La Femme Nikita

There probably aren’t too many French movies that have spawned even a single American or Canadian television series, let alone two. Yet Nikita (released in 1990 in France, and in 1991 as La Femme Nikita in the United States) has done just that. I’ve never seen either of the series in question; to be honest, they came across in promos as having a good premise but low quality. But a good premise is enough to make me curious about the film that they loosely draw from.

Written and directed by Luc Besson, La Femme Nikita is about a young woman who is a petty criminal and drug user. When a robbery goes wrong — largely because her friends were psychotic idiots — she is convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 to life in prison. But prison is not where she ends up… she is recruited into a secret government program as a covert agent: both spy and assassin.

The value of work-release programs is always a bit controversial.

Her indoctrination does not proceed smoothly at first; Nikita is nearly as psychotic as her lost friends, is willful, and has little interest in becoming whatever it is the agency wants of her. But with patience, reinforcement, and a tacit explanation that she can either shape up or be shipped out in a coffin, her handler Bob (Tchéky Karyo) and teacher Amande (Jeanne Moreau) eventually groom her into a woman with skill, poise, and a sense of obedience. Four years after she’s entered into the training, Nikita is given a cover identity and let loose into the world to await instructions. She revels in the freedom. Immediately after moving into her apartment, she meets a grocer (Jean-Hugues Anglade), who she invites home for dinner. A short jump in time later, and she and Marco are in love and living together. But Nikita, or Marie, or Josephine, depending on who you ask, still has jobs to do. While she would like her freedom, her life is still constructed around getting her in place to do the jobs she is assigned to do, and she can never be completely forthcoming with Marco.

It’s always difficult to judge the acting in a foreign-language film. If I don’t speak the language, it’s hard to criticize the delivery. I watched the subtitled version of the film, so although I don’t speak French, the inclusion of the original voices does at least allow me to gauge whether the actors have the correct tone in addition to the correct facial expressions. I didn’t observe any problems on that front here. Parillaud is sometimes very loud, almost hysterical, as Nikita, but this is more a function of the character; while Nikita becomes increasingly sane as time goes on, at least up to the point where she’s ready to function in society, she’s always tense and on edge because of her work. Anglade makes Marco seem sympathetic; there’s not much to his character beyond “the nice lover”, but he gives a credible performance as someone who loves “Marie” but is frustrated by the way she keeps her secrets. The actors who play the trainers give respectable performances, but they’re not really called on to do anything more than act as stern government agents; nevertheless, Karyo does get a good scene as Bob relates a fictional tale of “Marie’s” childhood to Marco. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance Jean Reno turns in as Victor, a fellow agent who works as a clean-up man on assignments. It’s low-key, but with a quiet sense of menace in that this is a man who will simply do what needs to be done without thinking twice about it.

He’s quite professional.

The film moves at a fast pace, and stays with one scene only long enough to get the job done. There isn’t a lengthy set-up for most of the stages of Nikita’s life; we’re shown one part, and then the time shifts to the next. For example, when Nikita finally “gets it” that she has to step up her performance at the facility, it quickly shifts to her “graduation”. A few of these initial jumps were a bit confusing before I realized that was what was going on, but after that it was easy to fall into stride with the film.

The time jumps are also easy to accept because they mean that the film cuts directly from one interesting plot point to another. It’s not all-action all-the-time, but there’s never a purposeless scene, never a moment where I found myself waiting for something interesting to happen. A large part of this is due to the character of Nikita, who is full of energy whether she’s in the throes of a psychotic breakdown or is embracing the fun of life to the fullest. She hates what she was, and what she currently does, but she loves life. She’s so enthusiastic about the normal things in life that it’s easy for the audience to side with her despite her past and her present, and also for the audience to overlook that she’s the only truly three-dimensional character in the film.

Since I was watching a subtitled version, it’s worthwhile to make note of the quality there as well (this can’t be credited to or blamed on Luc Besson, but as most English-speakers are in the same situation as myself, it’s relevant for review purposes). The sub-titling on the film was good, but not without its flaws. I don’t speak French, but even I know that “mon amour” does not translate to “anybody home?”, and the subtitler also had the strange habit of adding subtitles to non-verbal communications in places. Despite these issues, though, the subtitled dialogue was generally well-written and read well within the context of the film.

Unlike most spy or assassin films, Nikita is more of a psychological drama than an action movie. But it’s an interesting one, with an engaging central character. If you enjoy spy films and don’t mind reading subtitles, it’s definitely worth a look.

Rating: 4 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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5 Responses to La Femme Nikita

  1. I have been told that this is definitely worth a look before and that it is one of Besson’s best. I haven’t seen it before but you give me another reason to add it to my “must see” pile.

  2. I didn’t know that Luc Besson did the original Nikita, but it doesn’t surprise me all that much. I’ll definitely have to check it out, since I’ve enjoyed most of his other work, especially The Professional.

    • Yeah, I wasn’t familiar with Besson by name before this, even though I did see The Professional. Saw Jean Reno’s name in the opening credits and thought, “Hey, it’s Leon!” Then discovered afterward that this wasn’t entirely a coincidence….

      If you liked The Professional, I think there’s a pretty good chance you’ll like Nikita; it’s not exactly the same, but it has a lot of the same “feel” to it of deconstructing the glamor of professional hitmen.

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