27 April 2013 | robert-temple-1
What's going on down there?
This has got to be the weirdest film ever made about Paris. It is a wild fantasy comedy, much of which is very funny, but much else of which consists of humour only to be appreciated by the French. It is an outrageous plot, but one which works in its crazy way. The film starts with us seeing some leeks growing in a Paris garden, which suddenly are pulled downwards into the ground and vanish. It turns out that what is going on is that some people living underneath Paris harvest their vegetables in this manner. Yes, I told you it was crazy. But it gets better. Paris really does have a vast underworld, some mediaeval catacombs, tunnels that go on forever, the Metro of course, and mysterious caverns and underground lakes and rivers such as those referred to in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. And speaking of that, I have with my own eyes seen the lake beneath the Palais Garnier in Paris, the old opera house, and the staff feed a tame catfish who lives there and comes up for food in the hole in the floor. (True, not made up.) So you have to understand that why the French liked this film was that it is based on a huge complex of tunnels under Paris which do really exist. Many of us saw and remember the film METRO (1985), released in English as SUBWAY, starring Isabelle Adjani and Christophe Lambert, one of Luc Besson's fantasies. It is about people living in the secret tunnels of the Paris Metro. But this film goes much further than that, and was made 11 years earlier. One of my favourite parts of subterranean Paris is the long and majestic underground tunnel with which the Canal St. Martin commences, as it wends it way northwards from the Seine. One of the scenes in this film is shot there, so not everything is a set, there are some real locations in the film. This film features Gerard Depardieu in a minor role as a postman, only three years after he began appearing in feature films. Another well-known actor in the film is Philippe Noiret. Lots of people keep disappearing into holes in the pavements, and 20 foreign tourists are abducted and held prisoner by the subterraneans, who have turned into terrorists because they are trying to stop the crazed Minister of Public Works (amusingly played by Charles Denner) from digging up and bulldozering old Paris. He wants to erect two modern skyscrapers on either side of Notre Dame and says that the Seine should be paved over to make an excellent highway to run right through the middle of Paris. The satire on modern developers is laid on in thick dollops and is merciless. The subterranean inhabitants don't like their life in the catacombs being disturbed, and they 'fight back'. They explode a huge bomb under the Ministry of Public Works, so that the building tilts and half of it descends below surface level. There are some very funny scenes where the Minister and the civil servants try to carry on regardless inside, despite the floors of the rooms all being at 45 degree angles, and everyone slipping and sliding and holding onto things. The hero is a quiet bookseller, played by Michel Serrault, who dons his hard hat, puts on his backpack, and descends into the depths to retrieve his daughter, who has fallen through one of the holes which suddenly opened in the street, along with her boyfriend and their two bicycles and been taken hostage. The film is complete anarchy and delightfully bonkers. It is what is known as 'a madcap comedy', and it really is entertaining and amusing, and of course, we can all agree that the Minister is crazy and must be stopped. The film was directed by Pierre Tchernia, who is now 85 years old, though whether he lives on the surface or in the Metro I cannot say.