Sunday, March 31, 2013

La Femme Nikita (1990)

Director: Luc Besson                                  Writer: Luc Besson
Film Score: Eric Serra                                Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Starring: Anne Parillaud, Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Jean Reno

As bad as Point of No Return is, that’s how good La Femme Nikita is. What’s weird is that they’re almost identical. The primary difference, for me, is Anne Parillaud’s performance in the French film. Whether it’s the direction or the script or just her way of becoming the part, she has an underlying sense of despair that is absent from Bridget Fonda’s performance in the American version. It gives her character a real depth that is lacking in John Badham’s version. Also, she looks much older, and that has a distinct influence on the reading of the film as well. In addition, there are some subtle differences in the overall story that make a real difference in terms of the French film’s superiority.

The film was written and directed by the great Luc Besson, who has a distinct vision and the ability to take on a wide variety of subject matter and do it brilliantly. In addition to a small but powerful body of work as a director, has also written the Transporter series as well as the Taken films. The only director on par with him that I can think of as far as English speaking films is Ridley Scott. In his original story of the drugged out woman who kills a cop in a drug robbery and then becomes a hit man for the government, he made some good choices that the remake chose to ignore. The first is the amount of time that Parillaud spends in the government program: three years. This makes for a much more believable sense of her own capabilities, as well as the speed in which she launches into the affair with Jean-Hugues Anglade.

The sense that Parillaud never stops grieving for her old life underscores the entire film. But what she doesn’t do is to beg her handler, Tchéky Karyo, to let her go. She continues to work the entire film, until her near breakdown on her final mission. There is no subterfuge about what will happen next. She knows she needs to get out and simply disappears. The romance with Anglade is infinitely believable, and that is certainly due to the French sensibility of the film. He is not clueless, and allows things to play out without jealousy and confrontation. The lack of believability is one of the things that ruins the American version. Finally, Parillaud has tools as an actor that Bridget Fonda can’t even approach, and this is what ultimately sets the original film so decidedly apart from the poor copy.

There are no explosions, car chases, or all out gun battles. In Besson’s vision this is a piece about intensity, not spectacle. The music matches this mood, subdued and thoughtful, and even though the film was made three years earlier than Badham’s the music seems far less dated. Also, where Badham engages a nervous looking cleaner in Harvey Keitel, Besson opts for the infinitely more menacing Jean Reno, who gives the performance of the film in what amounts to little more than an extended cameo. In just a short while I’ve come to admire Luc Besson as a real genius in the film world, and for American audiences, La Femme Nikita was the beginning of what has become a brilliant career.

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