Saturday, August 13, 2011

Modern Film Classic: La Femme Nikita

It’s been twenty years since the year 1991 brought to the cinema a new, stronger female image. The trend was unofficially started by Jodie Foster’s brilliant Oscar-winning performance as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, which still ranks as one of the greatest horror thrillers of all time. Her character may answer to male higher-ups, but she was no shrinking violet and has a will wrought in iron and steel. Just a few months later, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon rode a blue T-Bird into history in the remarkable road film Thelma & Louise. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah in Terminator 2 showed she was steelier in body and mind than any man around her (cyborgs exempted). Each of these women advanced the female cinematic image from pure object of desire into powerful beings that would sooner kill than kiss a man.

Into this mix, one may have forgotten the prototype for the modern femme fatale: Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita.

Nikita v. 1: Anne Parillaud
Starring Anne Parillaud in the title role, Nikita documents the journey of a strung-out junkie who kills a policeman during a drug raid. She is a creature so feral and enslaved by her primal instincts that she stabs a policeman through the hand with a pen during a routine questioning. When she is sentenced to life in prison in the film’s opening, she rips the banister off the witness box in the courtroom and requires ten men to restrain her. Nikita wakes up in a nondescript white room fit for a mental patient, and is told that her history has been wiped out. The French intelligence had staged a mock funeral for her and she is given the option of either becoming a trained government assassin, or she will be put in her fake plot, for good. She opts for the former.

Parillaud plays Nikita as the banshee from hell whose bite is far worse than her bark. Uncontrollable and responsive only to force or threats, she actually bites her martial arts instructors. She gets dirty and one gets the sense that she might even eat flesh and blood if that’s what it took to survive. Eventually, she is tamed by a psychologist. The film’s stunning centerpiece is an epic assignment to take out a foreign diplomat at the very restaurant she is taken to for her birthday dinner. In time, Nikita is released and returned to civilian life – albeit under an assumed name and occupation – falls in love, and remains a sleeper assassin. But every so often the phone rings, and a familiar voice summons her with a certain password, and her other life takes over.

The iconic little black dress
Originally released in France in 1990, Nikita was a blockbuster and was unlike anything seen in cinema. While action films of the period concentrated on muscled man as superheroes (think Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme), there were no women portrayed on screen in such a manner. Nikita was not only considered a bold exercise in style, given what then passed as cinema vérité-style technical direction and camera work, but it dared to portray a woman as having more animalist tendencies than men. The Nikita figure wasn’t a formerly benign individual developed into an imposing assassin or fighter a la Sigourney Weaver in the Alien quadrilogy. Considering that this was an era where American cinema was heavily into the Madonna/whore dichotomy in film, Nikita was no mere breath of fresh air. It was, together with the representations in the first paragraph of this essay, a gale force that threatened to blow the doors off the movie house. The film, although it did not break out into the mainstream, was an art-house smash and attained a cult following that led to its presence in pop culture that still continues.

Nikita v. 2: the 1996 TV series starring Peta Wilson
The Americans knew a good thing when they saw it. The film was remade (regrettably) as Point of No Return (or The Assassin for overseas markets) in 1993 with Bridget Fonda. While that did not itself create a whole line of Nikita action figures or Happy Meals, the original French film’s influence laid in wait, like the sleeper cell in the original film. 

James Cameron’s controversial 1994 hit True Lies starred Jamie Lee Curtis as the wife of a CIA agent-turned-reluctant-spy. If you compare side-by-side photos of Parillaud in her pixie haircut, sleeveless little black dress and heels with shots of Curtis in True Lies, the resemblance could not have been any more coincidental (or was that intended?). It’s clear that whether he intended to or not, the character in the latter was modeled on Nikita’s look, if not character disposition. Nikita could count amongst her spiritual descendants characters from films such as Wanted, Kill Bill and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (inclusive of all sequels and remakes). It’s clear that this incarnation of the femme fatale has since become something of a staple in big-budget action films.
Nikita v. 3: Maggie Q as the current Nikita

The influence doesn’t end in the cinema, as the figure has arisen on television. In 1996, an American TV series was built on Besson’s original premise (as La Femme Nikita) and ran for several years until 2001, at which time the now-classic female-spy TV series Alias premiered and developed its own loyal following. Buffy the Vampire Slayer continues in this vein, infusing the Nikita figure with a moral code and sending her off to fight against dark supernatural forces (high school included). There is in fact a new series of Nikita starring Maggie Q, depicting the title character going rogue.

It’s a testament to the film’s and character’s influence that the Nikita figure remains iconic and still a template for strong female cinematic figures. After seeing this film, you’ll never look at a little black dress in quite the same away again.