France | 1985 | Directed by Luc Besson
Logline: A cocky safe-cracker evading police finds an escape haven in the Metro of Paris and is befriended by a ragtag group of musicians and misfits, while an elusive romance beckons.
“To be is to do” – Socrates, “To do is to be” – Satre, “Do be do be do” – Sinatra.
Luc Besson is a style merchant extraordinaire. He became the ciné vogue du jour, at just twenty-five, with the release of this breezy riff of a tale that slides and floats and drifts and skedaddles from one moment to the next. Actually it is the moments within Subway that make it so irresistible, not the plot itself which is threadbare at best. Besson is more interested, and excels, at providing arresting images and a distinct rhythm, both in the mise-en-scene and the soundtrack.
Subway pulses with an infectious 80s Euro-pop-funk score courtesy of Besson regular Eric Serra, who plays a small part as the bassist (and songwriter) of the subterranean funkster outfit. The band is never named, and neither are the musicians. In fact only two of the movie’s characters are given names: Fred (Christophe Lambert in the most endearing and least irritating performance of his career) and Héléna (Isabelle Adjani). Fred is the thief, and Héléna is the frustrated wife of the man Fred robbed. Héléna has her own agenda, whilst Fred seems more interested in pursuing her, and in the chase given by the underground authorities.
Subway exudes character, even the subway system itself takes on a personality, as Fred delves deeper and deeper into its rabbit warren maze of tunnels and chambers. There are only a couple of scenes set above ground; the very opening car chase sequence where Fred in his little Peugeot is being pursued by several policemen in a large Mercedes-Benz. The other scene is an hilarious situation where Héléna finds herself at a dinner with her indifferent husband and numerous stuffy guests, and can’t help but insult them all with expletives and a fast exit.
Subway oozes style and fashion; from Fred in his tuxedo and platinum blonde hair brandishing a neon tube for illumination in the dim light of the tunnels, to Héléna’s wild spiked punkette hair-do, Euroasian eye makeup, and bellowing black dress. They make a fabulously attractive pair, even if they don’t get it together until the very end (and even then their romance is thwarted by tragedy).
Adjani had already garnered a strong reputation for being a difficult diva and although Besson was yet the star director he warned her that if she walked off his set in one of her infamous tantrums her career would be over. She promised she wouldn’t act like a prima donna, and she kept her word. Truth be told, one of the main reasons Subway is so memorable is Adjani's ravishing otherworldly beauty and that snobbish allure. Apparently in France she is held in such high esteem that she is only known only as Adjani.
Besson frequently uses elaborate fast dollying shots weaving in and out of bystanders waiting for trains amidst the supporting subway pillars, or close-up wide-angles that enhances the charisma of his ensemble supporting cast: a very young-looking Jean-Hughes Anglade plays The Roller, a nervous lost soul perpetually rollerskating, the always excellent Richard Bohringer plays The Florist, a spanner in the works and a cog in the criminal wheels, and Jean Reno (sporting the most hair I’ve seen him with) plays The Drummer of the band, drumsticks always in hand, tapping away on anything, much to the annoyance of Fred.
Finally near movie’s end Fred manages to recruit a busking saxophone player and a singer, and his band are ready to perform to the public. They highjack a small stage designated for a festival orchestral performance and Eric Serra and The Drummer begin a slap-happy groove. Fred breaks into his radiant grin, Héléna has come to realise she actually has feelings for the reckless scoundrel who ripped off the husband she no longer loves. But a determined policeman in the background has his pistol poised …
Ultimately Subway is a drama romp tinged with melancholy, laced with melody, and underpinned with a steady throb. Ricki Lee Jones’ Lucky Guy plays on a ghettoblaster in the middle of the movie, seemingly incongruous, yet utterly fitting. But it’s the final song, a gorgeous pop tune, It’s Only Mystery, that encapsulates the essence of Subway’s mood and tone.