La Femme Nikita (1990)

Nikita (Anne Parillaud) makes a striking entrance. The camera shoots first in a rush, racing over a just-rained parking lot, until it catches up with the girl and her crew — deadmeat punks striding toward a pharmacy, one dragging a passed-out, green-haired comrade. The title slams across their backs in red letters, harsh against the eerie blue night, before the camera cuts to show their faces, bedraggled, intent, wasted, neon lights ferocious above them.

Once inside, Nikita hunkers down under a counter and puts on her headphones. “I need it,” she says. A mossy-toothed, fried-headed junkie with nothing to lose, she remains beneath that counter while the pharmacist (father to one of her knucklehead associates) comes downstairs with a shotgun, the cops arrive, and a hellish shootout ensues. As the camera walks you through the smoke and the carnage, one of the cops approaches her, kneeling to see her, imagining she’s harmless, a girl. “None left?” she asks. When he affirms she is now alone, she blows his head off with her handgun.

Brutal and childish, Nikita is a familiar character in Luc Besson’s oeuvre; see especially: Léon, with Natalie Portman (1994), The Fifth Element (1997) and Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, both with Milla Jovovich (1999). That is, she (and she is usually a she) is filled with passion and need, conveyed in crafty rebellion and occasional uncertainty. Her innocence (and even ignorance) makes her attractive, in a creepy if also intriguing way, for her older male protector, and her power makes her alarming, for this same male. Above all, her desires are pure and her resourcefulness is stunning.

In Nikita’s case, the most intensive relationship she forms is with “Bob” (Tchéky Karyo), her mentor and advocate in the bizarre governmental assassin-making agency where she’s confined following her capture. Though some more usual-seeming officials try to take stock of her “character,” put her on trial, and sentence her to death, it is Bob, the highly professional and self–assured creator of killers, who sees her true worth. That’s not to say that Nikita doesn’t understand, at initially primitive and increasingly self-aware levels, her own capabilities and vulnerabilities. Bob describes it as learning to “serve your country,” but it’s more like learning not to think, to take orders in order not to be killed — she’s a weapon, a soldier trained to believe what she’s told. Her learning involves controlling her own talents and reading her adversaries. And everyone is her adversary. She’s a girl in an ostensibly man’s world, and she must struggle for her every moment of seeming sovereignty.

Bob and his factory do their best to turn Nikita into a killing machine, cold and proficient, focused on the mission at hand. She resists, showing great instincts for sever violence and creative thinking in bad situations, such that Bob observes her dancing after a fierce run-in with her martial arts teacher (she savagely bites his ear), and smiles at her ingenuity and spunk. At the same time, Nikita is trained to be a “woman,” able to go undercover. This latter training is effected by Amande (Jeanne Moreau), who works on etiquette and elegance: “And don’t forget,” purrs Amande as she and Nikita gaze on their close-together images in a mirror, “There are two things that have no limit: femininity and the means of taking advantage of it.” (This sort of line seems written by an especially fearful man.)

Along with Bob, Nikita’s primary instructor (and terrorizer) is Victor the Cleaner (Jean Reno), who shows up when one job goes particularly wrong. So robotic that he doesn’t see avenues for escape or mercy, he thinks only that he must kill everyone in sight, thus making Nikita’s desperate emotional display (begging him to move on, to get in the car and drive) look lucid by comparison. And this is the film’s point, to reveal the irrationality of hyper-rationalism, the cruelty of efficiency, and the callousness of authority.

When the film was released theatrically in 1990, such themes — and more importantly, the relentless focus on Nikita’s complexities — weren’t so much news as it was a means to work through continuing social anxieties — about sex, violence, and consumerism. One of the most cogent scenes has her set “free” after years of training in this robot-shaping facility, shopping for the first time in a supermarket, wholly naïve as to process and selection: following another woman she sees tossing items into her cart, Nikita fills hers with the groceries — canned ravioli and vegetables, juice, boxes of breadsticks — unbelieving that she can actually purchase what she wants. Equally seduced by the flirtatious checkout clerk, Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), she asks him to come for dinner, treating him, at first, as another object of her incessant hunger.

If Nikita’s appetites are boundless, so is her distrust. She’s right to feel trapped and abused, of course, just as she’s right to expect the worst — you see it heaped on her from her first moment on screen: she’s a punk and she’s unmanageable, even when she’s been “civilized” to kill for her government. When Bob — pretending to be her “Uncle Bob,” complete with memories of her as a child — sends the happy couple on a “vacation” to Venice, it turns out that she’s on a mission, set up in a particular hotel so she can shoot a woman “enemy” from the bathroom window. The scene is memorable for various reasons, not least because it has Nikita in her adorably patterned cotton underwear (with cherries), aiming her high-powered rifle while awaiting instructions through her headset, as Marco whines outside the bathroom door, wondering if she really loves him.

Righteously angry, afraid, and painfully (if understandably) prone to tears, Nikita is also gifted, complicated, and tough-minded, a lively precursor for Buffy or Sydney in Alias, even Trinity in The Matrix. Even more directly, Besson and Parillaud’s Nikita inspired Peta Wilson’s in the popular USA tv series, as well as Bridget Fonda’s wan Maggie in John Badham’s “remake” of the film, Point of No Return (1993). Each of these characters confronts her vulnerability even as she must kill efficiently and sometimes viciously, and repeatedly.

Besson’s film has been released twice previously on DVD, in 1997 and again in 2000, but neither version delivers the quality transfer of MGM’s Special Edition (which isn’t to say all is perfect, as images blur occasionally). Aside from this, however, the specialness of this edition is a little hard to parse. The DVD includes several brief featurettes that reveal very little: Parillaud, Reno, Karyo, and Anglade remember how wonderful it was to work on the film, and especially, Besson’s brilliance. (Sadly, none of these talking head testimonials includes Besson, whose mind seems quite worth picking.)

“Programming Nikita” is a supposedly interactive but definitively dull feature that offers four sequences of scene bits pressed together under soundtrack music. “The Sound of Nikita” features composer Eric Serra describing his process, and “Revealed: The Making of La Femme Nikita” has the principals, as well as Besson’s usual director of photography, the gifted Thierry Arbogast, remembering details of production, such as stunt, camera, and thematic choices. Parillaud recalls 82 takes for the first, difficult scene; Karyo smiles, “Luc is so picky with everything he does.”

Indeed, more details about such pickiness would be welcome. Groundbreaking on its release, for its willingness to explore cultural inequities; though Reno calls it “the dark side of human beings,” the film’s target is even more acutely institutions and social processes the assault on individuals by governmental agents and arguments.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.