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Fred is living in the Paris Metro system. He is blackmailing Helena, whose safe he has robbed. Fred has various 'friends' all living in this sureal setting. The Roller is a rollerskating bag snatcher and Big Bill is a 'strongman'. The blackmail and Freds relationship with Helena and her heavies make up the bulk of the plot but on the side are Freds attempts to start a band using buskers from the Metro. Written by
Matthew Stanfield <email@example.com>
A flawed, though no less interesting experiment, in ultra-chic visual film-making.
At the time, a huge box-office hit in its native France - and as a result of the rising popularity of lead actors Christopher Lambert and Isabelle Adjani, something of a cult film in the UK - Subway (1985) was 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 the continuation of the concerns and preoccupations of the then-newly dubbed "cinema du look" movement; a brief cinematic resurgence in French cinema that saw a younger generation of filmmakers looking back to the days of Godard, Truffaut and the Nouvelle Vague, and combining that sense of playful experimentation with elements of early 80's pop culture. It would be the film that finally introduced director Luc Besson to a wider commercial audience outside of the confines of the French art-house, and really - when looked at as part of the natural progression of his career - seems light years away from his first film, the wordless science fiction parable, Le Dernier Combat/The Last Battle (1983).
The characteristics of the cinema du look movement involved preoccupations with doomed love and alienated Parisian youth, applied to a plot that was both cool and iconic. This can be seen quite clearly in Subway, with its mixture of film noir conventions, pop music, subterranean youth-culture, action and broad attempts at humour. As others have previously noted, 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 character that looks like Sting, a synthesiser heavy soundtrack that manages to work-in two specially composted New Wave pop songs, some shocking fashion choices (though most of these are admittedly back in vogue) and that general unique, indescribable feeling that you often get from many French films from this era; in particular Buffet Froid (1981), One Deadly Summer (1983), The 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). Subway doesn't necessarily have much in common with these particular films in terms of style or content, but it does have a similar languid feeling, bizarre eclecticism or eccentricity, and an atmosphere that feels very much true to the country and the time it was produced.
Overall, the film could be seen by many viewers as something worryingly lightweight; with the knockabout plot, colourful caricatures and continual bombardment of cinematic style perhaps being seen as a smokescreen to the thin plot and ironic characterisations. Like Le Dernier Combat, the ultimate problem with the film is that it can't quite decide whether or not it wants to be an action film or art film; with the combination of the two very different styles never quite gelling in perfect harmony. The opening car chase and initial descent into the bowels of this subterranean underworld hidden deep beneath the Parisian Metro system seem to suggests that the film will be all high-style and high-energy. Subsequent scenes however take a step back, giving us some cool, neo-noir like interaction between Lambert's laconic safe-cracker and Adjani's bored trophy wife, while the opposing forces of police and gangsters begin closing in around them. It is the kind of film that will definitely appeal to a certain kind of viewer, perhaps a more mature audience 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.
After first seeing the film a few years ago I wrote "This has no heart. It is an experiment in cinematic formalism; obsessed with technicality but also consumed by the self-indulgence", which to some extent still stands, but I think, with repeated viewings, I've come to enjoy the film and see more of an allure and attraction to the characters of Fred and Héléna, who, quite clearly, struggle throughout to maintain face and make the right decisions in a world that neither of them truly understands. As a result, it might just be the kind of film that takes a few viewings to truly captivate the audience, especially after drawing us in with that aforementioned car chase (which nods to Claude Lelouch's iconic 1974 short film C'était un rendez-vous, whilst simultaneously prefiguring much of the Besson-produced film series, Taxi). Subway clearly isn't a masterpiece. Like his first film, Le Dernier Combat, and the 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 films aforementioned, chiefly Diva, Buffet Froid and Mauvais Sang, as well as some of Besson's own lesser-known works.
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