La Femme Nikita (1990)

© Copyright MGM Studios

Twenty years after its release, La Femme Nikita or, as I knew it, just Nikita has now spawned a sequel of sorts, a decent remake, and two television series, one titled La Femme Nikita and the other, appropriately enough, just Nikita. It’s also launched Luc Besson’s career as one of the most prolific filmmakers of his time and given birth to a new wave of French action flicks, most of which either directed, written, or produced by Besson himself. In short, the film sparked creations across the globe the same way it had my then twelve-year-old imagination.

That’s Besson’s specialty: convincing viewers of the richness and validity of a universe that, when you think about it, makes about as much sense as the little comic strips I used to draw about talking fruit and garbage cans saving the world from alien invasions. The writer-director’s secret lies in his relentless focus on the characters and their relationships. For a nineties action flick, Nikita is peculiar in that it features no megalomaniacal villain or extravagant set pieces. Every scene, every gunfight, and every line of dialogue bears on Nikita (Anne Parillaud), how she relates to the world, herself, and the two men she loves.

Spanning over half a decade, the movie covers an enormous amount of material, which might explain why folk keep mentioning the timeline: “You have fifteen days”; “We’ve known each other six months”; “He returns home in five months.” There are three acts, each recounting a different stage in the heroine’s transition from brain-dead druggie to government assassin. As the story progresses, its irony becomes clearer: by giving Nikita back her humanity, the agency is guaranteeing her eventual betrayal. It’s human nature, after all, to seek freedom.

The first act introduces a wild animal of sorts. Nikita, we’re told, is nineteen years old. She doesn’t look it, but that’s a minor qualm. Her mind ravaged by addiction, the girl struggles to formulate a coherent thought and speaks almost exclusively in monosyllabic expressions, which, in French, is harder than you might think. After an unspeakable act, she’s sentenced to death by lethal injection. This is odd, given the judge ordered something else and capital punishment was abolished in 1981, but Nikita doesn’t know that. In her feral state, she barely knows to cry for Mommy, which nearly broke my heart.

The film’s titular character doesn’t die, of course. Instead she’s given a choice: live for the government or take your chances in the afterlife. Bob (Tchéky Karyo), her handler, smiles when she asks to think about it. Whether Nikita played right into his hand or impressed him with her existential lucidity is left unclear, though I like to think it’s the latter. At any rate, so begins act two, Nikita’s training, which, to my surprise, doesn’t consist of a montage displaying the awesomeness of guitar-heavy power ballads.

Rather the movie explores Nikita’s core personality while her mind is still raw. With her computer instructor, she’s like a child, shouting, “Again!” as he shows her pretty pictures. With firearms, she’s a natural, and at karate, a bit of both. Her domestication, though, proves incomplete. You can tell by the graffiti on her bedroom walls: it’s in English! Also, Nikita victimises her trainers. That is, except for her femininity coach, with whom she behaves like a neutered pet, perhaps because the character is played by Jeanne Moreau or because she spouts the sort of ponderous gibberish so often mistaken for depth.

Bob also remains in control, even at gunpoint (watch whose feet are following whose). He’s a fascinating figure: handsome (not Roy Dupuis handsome, but I digress), soft-spoken, and more than a little passive-aggressive in the way he keeps setting the heroine up with thoughtful gifts and compliments, then tearing her down with a vague death threat or dangerous assignment. Nikita understands his bizarre way of showing affection, but I’m guessing she’s the only one.

© Copyright MGM Studios
© Copyright MGM Studios

The heart of the story lies in its third act, throughout which the two follow the same dysfunctional pattern, except now they’re out in the world and she’s got a boyfriend, Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), who can best be described as the sweetest man on earth. Some missions are easier than others, but all come at the most inconvenient times. As for their purpose, who knows? Nikita doesn’t care, so neither does Besson. He’s more interested in her rehabilitation, how she learns to do groceries (by buying a dozen items of whatever the shopper in front of her picked up) and comes to appreciate her own existence.

Even the camera seems reluctant to stray from Nikita’s point of view. The environments are shot from so close the Venice skyline feels claustrophobic. There isn’t that much to see, mind you, as Nikita is devoid of all them action frills: the training facility looks like a giant stockroom; the safes have combinations instead of the latest print recognition software; and I can’t decide whether the French government or the production team was on a budget.

You hear it all the time: less is more. Usually, that refers to economy of language. However, in this film’s case, it pertains to the way its pulp universe seems to stop existing the minute the heroine steps away from it, to the fact its final and most telling scene is the only one in which she doesn’t appear, and to Parillaud’s daring and often uncomfortable performance: you may not always relate to Nikita, but you believe in her. For all its implied violence, Nikita remains a deeply focused and romantic character study. That’s what makes it special. Also, Jean Reno shows up in the end to kick butt because, you know, it’s a Luc Besson flick.

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."