Luc Besson’s "Subway" (1985) is a hybrid of filmic genres, an atmospheric black-comedy, a psychedelic, electrically charged excursion into 1980’s punk-surrealist chic. It cuts across the thriller, the comic-thriller, the musical and the fantasy. The film is a synthesis of these genres. It is a comic-thriller – until the ambiguous ending – and it is also a "musical", in the very uninhibited sense that it relies principally on a definitely scored soundtrack and the performances of a diegetic rock band. The film is constructed around a "counter-Orpheus" narrative that combines a manhunt, the themes of chase and escape, and the notion of the figure of the woman as imprisoned and as a trophy.
The film begins with a hyper-animated car chase progressing from the outskirts of Paris into the city centre. Fred (Christophe Lambert), dressed in a dinner suit, escapes from the car he is driving, at great speed, into the Metro closely pursued by four hit-men who are similarly sartorially clothed. We subsequently learn that Fred has been to Helena’s (Isabelle Adjani) party and blown open her husband’s safe. He has stolen some significant documents (possibly incriminating) which Helena’s husband wants back. Once the initial pursuit through Paris fails, the husband sends Helena as bait to retrieve the documents, but this plan backfires.
Helena eventually chooses to join Fred in this strange, alternative, low-life world. Curiously, in her initial search for Fred, she enlists the help of the Metro-Police, who, currently, are tracking a roller-blade-purse-snatcher (Jean-Hughes Anglade). Consequently the chase for Fred doubles: first, the husband’s hit -men and now the Police. Fred, in the interim, has met up with an assorted group of eccentric social misfits – literally an underground community – who live "outside" the law, in an unusual netherworld. He befriends the skater and through him gets to meet the characters who help him fulfil one of his cherished ambitions: establishing a rock-group. Having apparently lost the ability to sing in a bizarre accident, he is desperately seeking to succeed by proxy. The end of the film brings success and, possibly, death into an uneasy concurrence, as the band performs and the chase reaches its climax. Fred gets his newly-arranged funk-rock band (which includes Eric Serra as bass player and Jean Reno as drummer) to give their premier concert in the Metro. The concert is a fantastic sensation, but dramatically, Fred lies wounded, shot in the back by a hit-man, as Helena runs forward to meet him. Fred’s focal motives in the film are to escape his pursuers, win the woman he loves, and fulfil his musical dreams. In effect he accomplishes all three – but as the ambiguous conclusion to the film suggests – there is perhaps little sense of permanence around his successful trajectory. Fred has achieved a "distinctive" victory, and the love of the woman he has sought, but there is great improbability that he will actually live to enjoy it.
This is the world of Luc Besson; here fantasy and reality merge in a closed, neon-bleached environment populated by comic-book inspired outsiders. Besson identifies these characters, who inhabit the Metro, and for whom it is their city as "flawed characters, lost, children". These slightly crazed, lost children of the underworld are the ensemble backdrop against which the romance between Fred and Helena develops. They are a mixture of the tough, the street-wise and the inexperienced, with their own narrative trajectories and motivations – hence the symbolic and metaphorical significance of the success of the band at the end of the film. Their inclusion provides the viewer with a secondary level of identification and comic pleasure, as they pursue eccentric lives, and ultimately outplay and outwit the Metro-Police. In fact, some of the funniest moments in "Subway" are those involving the bureaucracy and the inanity of the authorities. It is the amalgamation of theses various secondary narrative lines alongside the principal narrative that provides the film with depth and affords the convincing conditions against which the characterization of Fred appears "authentic".
All of Besson’s films have as a central theme the escape from the constraints of the social world. Besson creates a stylized atmosphere that balances-out, reflects and frequently override the narrative – hence the highly conditional/artificial nature of a Besson’s filmic vision. Besson readily admits to a predilection for atmosphere over narrative; of course his films tell stories, but they are not what we could term plot-driven. What matters is the manner in which the narrative is conveyed.
