This will be the first of many entries in the Guilty Pleasures category. We all have them and sometimes are reluctant to admit, amidst the gaudy, over-the-top, or badly executed pieces of work, we return to them again and again for various reasons. I find a lot of films that are close to my heart usually revolve around a certain year(s) when I was heavily into watching as many films as humanely possible.
The first entry is a French film, hence my cheeky title (French for guilty pleasures in cinema), from 1983; Luc Besson’s pop influenced Subway, starring Christopher Lambert, Isabelle Adjani, Jean-Hughes Anglade, and Besson regular Jean Reno. Strikingly shot by Carlo Varini with a wonderful production design by Alexandre Trauner, Subway is a flashy take on boy meets girl scenario that never takes itself seriously. The fun is in watching the kinetic set pieces that show off some very clever camera work while the actors having fun with their lightly drawn characters. Christopher Lambert is especially interesting because we are never quite sure whether he is making this up as he goes, or has some cosmic plan all along to bring together these ragtag subway dwellers to create a cohesive eighties tinged pop/rock band with them. Does it make any sense? Maybe not, but it certainly does not mean it isn’t any fun.
Style is king in Besson’s film and rules with a mighty hand. In fact, it overshadows most of what is in the story. Christopher Lambert plays Fred (no last name) who is on the run from certain shady gangster type men and literally crashes his getaway car (stolen from the looks of it) into the underground subway entrance where the rest of the film primarily takes place. The subway houses its own culture and collection of people that seemingly live there deep within the hidden corridors and rooms underground. Fred, with his shocking wild peroxide blond hair, looks right at home with these lost figures secretly walking among the everyday commuters. As the film progresses, Fred befriends some of these shadow people living there and takes upon a leadership role. He sees talent in certain people and brings them together creatively as a whole. Meanwhile, Isabelle Adjani, who plays Helena (no last name either), enters the subway looking for something that Fred has taken from her, which explains the chase at the beginning of the film. Little by little, we discover Fred is in love with Helena and used the theft as an excuse to get closer to her. Fred represents the guy on the other side of the tracks to Helena’s rich and privileged life style. This is all played out with a wink and a smile.
Subway is not a serious piece of work. It is a film of style over substance in which the viewer is treated to some truly amazing scenes. It is not particularly French (although it takes place in Paris with French actors), but encompasses a very Hollywood sensibility marketed for everyone to enjoy. All the characters have one name only, for there is no need to find out anything more about them; even the two detectives are nicknamed Batman and Robin. What makes Subway so enjoyable is the innocence of the characters and their actions. Fred has a child-like demeanor towards life and people, which makes everyone around him trust him. Besson’s script and direction also has a child-like gee whiz attitude which makes the experience for what it is…nothing too important, just have a great time watching it. It has no grand statement on the human condition, nor did Besson ever intend on making one. He is having fun behind the camera and the actors are obviously along for that carnival ride as well.
A guilty pleasure can constitute many facets and is very subjective. I tend toward much more serious films, so my inclusion of Subway is to remind myself that cinema is also to entertain, not just teach. I could feel guilty that I enjoy watching this, instead of poring over another work by Bergman or Tarkovsky or Ozu. When it comes to cinema, I am not close minded. I enjoy all types of films and try to see the good in most of them, even if they don’t deserve it. Subway did teach me one thing; maybe we all need to be more like Fred and see the world as a child does with new eyes. Like Fred, we then can see the beauty around us that lies hidden by our everyday trials and troubles.
Subway 1983 [written and directed by Luc Besson, photography by Carlo Varini]
currently only available on DVD (out of print)