Thursday, 28 June 2012

Nikita (1990)

I don't know if this is Nostalgia Week on Black Cat Reviews or what, but here's another Golden Oldie from my misspent youth. Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990: AKA La Femme Nikita) must have been among the first five movies I rented with my own money. When I was first starting to get into movies for their own sake, and not just because Watching A Movie was a Thing That You Did, I checked Nikita out immediately. I didn't really know what it was about, but I didn't have to. It had a cool-looking punk chick in a cocktail dress brandishing a revolver on the case: that was proof enough of badassery. I was still detoxing from Sailor Moon, so it didn't take much to impress me.

Parents of the world: listen to me. If you're raising a girly tweenager, don't give her Hannah Montana. Don't give her Twilight or High School Musical or whatever the kids think is cool these days. Slip her a DVD of Nikita. This is girl power in lethal doses, still red-hot after twenty-two years.

Take a good look at her and then tell me you don't want to see this movie.
Nikita's heroine-on-heroin (played by Anne Parillaud) is a drug-addled Parisian street rat known only as... Nikita (bet you didn't see that one coming). She murders a cop and gets thrown in the clink, but she's only there about two minutes before the authorities fake her death by suicide. They offer her a choice: become an assassin for the French secret service, or get killed for real. Nikita understandably goes for the former and, after years of being groomed by the charmingly sinister Bob (Tcheky Karyo), she is released into the wild to wait for further instructions. Nikita passes her time stylishly kicking around Paris, picking up a grocery clerk fiance named Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and working missions for her former handlers. When a mission goes awry, Victor the Cleaner (Jean Reno) is called in to eliminate the evidence (this involves a bathtub full of acid). Revolted by the Cleaner's brutality and her own complicity in the bloodbath, Nikita hits the road, leaving Grocery Marco and Creepy Bob to sit around and mope that she didn't leave a forwarding address.

Full disclosure: This movie could have been made for me. I love it. I want to go watch it again right this second. It's got everything. Melodrama. Kick-ass heroine. Bizarre love triangle. Subtitles. It's too bad non-Francophones have to "read" the film, because it's made up of a series of ironically stylish snapshots: Nikita's "pencil trick" (later cribbed by Heath Ledger's Joker), Bob cutting his protege's birthday cake with a switchblade, Nikita hiding a sniper rifle from Marco by throwing it in her bubble bath. Things can get slightly over-the-top -- Nikita "learning to smile" calls to mind Lillian Gish's woebegone waif from Broken Blossoms -- but whatever, I'm not watching this for realism. The mise-en-scene, too, has a comic-book charm: orange wash! Blue wash! Fuck "natural light", this is theatre!

The human core Besson forgot in the similarly exuberant The Fifth Element is present in Nikita: there's a real, wounded soul inside the snarling street punk, and her moral education is the heart of the film. The numerous remakes of Nikita seem not to realize that this is the point of the story. If Nikita was falsely accused to begin with -- if the government forces the character to become a criminal, as in the Canadian TV series --  she has no journey to make. What makes Nikita powerful is that its one-time murderess becomes morally superior to the legal system which allowed her incarceration.

Things I don't like about Nikita: there is nothing I don't like about Nikita. I will warn you, though, that if you're hoping for action babe T+A, you're better off watching something with Megan Fox. Nikita's heroine is grimy, crude, and violent, not glamorous: a fully-fleshed out personality rather than animate cheesecake. Also, the script is more serviceable than brilliant (although if you're looking for whiz-bang quotability, you should realize subtitles take most of the fun out of it).

That's really all I've got, folks. No movie is perfect, but Nikita works for me. This is a 5/5 kind of a movie. Watch it. Do not watch the American version with Bridget Fonda, do not watch the Canadian TV show, do not pass go, do not collect 200$. Watch Besson's original. Despite the army of imitations, there's really nothing like it.

Is this really a hat you would wear while trying to escape the attention of local authorities?

The magic's in the makeup!
ACTUAL SCENE STEALER: That woman. On the right. She looks familiar. Could it be?... Is that?... It is! It's Jeanne Moreau, Queen of the French New Wave. Jeanne Moreau's filmography is longer than the Bible and reads like a Who's Who of directors: Truffaut, Bunuel, Antonioni. Moreau lends her particular brand of class to Nikita as Amande, the former secret agent who teaches her charge to wield femininity like a weapon. Actually, all we see her do is show Nikita how to put on lipstick, but because it's Jeanne Moreau doing it it takes on mythic significance. Hooray for Jean Moreau. She is the icing on the Nikita cake.

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