Director/Screenplay: Luc Besson
I come at this film from an unusual angle so bare with me a bit on this one. To start with, before I begin, I owe a former film school professor of mine an apology, so-eh, Prof. Melgaard, um, yeah, I get it now; you were right about Luc Besson and this film particular, and the inventive and intriguing approach he had to the hitman narrative, (Sigh, grinning teeth as I speak) and, my earlier, younger thoughts on the Cinema Du Look movement were misguided somewhat.
Most of you have no idea how painful this one is for me; I guess on some level I always knew I'd eventually get to this film, but I'm a little surprised that suddenly now, I've found a reason to seek our and revisit this film,- well, not really a reason, more like, a newfound appreciation has come aboout. Besides this is a Canon of Film, not a collection of films I necessarily like the best, or even think are objectionably good, but quantitive the ones that need to be included for a complete most-essential collection of the art of film, with this film we officially enter the "Cinema du Look" movement into the Canon.
That's not my main inspiration though to go back and seek out "La Femme Nikita" Mostly the reason I found myself suddenly drawn into this film, is because I'm just kinda sick of all the praise the "John Wick" movies are getting.
I've seen the first two of those films, the third one's getting a lot of the same kind of acclaim and praise that the first two receive, and-eh... (Sigh) they're-, they're not the worst thing in the world or anything, but frankly I feel like the whole world is playing a goddamn April Fools joke on me with this franchise, 'cause the first two films at least, they're just hitmen movies!!! Not even different or interesting ones, or have a unique or unusual take on the genre; it's the same movie narratives you think of when you think of a generic, average hitman movie! TWICE! I barely panned the first one, originally, you can read the review of that one here:
I wrote it, posted it, and then I forgot I ever saw the damn thing. I'm not kidding. I barely gave a recommendation to the second one, that review's below:
I made light of it in my review but it wasn't a joke, I legit forgot I saw the first one entirely and started writing the second one from the perspective of somebody who was jumping into the franchise late, until I looked it up and suddenly realized , oh, I did see the original and wrote a review of it, which I wrote originally because of the acclaim it kept getting...!!!!! UGH! It's not that I don't like these films, I'm just amazed there's any kind of emotional reactions to these films, 'cause I don't get any at all. I'd have the same reaction the other way if anybody said they were the worst things of all-time, I'd be like, "Oh, c'mon, don't be so verbose and mean; they're just average hitman movies!"
Still, I wanted to dissect this, and decided to think a bit about it, 'cause-, maybe I'm misremembering or just missing something entirely in this series, but let's test my theory, if these are average movies about a hitman, that I claim they are, well, what's the other side of this narrative, this story? What's the film that's not the normal average narrative story about a hitman? I can think of quite a few answers to this quandry, "The Memory of a Killer", that's a good one. "You Kill Me", that's an underrated modern comedy classic,... but once you start going down this path of thinking about movie hitmen, and you start trying to seek out the most creative and inventive ones well, that's when I suddenly realized that, oh boy, I'm gonna have to give credit to Luc Besson.
His subject matter is actually way more expansive than this, but he'll always be the director of hitmen films to me. Besson is part of a film movement from the '80s and early '90s that's derogatorily called "Cinema du Look". It's a weird term to begin with, 'cause "Look" in French is actually "regard," so if anything, it should be called "Cinema de Regard," but that's part of the point. "Cinema du Look" basically refers to a group of French filmmakers who were making movies in a much more frenetic and American style; they were inspired by the New Hollywood movement of the '60s and '70s, but they were just as inspired by early eras of music videos in terms of editing and filmmaking techniques. They were also heavily pop-inspired, and most of these movies like to relish, circumvent and modernized the more traditional American narratives. The term is still around I think, I see it used occasionally and usually wrongly by lesser film critics and cinephiles, to where it basically means any French/European film that seems way too American for some critics. (Like, seriously, I've seen people call "Amelie", cinema du look, which,- um, no, I love that film, but there's nothing American about that movie.) Generally though, the three directors that make up the "movement' are Jean-Jacques Beineix, who's film "Diva" is generally considered the first cinema du look film, Leos Carax, most known nowadays for "Holy Motors", but started with standouts in the movement like "Boy Meets Girls" and "The Lovers on the Bridge", and the one we're talking about today, and the most recognizable to American audiences Luc Besson. His first film was "Subway", but the two big movies that I think of with his Cinema du Look early films are the two reinventions he had of the hitman genre "Leon: The Professional" which is actually an English-language film that starred Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in a as a pseudo-adopted family that's-eh, um...- that's a weird movie actually that's got a lot of strange and disturbing layers to it that is probably better if somebody else talked about it, and "La Femme Nikita".
"Nikita" as it was originally titled in it's native France,- begins with-, I guess we're gonna call her a juvenile delingquint- maybe not, she's young though, can't be much older than her early twenties, and I guess she's a drug addict, based on the gang she's with,- anyway the mysterious girl who claims her name is Nikita (Anne Parillaud), and before anything happens, she's a fucked up character. I don't even know how to describe her; she doesn't seem human at first. She's almost animalistic at this point. She gets arrested after killing a cop during a dumb robbery attempt turns violent, 'cause all the male criminals that are apart of the heist are, unbelievably stupid, she basically just says the word "Nikita!", sometimes screaming it, whether she's asked for her name or not, and attacks any other authority figures around her. After she's sentence to life in prison and literally having to be dragged out of court, in some really amazing low-angle dolly or steadicam shots, whatever those were. We don't know really know anything about Nikita's past; we never learn if that's even her real name, I suspect that Nikita is something she named herself, but whatever her past was, it's clear somewhere, somehow, somebody must've kicked her around, a fucking lot.
Investigating her past would make a pretty interesting narrative, but instead, government officials fake her suicide and a mysterious government agent named Bob (Tcheyo Karyo) tells her that she has two options, either to actually be killed by the government and occupy a grave that's already made out for her, or become trained to be a government hitman. She attacks Bob and when she eventually is outnumbered in her escape attempt, tries to kill herself. She fails, Bob shoots her, and is basically forced into having her turned her into a killing machine. Going back, several reviews of this movie compared the narrative to "Pygmalion", honestly, I never considering this to possibly because she was such a strange character to begin with that I never entirely took to the idea that she had entirely transformed into someone else, but I guess there's accuracy to that. Even at her most normal, she seems like Nikita to me. The movie is clearly visually inspired by then-modern action thrillers, there's some car chases and violent insane shootouts and action scenes that you can put up there with anything else.
This whole movie is insane, from concept to execution it's a compelling insane that become more fascinating on every viewing. Nikita starts her years of training, martial arts, guns, all kinds of self-defense, um, some make-up and grooming lessons from Jeanne Moreau of all people-, what the hell?- I guess she needs them, but they got Jeanne Moreau-, alright whatever. Eventually she sorta resembles a human being enough to be put on her first kill, which goes well-enough that she survives, although terrible enough that her planned escape route was bricked up and she had to escape by flying down a laundry shoot headfirst, wearing high heels, and what barely qualifies as a dress. She nearly kills Bob over this, but she's let out and begins her new life as a sleeper agent.
Believe it or not, this is when the movie turns into a love triangle, when she starts to date Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade), and just as their tender romance begins to bloom, Bob wakes her up, while they were on their honeymoon in Venice, a trip Bob bought the tickets too. There's a strange observation about how Bob is constantly, as the movie calls it, "Mixing business with pleasure", when it comes to Nikita, always paying a compliment and praise, or giving her a gift, along with a new target to assassinate. He's as compelled and fascinated by her as Marco, even if it's not in a romantic way, although Nikita might want some kind of attention that's not connected to this new profession that was forced upon her. She might just be attracted to these two men 'cause it's easy to believe that they're the only two who have treated her with any kindness and compassion until now. Still, while "La Femme" only means "The Woman" in French, I like that fact that the film's titled "La Femme Nikita" here, the reference to her being a femme fatale, is accurate, and that's another weird subversion of genre, it's kinda rare to see a movie especially one with some roundabout film noir roots to be from the perspective of the femme fatale.
I'd also be remissed not to mention Jean Reno's famous performance as a Cleaner who helps fix up a killing-gone-wrong. It's a pretty good extended cameo; some people like to connect this performance with Reno's work in Besson's "Leon...", but-uh, other than the fact that they're the same actor, writer/director and both are about hitmen, honestly I think it's best that we leave these two films as separately as possible.
People haven't left "La Femme Nikita" alone at all though. Anne Parillaud's performance is iconic; hell, I even knew a kid in film school who actually named a main character in one of his scripts after Parillaud, as a direct reference to "La Femme Nikita", even though the character he wrote had literally nothing to do with her. This was her breakout role although she'd been acting since she was a kid; she's done a few other notables parts, once in a while acting in English, John Landis's "Innocent Blood" for instance, although she's probably most notably to American audience is as Queen Anne in Randall Wallace's "The Man in the Iron Mask". The only other movie of hers I've gotten around to watching is Catherine Breillat's film "Sex is Comedy"; I-I'm a huge Breillat fan, but I absolutely despise that film. (I certainly don't want to work with her on a film set after that.) She never became huge as a famous actress but "Nikita" has more-than-lived on.
The movie wasn't an overly huge success at the time; despite some success at the Cesars and a Golden Globe nomination, the movie received mixed reviews in it's native France, although that's unsurprising. Outside of France, within three years there was two famous remakes of the film a Hong Kong film from Stephen Shin called "Black Cat" and an American remake by John Badham called "Point of No Return". The movie also spun off into a successful American cult television series..., twice! Come to think of it, on the popular consciousness, "La Femme Nikita" might be one of the most well-known and biggest French entities in America; there's a lot of people who know the name "Nikita" and have this idyllic image of a female assassin, without ever having seen the movie that originated the concept. I'm sure there were other female hitmen before this film, but that alone doesn't simply distinguish "La Femme Nikita". It's narrative influences are all over the map and it's main character is way too enigmatic to be forgotten. I wouldn't be shocked if someone like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"'s Lisbeth Salander character was more directly inspired by Nikita, and several other characters for that matter. I think most scholars like to pinpoint someone like Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley charcter in the "Alien" films as the badass female action hero, but I bet more often than not, Nikita was a much more direct influence. She's a strangely flexible character and archetype that lends itself to many re-workings and re-imaginings.
Besson's work has been fairly ecclectic ever since "La Femme Nikita", although despite some strange detours he's never been that far away from Hollywood action films. Arguably the biggest franchise he's involve with is creating the characters for the "The Transporter" films. He's probably still most famous in America for directing "The Fifth Element", which is a strange special effects blockbuster of a movie itself that's probably worth exploring if it was more tolerable, but he's done a little bit of everything. He's gone the sci-fi hitman route a couple times, like with "Lucy", he's worked with Madonna a few times, including in an animated movie he directed called "Arthur and the Invisibles", one of three animated films in the "Arthur" franchise he's directed. (Ah, not the Marc Brown "Arthur", something else entirely, still, he's onr of the last filmmakers I would've ever imagined going into animation.) He's done epic period pieces, other sci-fi blockbusters on both sides of the Pond; I consider "Angel-A" to be his very best film, which is a lovely-albeit-twisted play on another common American movie narrative, the "Ghost"-like character that continue to haunt the living as some kind of guardian angel; it's like if "It's a Wonderful Life" got a David Mamet rewrite filtered through Besson's sense of absurdist humor and style.
In hindsight, Besson seems just as enigmatic as Nikita herself. Capable of such startling and violent breaks with expectations and traditional decorum that it's too jarring to understand of take seriously at first glance, but the more he's allowed to dive and shape his own path and techniques through the world, now that he's got the tools and learned the tricks of the trade, he'll find a new and unique twist to some narrative that I suspect most people thought or presumed were pretty much old hat at that point. (At least I thought they were anyway.) Whatever Besson tries to do, success or failure, he's trying to do it in a distinctly different way than anybody else is at the time. There's some great filmmakers who you can't say that about, and I suspect that's why his best films, have ways of grabbing audience's attention and staying around in the memory long after on paper, many of them should've easily been forgotten the minute after they were watched. Like the "John Wick" movies so far, I might recommend them, I might not, but unlike them, I'm damn sure gonna remember Besson's films long afterwards.