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Infinite Femininity
A UK Blu-ray review of NIKITA, film review by Camus, disc review and summary by Slarek
 
  "I do think that kids today miss out on a lot of those guidelines. Parents are always at work; school doesn't necessarily give the framework; politicians are all corruption and scandal; even sporting heroes are tainted with drugs and what have you. Rules are important for kids."
 
Director Luc Besson who could very easily be
talking about his young trained killer, Nikita.

 

As a parent I share some of that concern. Every day you tacitly mull on whether you're making the right decisions for your children, whether you should be more involved, more considerate towards the life you've conceived and brought into the world. So far, so angst-ridden. And then they hit teenage-hood and you think, "Let 'em get on with it..." Someone let Nikita get on with it with precious little guidance and at 18, she's almost off the rails for good. She's with a group of punks who did not grow up in rule oriented, loving families. They are – what is the patronising term? – 'delinquents' out for a fix and they're headed for a chemist owned by one of the four's father. You have a feeling from the dragged, presumably drugged up body that the scene isn't going to end well for anyone. A small note; the bare-chested Zap is dragging the body. Besson must have kicked himself. The body alternates from Zap's left hand to right hand as we reverse the angle. Trust me. Things like that annoy the hell out of directors (and their editors). But do we care as an audience? Not really.

Nikita's the only girl of the group, whacked out looking for the next high and just repeating "I need it." This is all we know about her so far. Visually, the first thing that strikes you is the great wash of lurid, almost comic book colour Besson's splashing all over his characters. The snap of a light switch annihilates the blue and the feted French director steps up to helm the inevitable shoot out. I idly wondered how much guns like Rico's could be sold for and all the drugs they could buy with that money. We get more playing with colour (and guns) as the infrared goggles go on and it's this particular cop's gunshots that bring down all but Nikita. The scene's grim denouement explodes into death and I'm thinking that, emotionally, Besson really makes us work. His heroes keep killing or stabbing people before we've got to know them at all. I'm not even going to mention the pencil.

So from this violent girl being sentenced for thirty years we jump to a scene that, for all the world, looks like one providing Nikita with a lethal injection. It's what she thinks, no question. Actress Anne Paillaud is suitably convincing as a rebellious teen, a scared murderer and an assassin. I have to mention that I find the actress's charms a little more elusive than her director did (after all, he married her) but all you have to do as an actor is convince so we're all set there. And this, the recruitment of the felon, for me, was Nikita's first and possibly only little mis-step. It certainly doesn't take any gloss off the overall effect of the movie for my centimes but what does an authority, presumably the French Secret Service, see as potential in an 18 year-old girl who shoots people because she's as high as a kite? Yes, I get the fact that she's prepared to kill (but while under the influence?) and perhaps her youth makes her a candidate for the "Let's-Make-Agents-Killers-And-Ready-To-Serve-Their-Country" Programme but I felt a little niggle whispering in my head that the character could have been set up a little better, a little more believably. Just give me one reason any state is prepared to spend time and money on this nasty piece of work. Besson seems to go out of his way to make her morally repugnant and a violent psychopath. But if the movie (as opposed to La Femme) Nikita is anything at all, it's about how violence, real violence, can corrode a soul, even one as violent as Nikita's.

Nikita's father figure during the years of underground training is played by the wonderfully named Tcheky Karyo, a Turkish actor who brings impressive gravitas to the role of 'Bob'. His tough love starts with a bullet in Nikita's leg and ends in a nicely combined-male heartbreak. His calming but commanding presence is one of Nikita's principal assets. He's the acceptable face of government control who, in his own way, falls in love with his charge. He also has vertical hair – always a plus. One lovely surprise is finding a particular actress in a smaller role but still memorable as Nikita's secret service 'mother' to Bob's 'father'. A doyenne of French cinema, especially iconic as the object of desire of both Jules et Jim, it's Jeanne Moreau. A legend in her home country, Moreau was once described by a smitten Orson Welles as the best actress in the world. Her role here as Amande doesn't stretch her at all but she gets to deliver some juicy lines playing the older, wiser matriarch to Nikita's impulsive, claws-out, feral cat. In her bloom, Moreau had the ability to radiate intelligence and sex appeal and hell, still does for my francs. She's still working having had a career most actors would kill for.

Nikita's not the most co-operative pupil but despite her ultimate superior's disdain for her and her talent, she's given a job to prove her worth. Besson's command of the set piece is evident and the reverses he pulls are thoughtful and effective. Nikita thinks Bob is taking her out for her 23rd birthday. But it's her first job and she is unquestioning in the literal execution of it. No namby pambying. Bang, bang, bang. Job done with the escape a little more difficult to complete. This is Nikita's first mission and even though she completes it, it affects her deeply and this effect/affect is, in essence, what makes Nikita so rewarding. There are few female action heroes who, in the course of their narratives, question themselves and others even in the middle of an operation. The movie now asks "How far should any covert organisation go to protect itself or its own country?" That is a hugely relevant question today when politics and security are intertwined like the three wires in an electric cable. And the power surging through them...

Almost exactly halfway through the film, Nikita changes tack with the introduction of shop assistant Marco, played by Jean-Hugues Anglade. This is a French actor with a bounty of charm to spare (he's probably more famous for his role opposite Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue). He anchors Nikita domestically while agreeing never to question her about her past. It's a touching relationship and it genuinely hurts to watch it crack as Nikita is called into service jeopardising the couple's happiness in the service of her country. Parillaud is particularly good as the schizoid lover/killer and her disintegration is signposted as her two selves converge. I'll not give any of the surprises away but for an action oriented movie, it does support some sub-textural readings and is by far Besson's most 'grown up' movie despite the comic strip action element. Yes, there's probably more emotion to be gathered from Besson's Leon and its lovely central relationship but those feelings are very different from what's on offer in Nikita. And speaking of this comic strip element, let's take a moment to appreciate the great Jean Reno's contribution to Nikita.

Nikita's in charge of planning and executing a document raid on an embassy and despite all her careful work, it goes south at a million kilometres an hour. This in turn necessitates the services of a 'cleaner', the man (or woman, one presumes) who is hired to make sure none of the carnage can be attributed to anyone. His job is an ugly one and when I saw Nikita in the cinema, I can still remember the intake of breath as the cleaner opens his case and the howls of nervous laughter when it's discovered that one of the men to be 'cleaned up' wasn't dead. Now who do you think has the gravity, the physicality, the penchant for both serious and absurd for this small but significant role? Jean Reno must have impressed Besson enough for him to write and direct an entire (and beautiful) movie around Reno as assassin in Leon. There is a delightful absurdity in this 'cleaner' sequence that is significant as far as Nikita is concerned. Well, we all know Tarantino enjoyed it. It's at this point where Nikita's quite normal and warranted hysteria takes hold. Yes, the mission still has to be achieved but Parillaud plays the mounting panic very well, taking us along with her on her final mission while everything just falls apart around her.

Nikita is a stylish and assured thriller from a director at the top of his game. To reveal her fate or anyone else's would rob some small but potent pleasures that should be enjoyed watching the movie. The experience is rewarding and well worth anyone's two hours.

sound and vision

Another sparkling HD transfer for Optimum's Luc Besson Collection. The picture quality is everything you'd hope from the Blu-ray upgrade, save for the sometimes over-aggressive contrast, which loses detail in darker areas (black clothing, dark hair, deeper shadows). Otherwise the news is good, with a strong level of detail and first rate colour reproduction, from the subtle naturalism of the location work to the saturated blue of the opening pharmacy raid. We're not talking reference quality here, but still a very respectable step up from any previous DVD incarnation.

The PCM 48 stereo track has impressive clarity and a good dynamic range (the bass tones of the music really kick with some help from the sub), with not a hint of noise or distortion. Separation is at its most distinct on Serra's score.

extra features

At first glance this looks to be a rather well featured disc, with six featurettes and a trailer to supplement the feature. Oh how deceiving appearances can be. It starts well enough...

Making of Nikita (20:37)
A nippy retrospective featurette in which cast and crew members recount their memories of the shoot and how they became involved in the project and offer opinions on the characters. It's engaging enough and even illuminating, highlights being Parillaud's tales of the 82 takes required for her first line of dialogue and of getting so caught up in her firearm practice that it triggered an armed police response. The news that French audiences love the on-screen arrival of Victor brought a warm glow to my heart.

The Sound of Nikita (4:48)
A short but still worthwhile chat to composer Eric Serra about the scoring the film.

And in terms of substance, that's about where it dries up. There is a Trailer (2:22), which is in scope and of decent quality but far from the best sell on the block, but the other four extras – Karyo on Besson (0:26), The Bedroom (0:33), Training Room (0:33), and Vanity Room (0:33) – are nothing more than brief sound bites (just look at the running times) illustrated with a fast-cut sprinkling of extracts. I'm presuming these were some sort of promotional trailers, but giving them separate extra feature titles builds up expectations they are guaranteed to shoot down. All have been transferred at 576p and are of reasonable quality, probably from an American DVD release.

summary

Besson stumbled onto something here that connected with audiences far beyond his home turf and the international art-house market. The film's impact can be judged by the subsequent appearance of an inferior Hollywood remake (alternatively titled The Assassin and The Point of No Return, with some sequences lifted shot-for-shot from the original), an inferior Hong Kong remake (Hei mao, known in the west as Black Cat), and the seemingly unlikely development of a Canadian TV series (La Femme Nikita). The original is still the business, and despite those spurious extras, it's never looked or sounded better.

Nikita
La Femme Nikita

France / Italy 1990
117 mins
director
Luc Besson
starring
Anne Parillaud
Marc Duret
Patrick Fontana
Alain Lathière
Laura Chéron
Jacques Boudet
Helene Aligier

disc details
code unspecified
video
2.35:1
sound
PCM 48 stereo
languages
French / Italian
subtitles
English
extras
Behind the scenes featurette
Music featurette
promotional shorts
Trailer
distributor
Optimum Home Entertainment
release date
14 September 2009
review posted
10 September 2009

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See all of Camus's reviews