Subway (1985) – a Review

Helena (Isabelle Adjani) arrives, walking down a cold, hard, dirty metallic stair, dressed in exotic evening wear, her hair a perfect stylistic mess. This is how to make a film entrance. She is ready for her close-up, Mr Bresson.

I could watch this the rest of my life and not be disappointed. Sunset Boulevard, but on the Paris Metro.

 (Later in the same scene the dialogue jokes about her hairstyle, she accuses Christopher Lambert’s character, Fred, of having his hair in a mess, he says, ‘look at yourself.)

This is Subway, a 1985 film from Luc Bresson and an early entrant in the cinema du look.

Helena has been told to meet Fred at the metro. In classic movie magic fashion, she knows exactly which station, though he never mentions it. How does she know? Have they done this before? Is this how they met? The station they meet at is spacious, many platformed, and yet, first time she glides down the right stairs.

(There is a whole other film that could have been made here where she spends the whole movie not meeting Fred as she works her way round the metro network. Or is the reason she walks so slowly and suspensefully is not that she has seen Fred and isn’t sure how this will go, but that she’s tired, this the tenth platform she has tried. This the film I would have made.)

There is a lot of fun, like this, to be had in Subway. There’s the French Connection style opening of a long car chase. A long sequence introducing the main detective character that just features him and a squad of policemen walking into the metro, occasionally having problems with ticket barriers (symbolising that they are not at one with the underground environment the way the roller skaters and the homeless are?), and generally looking like they have accidentally entered the film via a failed audition for a western. There is the labyrinthic setting of the metro, with more places to hide or have adventures in than the sewers of Vienna. There are the quirky characters whose reason to be living in the metro is never explained, only that they are obviously part of another society, a literally underground one, that flourishes under fluorescent lighting.

And there is Isabelle Adjani, who starts the film dressed for a night on the Paris social scene, downgrades later to some overlarge padded shoulders, later still finds a white bomber jacket and only slightly uncombed hair, before ending the film in a checked shirt and a man’s suit jacket, single-handedly kicking start the grunge movement.

All of this is played out to a musical backdrop that is pure 80s no subtility synth pop, often provided by the minor characters. Even at the time I wasn’t sure if the music was supposed to be cool, or part of a parody, a kitsch 80s version of cool jazz.

It is not clear why they are in a band (except it gives them a gang identity, of sorts), why Fred is walking around with a song idea, though he is no singer and no musician. Is it cheaper than renting rehearsal space? A play on the fact that busking is a typical underground station way of making a living. Or is just that it’s really handy in allowing a final act where the music explains the scene in front of us? I hope it is this one.

Then there is this beautiful scene. The tenderness of the dancing, the intensity of the looks, the inappropriateness of the gentlemen’s excuse me. Ingrid Bergman may have been the greatest at looking down meaningfully in film history (watch all the times she does it in Casablanca) Isabelle Adjani is killing with small, gentle smiles and mascara.

Fred: Why do I love you?
Helena: Because I am an amazing woman.

The French are often accused, or even celebrated, for films that are intellectual, full of depth, if only I were just more educated and could work it all out. The joy of Subway is that there is not much more to it than what you see on the screen. Moving pictures.

It’s not easy to find Subway, I can’t find it on a streaming service or to buy where I live. It is available on Amazon:

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