Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Movie Review: (La Femme) Nikita

The following review and discussion contains *MASSIVE SPOILERS*! You have been warned.

French director Luc Besson was already gaining good notices for his movies, like Subway and Le Grande blue, when he released Nikita. (The La Femme is not part of the title but was added by marketers for clarity, for some reason.) This was the movie that pushed him to international stardom. His later movies include Leon, aka The Professional, and The Fifth Element.

A sleek, stylish thriller, Nikita is the story of a street vagabond junkie (played by Anne Parillaud) who drifts along with her boyfriend and his gang to a pharmacy robbery. She sits oblivious during the whole heist and resulting shoot-out, only to cold-bloodedly murder a police officer who tells her that there will be no drugs for her.

The movie immediately establishes her as a wild woman, with no morals or concern for others. She is a French stereotype of the "wild child," the part-child/part-woman free spirit who also straddles the line between madness and profundity. You don't really see this in American cinema because the child part seems too jarring to audiences here. The closest we get is the immature woman who, through her conflicts in the film, finally grows up, sadder and wiser.

Nikita is sentenced to life in prison, but we see her taken to another room, where she is strapped in and about to be injected with drugs, like an American death sentence. She cries and pleads in confusion, but is ignored by the men around her. She dies....

Or maybe not. Nikita comes to in a hospital-like cell. It's a shabby, rundown room, but clean and spacious in a spartan way. A handsome, well-dressed man, Bob (Tcheky Karyo), with the requisite three-day stubble, comes in to show her a photo of the plot she is "buried" in: Row 8, Plot 37. He informs her that she is officially listed as dead but will be given a second life is she agrees to become a government assassin. Otherwise...Row 8, Plot 37.

So begins her training and her second life as a deep cover government murderer. After years of training, she's sent with a new identity to another city. At first, she revels in her new freedom and even finds a boyfriend, but then she begins to unravel under the demands of her assassin's job. It all ends badly for everyone else, but for Nikita there's a new freedom, once again, on her own terms.

This movie had the potential to collapse into silliness. It's the skill of director Besson and stars Parillaud, Karyo and Jean-Hugues Anglade (Marco, the new boyfriend), that keeps it afloat.

Parillaud was an inspired choice. In her real life, as she explains in the DVD extras, she is very sensitive and not at all violent. She had to do a lot of gun training and was horrified at one point to discover that she was beginning to identify with her guns a bit too much. This nature comes through in her performance, where we constantly see her battle between doing what she must and hating it.

She must also pull off a very difficult act: acting wild, amoral and crazy at one instant and then deep, tortured and disciplined the next. Parillaud does it perfectly. She can stand there bored and distracted, like a little girl, then leap to either animal frenzy or cool action without losing the viewer. Repeatedly, she must maintain her composure while executing some part of a plan she is never given to understand the whole of, and under great stress; Parillaud can do this while allowing deeper emotions to show through her eyes and face.

Tcheky Karyo, as Bob her handler, is smooth and charming, while also always being at least a step or two ahead of Nikita. He always knows what's coming up, but rarely lets her know. Unlike many American actors who would play the part cold, remote and authoritarian, Karyo is stern but caring. You can seem him appreciate and then fall in love with Nikita while never losing sight of his job. Karyo almost plays him as a stern father figure, which is telling as we'll later see.

Besson begins the movie with cool blue lighting during the extended pharmacy robbery and shoot-out, then moves to black/white dynamics during her years of training, then on to more colorful schemes as she lives her new life. This helps to delineate her changes, or rather the changes forced on her.

This is pretty clearly, to me anyway, one of the themes of the movie: Nikita is under the control of men throughout her life, until she finally breaks free. Men take her to the robbery; men arrest, imprison and execute her; a man, Bob, has her under his control during her training and later. Even Marco is somewhat controlling in his unpressured desire to know more about her mysterious past; he asks a couple of times, but seems willing to let the matter lie between them. But even he is controlled, in a roundabout way, by Bob. Nikita is passive in her early life, content to float along, then rebellious when she is confined and can't do anything about it; when she moves out, she reverts to a more playful, carefree state, until the next assignment is given to her and she finds Bob's control to be less direct but still there. It can be seen as moving through the stages of growth: infant, adolescent and young woman.

Jeanne Moreau has a cameo role in this film, as the trainer who teaches the unkempt and artless Nikita how to be a woman. Moreau does get to really shine with an enigmatic, slow smile when Nikita asks if she also was a "recruit" to the program. It's a small part, really only three scenes, but they economically encapsulate part of Nikita's growth. Moreau shows Nikita make-up, dress, poise -- femininity; she also teaches her how to use it. In those short scenes we see the rough and careless Nikita morph into a polished and beautiful woman. Again, the theme of the movie: a woman must know how to manipulate and use men in order to be free of them.

There are some astounding set-pieces in this movie. The famous restaurant kitchen scene still grabs after more than a decade. Nikita has finally "graduated" and, as a bonus, Bob takes her to a fantastic restaurant to celebrate. She is dressed in a small, black evening gown and looks ravishing; really stunning. He gives her a gift in a gorgeous wood box: a big honkin' handgun, with extra clips. Nikita is baffled, as she had thought there was something romantic to the evening, and even Bob is behaving that way, somewhat.

