Luc Besson’s feature film debut was the dialogue-free, post-apocalyptic art film Le dernier combat / The Last Battle (1983), but his second film, Subway, pushed Besson to the forefront of France’s new wave directors whose works emphasized style over a coherent plot or heavy dramatic substance.
All the hallmarks of Besson’s canon are present. The pros include a lush, colour-rich CinemaScope look with superb production design (courtesy of Alexander Trauner), fluid editing, and a perfect marriage of images, sound effects and score. There’s also Besson’s casting style – bone structure and unique visages are key – and the point-counterpoint relationship between dialogue, grunts, shoulder shrugs, acting ticks, and smug reactions that construct scene rhythms like beats from a Tex Avery or Frank Tashlin Warner Bros. cartoon.
Besson’s weakness for thin plotting, faux dramatic gravitas, and a certain flippancy towards storytelling would prevale in his third film, the lengthy The Big Blue / Le Grand Bleu (1988). Those elements (which arguably illustrate his more immature side), would get marginalized and expunged from his best works – La Femme Nikita / Nikita (1990) and The Professional / Leon (1994) – but overload his weakest films (namely the multiple sequels in franchises with dwindling qualitative elements, like Taxi 3 and 4, and Transporter 3).
Because Subway was designed as a stylish cream puff with cheeky references to caper films and the original French Nouvelle Vague films, the flaws aren’t as lethal.
A big plus is the charismatic cast, featuring Christopher Lambert as an affable thief named Fred, which Besson patterned after Jean-Paul Belmondo’s rogue screen persona (namely in Breathless); and a striking Isabelle Adjani as Helena, the bored wife of a rich thug with influence in high French society.
Richard Bohringer turns the throwaway role of a subway florist into a grinning, all-knowing shadow who eventually manages a money train robbery with Fred, and Michel Galabru plays Inspector Gesberg, the portly, meditative brain in charge of keystone cops and two left-handed lieutenants nicknamed Batman (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and Robin (Jean-Claude Lecas).
The basic plot has Fred hiding out in the Paris subway system from Helena’s husband and his murderous thugs, as well as Helena, from whom he stole valuable papers (which is the fluffy MacGuffin that’s never detailed, but is the motivator that sends the thugs and the police after Fred).
Besides the opening car chase that sends Fred crashing (literally) into a subway station, the entire drama takes place underground or inside the utility rooms and offices throughout the subway system. Besson and cinematographer Carlo Varini make excellent use of newly constructed and almost completed-tunnels, shafts, and hidden rooms, as well as shiny new subway trains and long, wide platforms.
The film’s look is steeped in eighties décor, but Trauner’s eye managed to filter out the garish colours, and the only dated eighties visuals are Fred’s spiky yellow hair, and Helena’s triangular clothes and the one-time Mohawk hairdo she sports, purely out of spite when she’s forced by her husband to sit like a pet at an executive dinner party, restricted to chatting with the host’s birdbrain wife.
As a caper film and ersatz romance, Subway is functional, but in keeping with eighties escapism (as well as Besson’s own sensibilities), graphic physical trauma are kept PG, if not cartoonish. Moreover, emotional intimacy is almost treated for laughs: Fred's personal trauma is an absurd car accident that robbed him of a singer’s voice, and that tragedy has him fulfilling his lost dream by proxy by assembling a hip band of subway performers (one of which his played by a slender Jean Reno).
This daffy conceit allows Besson to inject two musical numbers into the film, and fill the soundtrack with Eric Serra’s bass-friendly score, as well as casting Serra among the band members who audition a nervous singer (Arthur Simms).
Whereas Lambert plays Fred tongue-in-cheek, Adjani tries to balance her Tex Avery-toned scenes with moments of deep gravitas (such as a rendezvous with her mean husband, and the final encounter with his goons). There’s also a preposterous scene that has Helena barging into a subway music store (a subway music store?) with a gun, scaring off Fred’s aspiring musicians, and threatening the store manager wit a gun before running away. Apparently she's one of the few offenders completely missed by a multitude of security cameras, and the store manager felt there was no need to call the police, ascribing her freak behaviour to an errant spastic event.
That scene is as random and pointless as those with a purse-snatching roller skater (played by a scruffy Jean-Hugues Anglade). His existence within the Subway characters is local rebel colour, and his only function occurs in the opening where he leads Fred to flower vender Bohringer and the band members; once Fred has made contact and found a safe hideout, Besson uses Anglade to tease the police in cartoon chases and near-encounters before he’s arrested, and disappears from the narrative.
One could see Subway as Besson’s update of Godard’s Breathless, but Besson isn’t one to cap his film with a sudden, serious finale, because while the Fred-Helena romance eventually hits a tragic hurdle, Besson closes the film with ambiguity, and lets one specific shot tease viewers into manufacturing their own final resolution for the characters (which, at the very least, infers the couple’s eventual reunification once the dust has settled, and a prison sentence has been meted out).
The only guarantee in the finale is that Fred’s band makes a big splash with Parisian subway patrons, and their instant ability to win over a multi-generational audience with one song (the naïve “Guns and People”) can only result in instant success, or a hit single before the band evaporates into one-hit wonder history.
Available on Blu-ray in France, neither Columbia nor Besson chose to revisit the film for a special edition, and examine the film 25 years after it propelled Besson to stardom, and certainly gave him enough industry currency to make the 3-hour Big Blue. The transfer in this Region 1 DVD is fine, but the lack of extras signals Besson’s possible disinterest in revisiting his early work, and his busy life as bigwig of his productive film company, Europacorp.
Besson’s first effort as a feature film producer/co-writer - Kamikaze - was released in tandem with Subway, and marked the writing/ directing debut Didier Grousset, Subway’s assistant director. The film also starred Subway alumni Bohringer and Galabru, and flipped roles where Bohringer plays a cop chasing after Galabru’s criminal.
Anglade, in turn, would co-star in Besson’s Nikita, but his starring role in Jean-Jacques Beineix’ Betty Blue (1986) set up the actor as Beineix' favourite lead.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan