Friday, January 31, 2020

La Femme Nikita Review

As John J. Puccio noted director Luc Besson's camera is "almost constantly in motion, with long shots, overhead shots, and sometimes bizarre angles the norm. What's more, the screen is endlessly awash in moody, atmospheric colors that are as much a part of one's film-watching enjoyment as the plot or characters." That's certainly true, and what's more, while the tagline is "A New Kind of Lethal Weapon," this 1990 French film with English subtitles is an entirely different sort of action film. Style is substance, and character interaction and the psychological state of Nikita (Anne Parillaud) seem more important to Besson than the action scenes, of which there are decidedly fewer than most films involving guns and assassins.

Besson, who also wrote the screenplay, obviously drew inspiration from at least two sources: the classic femme fatale of noir films and "My Fair Lady" (or "Pygmalion" before it), because Nikita isn't just a dangerous woman. She's Eliza with a drug habit and an attitude. She yelps almost as much as the scruffy Ms. Doolittle, too, in her coarse low-Parisian way. Nikita's Henry Higgins, meanwhile, is a pair of government agents--one a recruiter-handler who's called "Uncle Bob" (Tcheky Karyo) and the other a killing-school teacher (Jeanne Moreau) who shows her how to look more feminine. After all, you can't be a French government assassin if you look like a drugged-out sack of bones that the cat dug up.

There's a scene in Besson's "Leon, The Professional" (1994) where 12-year-old Natalie Portman sits with her legs drawn up, looking downcast and a lot like Parillaud did in this film. Besson fans will recognize a number of similarities and probably argue which film is better. For me, it's no contest. Parillaud is believable-but-ordinary as a pouty, drugged-up, semi-psychotic, 19-year-old killer who was coerced into becoming a government assassin. The story in "La Femme Nikita" also seems more familiar, while the characters aren't all that complex--until, that is, Nikita falls for a grocery clerk (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and discovers her normal side in the second act. Will Nikita be able to break free of her blackmail bondage? Is her nature that of a killer or a lover? Such dramatic questions keep "La Femme Nikita" from becoming just another formulaic shoot-'em-up, blow-'em-up action film. There's more plot than we usually get in a straight action film, and the suggestion of psychological insights into character--though when all is said and done, I'm not so sure that we know any more about Nikita than we did when the film began.

We're introduced to Nikita and her loser friends as they try to rob a pharmacy in the middle of the night. That stylish opening really establishes the tone and Besson's own sense of "cool." One of the punks has a key because his father owns the place. Dad catches them, police come, and there's a shoot-out. Nikita barely notices, she so slumped down on the floor in such a drug stupor that you have to wonder why she's intent on wanting more drugs. And when a gun slides her way and she takes part in the mayhem, her fate is sealed. It's off to prison and then what she thinks is a lethal injection. When she awakens in a white room (yeah, interrogation rooms should be so sterile), she wonders if she's in heaven. "You could be," Uncle Bob says, and then makes her an offer she can't refuse. She's already dead to the world, and if she says no to this government make-over, she goes straight to that cemetery plot her mother thinks she's already in.