Distinctively Besson embraces a certain fetishism of style, developing a film language that is essentially coloured, highly stylized, energetic and mysterious. Each of his films co-presents a magical almost overly conscious decoration. "Subway" is unified by the extraordinary décor/art-direction – fashion magazine chic is fused with pop-art surrealism – which creates a world of totally fantastic "reality" situated distinctly in contemporary Paris. Besson said his intention was to create "an asceptic somewhat atemporal world", and this desire to correspond story with décor, to juxtapose narrative fantasy and visual realism has come to represent the trademark of his work. The "hyper-real" style which Besson views as quintessential to the experience of contemporary reality can be interpreted on one hand as inflated, hollow or theatrical, or alternatively as serving to create a situation for the playful, oneiric and fantastical – imagining the collapse of High and Popular cultures by circulating images without apparent gravity of origin, reproducing the already/always seen. The images of Besson’s cinema highly stylized and ironic, not only fragment narrative coherence, but also collapse surface and meaning. Besson’s approach overtly declares an explicit artificiality and consequently proceeds to celebrate its attributes. This features a certain fixation on visual style, in particular the iconographies of advertising, pop-art and youth subcultures, and an attraction to the virtuosity of surface effects – in other words a form of cinema deliberately without depth and endlessly allusive. Besson imagines a spiritual dimension by exploring the tensions between the fetishized "other" and (within the film) empty spaces. Obsessed by the form and visual impact of "the image", Besson’s "hyper-realism" is essentially a search for the emotional effect/impact of the image.
In "Subway", Besson has said he intentionally did not want to re-create identifiable Metro stations but instead wanted to re-invent the Metro as a "space-station" and focus on form and colour rather than direct realism. He did initially shoot on location, but the production designer Alexandre Trauner also re-created Billancourt station in the studio. Therefore there is an authenticity to the environment: we recognise the idea of the Paris Metro system; but we also see it as an unfamiliar, dreamlike space – particularly the subculture of the Metro, the hidden Metro where a complete miniaturized "society" exists. Effectively the Metro becomes a labyrinth that fascinates both in its familiarity and unfamiliarity.
The effect of Besson’s hybridization of cinematic genres in "Subway", in terms of narrative closure, is one of discontinuity – "the musical meets its death in the Paris Metro" – one closure ironizes the other, and this is probably the "real" meaning of Fred’s apparent rising from the dead and smiling in the final frame. Besson’s cinema constantly alludes to another world of possibilities, both inner – a realm of the unconscious and spiritual – and outer – contemporary "artificial" pop-culture. This may be manifested in an outer Zen-like cool surface, but these immaculate surfaces barely conceal another world of deep turbulence. Besson tackles the composition of genre convention from a highly imaginative perspective. In the final sequence of "Subway" we remain uncertain if Fred is in fact dead at the end, and consequently Besson – with his unique style of "postmodern overkill" – leaves us in a resolutely fashioned condition of insecurity about the significance of what we have just viewed.
In one set of images, Helena’s declaration of love to the dying Fred suggests redemption and loss; but in counterpoint we also have absence, represented through the death of the main protagonist being negated/invalidated in the final frame. Narrative closure is simultaneously highlighted and questioned. The tragic ending – as Helena at last confesses her love for Fred and he dies – intersects with a comic image, as Fred laughs, grinning from ear to ear. The clashing of narrative conventions at the closure defies and problematizes the traditional "secure" ending of the generic film. Alternatively "Subway" presents ambiguity and a vacuum of meaning. Even death itself may not have much meaning; it is just another free-floating trope, it could be faked – Fred does not die – and the theme of death as retribution is seemingly invalidated. Similarly the traditions of romantic love, heroism and destiny – the standard tropes of popular cinema – are questioned, emptied-out and displayed as senseless, in the oxymoronic and excessive closure(s) to "Subway".