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Posts Tagged ‘Subway’

This is going to sound weird – and, more than likely, it is weird – but I’ve been thinking about films which, whatever their running time may be, are most associated with a single iconic image. Sometimes this isn’t even in the film itself – and sometimes the image is much more famous than the film itself. I imagine most people in western culture are familiar with the image of Marilyn Monroe on the grating in the white dress, or Raquel Welch on the lava flow in not very much rabbit-skin, but I would also go on to venture that many of these people might struggle to name The Seven Year Itch or One Million Years BC.

I am the kind of person with the kind of brain where, once I hear a piece of information like that, it sticks with me. But sometimes the single-picture principle still applies. What’s brought all this on is recently watching Luc Besson’s 1985 film Subway – yes, it’s another Luc Besson review – for the first time. This is a film I’ve been aware of for a long time without ever actually seeing; I vaguely recall its first TV broadcast in the UK about a quarter of a century ago, remember seeing it in various arty video rental shops (remember those?), and so on. And the film is always advertised with a single, striking image: a dyed-blonde, shock-haired Christopher Lambert in a tunnel somewhere, dressed in a tuxedo, casually wielding a flourescent light tube as though it’s a lightsaber. I bet it’s on the actual film poster. Let’s find out:

subway

Well, you see what I mean. I must confess I didn’t expect Isabelle Adjani to be quite so prominently featured, but she is very photogenic, after all. There’s something strikingly odd and atmospheric about that photo of Lambert and his tube, and it perhaps creates a false expectation of what the actual movie’s going to be like – something very visually inventive and intense.

The actual movie opens with a knockabout car chase through the streets of Paris between Fred (Lambert), an enigmatic young man, and some other guys in tuxedos. This concludes with him driving his car down the steps into a metro station and taking refuge there. It transpires that Fred is some sort of loveable pathological safebreaker and has just blown up the vault of a rich man whose party he has been attending. He has nicked a lot of valuable documents in the hope of selling them back for a substantial sum of money.

The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact Fred has developed un thing for the beautiful young wife of his victim, Helena (Adjani), and would quite like to see her again. And so he attempts to romance her, while striking up a relationship with a bunch of other unlikely characters living in the subway system and avoiding the police and various agents of his victim.

The first thing you notice about Subway is that this was clearly the film to be in if you fancied moving out of the Francophone movie business and appearing in mainstream American movies in the mid 80s: quite apart from Lambert, who by this point had already made Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and was a year away from his signature role in Highlander, and Adjani (less of a crossover star, but still appearing in Ishtar and Diabolique), the film also features substantial appearances by Jean-Hugues Anglade (later to turn up in Killing Zoe) and a young and beefy Jean Reno (Leon, the first Mission Impossible, and the 1998 Godzilla, to name but three). There’s even a semi-acting appearance by Eric Serra, who’s best known as a film composer these days (various other Besson movies and GoldenEye).

Then again, this is a Luc Besson movie, and his films have nearly always had at least one eye on the international mainstream. This is Besson near the beginning of his career, and you can almost sense that this is the work of a guy in his 20s (he was 26 at the time) – the film is vibrant with a restless, unfocused, extravagant energy. While some elements of the plot suggest a homage to French New Wave cinema, the film’s debt to American cinema is almost too obvious to need mentioning – this felt to me to be very much like the kind of low-budget punk-inflected movie coming out of Los Angeles at about the same time, and various aspects of it make it hard to believe that Besson hadn’t spent a few evenings watching and rewatching The Warriors.

The crucial difference, for me, is that films like The Warriors had a very definite sense of what they wanted to be – they were unapologetic genre movies, in short. The Warriors is an action movie, whereas Subway is… well, it’s a bit unclear. There’s a car chase, and someone gets shot at one point, and there are various scenes involving police, but on the other hand there are various light-hearted scenes, and at one point even a musical number… it’s trying to be all sorts of things, and not unsuccessfully, but one gets a sense that the plot and characters are secondary to visuals and imagery and colour.

And it’s not quite as dark or stylish as that photo of Lambert and his tube might lead you to expect. At one point it looks like the film’s about to develop into a quasi-fantasy about a hidden world of unlikely characters living out-of-sight in the underground – a more mundane version of Neverwhere – but it never quite follows through on this, and the most improbable thing you see in the course of the movie is Jean Reno in an explorer’s outfit and pith helmet, playing a full drum-kit on a subway platform (which is admittedly still fairly improbable).

All-in-all I found it a hard film to really come to grips with. If this is, as everyone claims, part of the cinema du look (or possibly cinema du Luc, in this case), then perhaps its not surprising that three decades later that look is a bit less striking. Or perhaps it’s just that I am a sucker for a film with a little bit more substance than this one. It’s a fascinating movie to watch, given how the careers of many people involved have developed, but I don’t think anyone would honestly claim it as a career high.

 

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