But no, Bob tells her where her first target is, and her escape plan: through a bathroom window. He leaves her. Stunned, she sucks it up, wipes away some tears, then emotionlessly blows away a group of people. Fleeing bodyguards, she runs through a kitchen, and empties her gun there. She leaps down a laundry shaft just ahead of an RPG. Stumbling to her escape, crying now, she finds the window bricked up! Betrayed!

Nikita makes her way out, into raining streets in her tiny black gown, holding her shoes. She storms into the control center, crying and angry and hurt, to find Bob waiting in her room. Bob's obviously glad to see her, and he tells her she passed the final test. Nikita attacks him and they fight until Bob, angry and impatient, leaves. At her door, Nikita leans in to plant one very sexy kiss on him. Then she says, "I will never kiss you again." Bob is shocked and surprised; he understands what he's just lost -- and that his controlling nature is what lost it.

Man, I love that! It's the first time that Nikita is able to assert herself meaningfully, and a turning point for her. She has taken some measure of control and will not give it back. It really is a graduation.

There's another cameo in this movie, by the inimitable Jean Reno as "the cleaner." Think Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. Reno is all deadan flair in the early part, but he's on screen too long and grows tiresome. But for a while there, he's Cool Danger.

Another notable part of the movie is the soundtrack. By Eric Serra, a long-time collaborator, it is used sparingly and meaningfully. The opening track, during the approach to the pharmacy, is a throbbing rocker, swagger and menace. During the kiss I just talked about, the music is sad, almost classical, underscoring Bob's point of view, his loss. It has many moods and is one of the very few film soundtracks I'd listen to by itself. (Donnie Darko, Ringu and Alien are three more. All share a restraint and spareness I find commendable. Interesting without being loud or distracting, or being cover for a scene montage.)

One part that is confusing is the time jumps in the movie. Months and even years are covered in either jump cuts or fades without explanation. You have to keep sharp to catch them; otherwise you wonder at some sudden changes. I can understand the compression needed to keep the moving humming along; to do otherwise would have dragged the narrative needlessly. Besson makes leaps of cinematic faith that are both refreshing and mildly confusing. Pay attention, especially in the training scenes right before her "graduation."

Nikita's polish over a European nature, the gloss and art over centuries of wear that polish a shabbiness and sense of long history; the contrast between Nikita's roiling emotions and the cold murders she must perform; her disconnection emotionally, relationally and professionally; the increasingly more elaborate and choatic assignments that skirt nearer and nearer to disaster; all are used to create and then drive a tension that builds throughout the movie. That tension is punctuated time and again by something -- Nikita's wild child antics, unexpected appearances, surprising emotion, turns of event -- that keep us wondering where things are going next.

It's no wonder that such a successful picture, which happened to come from France, was seized by Hollywood and remade. It became the inferior Point of No Return, starring Bridget Fonda, Gabriel Byrne and others. In some spots, recognising they couldn't improve on the original, they copied Nikita literally shot for shot! Only the shabby-chic of Europe becomes the completely controlled and directed uber-hyped spectacle. Everything is more tense, bigger, louder, more dramatic, more, more, more. It doesn't work. And they changed the ending!

In Nikita, she simply disappears and we don't know what will become of her, except that we know she is now free, happier, wiser and sadder all at once. In Point, her handler explicitly frees her, so we know she's OK, but also telling us that she's still controlled by men. It undercuts the whole premise of what's come before; it shows someone didn't understand or care about the theme.

Fonda is a tad too young and too American. She comes off as spoiled and willful, not wild child. She doesn't rebel, she fights back. It's an American interpretation that doesn't come from the material. Parillaud is a more mature woman who acts the wild child with abandon. Her maturation during the film is more dramatic, her adult is more mature and poised, and a different kind of sexual. Fonda is too young as an adult and it works against her portait. She a young woman, a work still in progress if you will, and not a grown, mature adult like Parillaud.

Avoid Point like the plague, but definitely check out La Femme Nikita some night. She isn't the feminine James Bond, but a nuance, troubled woman who is also a killer. It's great entertainment. Those of you who hate subtitles don't need to worry, as the movie is very quiet most of the time; it's only in a few faced-paced action scenes that the titles fly by. But you can still follow by just watching Parillaud's and Karyo's faces.

One last note: translation. The DVD I watched had a good translation that conveyed clearly what was going on, but I know enough French (very little, but enough) to recognise that some things were being changed. In the DVD extras, the scenes they show, during featurettes and interviews, from the movie have a different translation, apparently an earlier one. It has more of the flavor of the actual script, but suffers from a stiffness of translation. What is clearly "Yeah" is still translated literally as "Yes," if you get my drift here, but some word usage and imagery is retained. I wouldn't mind having the earlier translation also available, as it does better with some detail and color in the language, for comparison.

Rent it this weekend!

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