Luc Besson has become a name best known for directing and producing action fare. But back in 1985, he was a little-known filmmaker with one dialogue-less feature to his name (the post-apocalyptic The Last Battle). With this minimal backdrop, he created the film that would make his first major mark and pave the way for what was to follow, the offbeat ensemble piece Subway.
Christopher Lambert (best known as the eponymous Highlander) is Fred, a safe-cracker invited to a high-class party on the whim of a bored trophy wife, Helena (Isabelle Adjani). He steals some papers from her safe and is pursued by her husband’s men into the Paris Metro. There, he gives them the slip and finds the subway is populated by an assortment of quirky characters, each with their own way of surviving in the underground after-hours world.
The meandering narrative weaves around the lives of Fred and Helena, as well as the police operatives (including a pair named “Batman” and “Robin”) and the miscreants and petty thieves who call the subway home. Amongst the latter are various musicians, who Fred takes it upon himself to for a band out of. They include a drummer, played by Besson’s ever-present friend, Jean Reno.
The plotting of Subway is clearly not Besson’s focus. Instead, he aims to depict a world that the general populace only brushes against. There are few scenes set outside the subway, but instead of being a constraint, Besson turns that into a virtue. The subway becomes a world in and of itself. It has brightly-lit shops and cafes on one side and gloomy tunnels full of fluorescents and rains of sparks.
The visual flair that would characterize Besson’s career is remarkably mature even at this early stage. He has a striking sense of cinematography that combines fluid, mobile camerawork with strong lighting choices that mean Subway is never less than a joy to look at.
The emphasis on the visuals does seem to come at the cost of other elements. Most of the characters are woefully underdeveloped, even Fred. Only Adjani’s Helena gets any kind of arc or depth as she is shown to rebel against her life of luxury for the vibrance of life amongst the subway underclass. Adjani herself shows off some of her power as an actress, including a fine line in comic timing that her classic looks may belie.
A drifting film that has some great moments and clear indications of talent behind the camera, Subway may not demonstrate the finished Besson article, but it is a worthy watch all the same.
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