughout the film, with some sequences shot in sets in a studio, though you would never know it since they blend perfectly into the film.


In addition, commuters can be seen reacting to the actors and film crew as the action plays out around them in much the same way that New Yorkers reacted to Dassin's remarkable film as it was being filmed around them.


The Dassin influence doesn't end there since the plot references his other masterpiece "Rififi", though only in passing, by making Fred a safe-cracker and petty thief and beyond this we know very little about him and he remains an enigma until the very end.


Isabelle Adjani is another actress most associated with 80's European cinema and as with her contemporary Emmanuelle Beart, I missed many of the films that she appeared in during that period and perhaps "Subway" represents her most quintessentially 80's role of middle class, upwardly mobile youth aspiring to be cool by being rebellious and hanging out with those less advantaged in the depths of the Paris Metro, perhaps literally referencing The Jam's "Going Underground".


Fred gathers together a bunch of itinerant musicians who he comes across in the Stygian network of tunnel under the Metro with the aim of launching a pop-group, playing the role of bourgeois entrepreneur and promoter along the lines of a Malcolm McLaren, which again highlights the era's aspirations, though it never quite leans into straight satire.


There's a dreamlike quality to Fred's descent into the Metro underworld and the films feels like a patchwork of impressions and influences in much the same way that pop-videos of era were and the end result is a mixture of police procedural, heist movie and a rag-bag of cinematic influences, (one of which is a clear nod to Jean Luc Godards' "À bout de souffle"/ "Breathless") all shot to resemble a moving edition of Vogue magazine circa 1985.


The film's very 80s synth-pop score and song "It's Only Mystery" was provided by a frequent Besson collaborator since his earliest films, Éric Serra, who later went on to score the Bond film "Goldeneye'.


Overall, the film has a superficial quality to it but is worth watching for the details of the Metro underground in the same way that New York became a fascinating backdrop to Jules Dassin's "The Naked City" and its' commercial success paved the way for Luc Besson's later bigger budget and more ambitious films like "The Fifth Element" a decade or so later.



"Subway" Dir: Luc Besson, 1985

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