East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Thirty-five years after: Subway (1985)

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For the next episode of Paura & Delirio, the podcast I co-host with my friend Lucy, we’re going to discuss Nosferatu, both the Murnau original and the Werner Herzog remake. As we usually do for our podcast, we are re-watching the movies to freshen up out impressions.

And as I was watching the Herzog movie, I remembered I saw it first in late 1985 or early 1986, and I checked the movie out for one reason alone – it features Isabelle Adjani, that I had first seen a few weeks before in a completely different movie: Luc Besson’s stylish thriller, Subway.

And so I stopped Nosferatu, and dug out Subway – because while I’ve seen the Herzog movie quitre a few times since 1985, it’s been thirty-five years since I last went town in the underground with Isabelle Adjani.

Opening with a car chase through the streets of Paris, Subway is a strange sideways caper movie – Fred (Christopher Lambert in a spiky punk hairdo) stole some photos and documents from a safe during a party for the birthday of Helene (Adjani, breathtakingly beautiful). Now Helene wants the photos back, and her husband wants the documents back, and Fred hides in the Paris metro, making friends with the strange characters that haunt the platforms and the corridors of the underground. As Fred and Helene orbit closer to each other, there’s a plan for a heist, there’s a band setting up a concert, and both the police and the heavies are out looking for Fred.

Back in ’85, the movie felt disjointed and sketchy. There was this feeling that there was something going on that was relevant, and different, but it felt like it was always just beyond my reach. And in retrospect, I realize how much this book had an impact on me – my first proper long story, a cyberpunk-ish novel I wrote in 1986 on my father’s Zenith laptop computer, owed a lot to Luc Besson’s movie, in terms of characters and set-up.
And really, a lot of the movie remained with me.
It’s weird, considering at the time all 18-years-old me could focus on was Isabelle Adjani, whose first entrance, down the subway stairs in an evening gown and carrying a briefcase, was memorable.

Thirty-five years on, re-watching the movie was a strange experience – it does no longer feel fractured or baffling, and I was able to appreciate the work the director did using the music and the venues to build an atmosphere and convey a mood. The mid ’80s were weird – there’s the huge shoulder-pads in the ladies’ jackets, the headbands, the Sony walkmen… the movie is a sort of time capsule, and yet the story is still fresh and interesting, the characters strangely playful as they plot crimes and play cat and mouse with the police.

It was a good way to spend two hours, and a strange walk down memory lane. It is strange how a movie I saw only once, thirty-five years ago, stayed with me in so many little ways – the look, the venues, the banter between the main characters…
Later, Besson would impress me even more with Nikita and Leon, but Subway, that confused me as a teenager, was the first sign there was something there worth pursuing.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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