Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Butterfly

There have been a bunch of films over the years where women kick serious ass. Hanna, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Haywire are the latest in this genre. Tonight's film was a revisit of an earlier entry to that genre, Luc Besson's 1990 film La Femme Nikita.

From a script by Luc Besson, La Femme Nikita tells of a drug-addicted 19-year-old girl on the streets of Paris who is involved in a robbery that turns into a bloodbath. She is officially killed off for her sins--newspaper story, public funeral and all--but in actuality someone takes note of her innate skills and she is secreted off to a special prison / school where she is given a chance at redemption by being extensively trained--reprogrammed--as a government assassin. After a rocky and rebellious beginning, she settles in to her training and, having a natural flair for violence, takes to the routine quite naturally. This takes the first half of the film to effect. The latter half involves her attempts to set up a normal life in Paris--something she's never had-- after her training and to integrate that normal life and its mundane joys and delights with the sporadic demands for her violent talents.

The film was remade almost right away in an English language version, directed by John Badham and titled Point Of No Return (1993), and it has gone on to spawn a television series. (It apparently also spawned a Chinese-language version in 1991 called Black Cat.) I've never seen the television series, nor, of course, the Hong Kong film; but I've seen Point Of No Return and thought it fine but unnecessary when the original which it seeks to copy is so good and readily available.  And it is good. La Femme Nikita has all the ingredients for a first-rate pot-boiler, with sex (a little) and violence and tears and drama and tightropes. It's nice enough looking and tightly directed. But it's one of those films that relies almost entirely on the screen magnetism of its central character.

Nikita is played here by the fantastic Anne Parillaud, a French actress that hasn't done much else that played Stateside (I see she was in The Man With the Iron Mask some years back). Luc Besson seems to have a thing for gamine characters. I remember falling in love with Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, and my reaction to Parillaud's Nikita is similar: you instinctively want to take them home--provided they don't kill you first, that is. Seemingly equal parts Lisbeth Salander and Audrey Hepburn, Parillaud gives us a wonderfully damaged creature who can turn off her vulnerability and turn on a lethality apparently at will. Beyond the expected ass-kicking scenes, the movie's pull comes from her transformation: from such depraved beginnings, we see her blossom as a person who has been given the most mundane--yet most sublime--of gifts: a normal life.

Or at least it seems normal enough until her work interferes.

The movie's key emotional relationship is not between Nikita and the man she begins dating once she's out on her own, but rather between her and Bob, her handler (Tcheky Karyo). They don't have an affair, but he alone knows her real story, and he alone can judge just how deep a hole she has climbed out of. For her part, she knows that Bob had faith in her and staked everything on her at a time when no other person on earth would lift a finger for her--on the contrary, the system wanted her dead and gone. So from that angle, she owes everything to him.  They are like soldiers who have been through battle together. But Bob had faith in her candidacy for a distasteful job; so he's also the connection to the thing that becomes her torture, the thing that threatens to keep her from what she finally can see and want. As Besson tells it, it makes for a compelling story.

There are a couple noteworthy supporting roles as well. Beyond Tcheky Karyo, there are small parts for Jeanne Moreau and Jean Reno, both fabulous and versatile French actors. Jean-Hughes Anglade does a fine job as Nikita's boyfriend. Everybody else is pretty much a cardboard cutout. But Parillaud is awesome, and that's pretty much all that matters here.

Grade: A-


dbackdad said...

Very good film. Much better than the American remake (which I sadly saw).

wunelle said...

Honestly, I barely remember the Fonda remake. Maybe I'd hate it now.

I do recall thinking, even at the time, how pointless it was to muster this almost shot-for-shot remake of a good recent film. Why do that? It's almost like buying a new car and for no reason whatsoever trading it in a week later on the exact same model.

Luc Besson's "thing" for gamine characters must go deeper than mine: not only does he write and cast them, in the case of this film and The Fifth Element, he married the stars. Perk of being a director, I guess!

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I saw "Point of No Return" and at the time I remember I liked the film, but I never really "cared" for Fonda's character. I think I'll put "La Femme Nikita" on Netflix to compare them.

wunelle said...

I should see them both back-to-back as well. I may find my assessment of the Fonda film in error. That's how I remember it: that it was OK, but unnecessary; maybe I'd think quite differently now.

CyberKitten said...

Over here the Fonda version was called 'The Assassin'. I remember it being OK (and I like her which helped) but I thought that it was a very poor - and completely unnecessary - version of a very good original (which oddly sold me on the singer Nina Simone who she listened to - very loud I remember - in her room/cell).

I must see what Amazon are selling Nikita for...... [grin]

wunelle said...

I think I'll steal it from the library on my trip home here and give it another look. I also rather liked Bridgit Fonda...