Movies You’ve Got To See – Le Femme Nikita

With two TV shows based on it, and the film Point of No Return as its American version, I found myself wondering just how good the original Le Femme Nikita must have been to spawn so many projects from it. With the divine gift of Netflix on my side, I found it, watched it, and loved it, thoroughly surprised at the movie it turned out to be. This is an assassin movie, sure, but it’s more a movie about the assassin–and how this life affects her–than the typical, meaningless, cookie-cutter “high-octane” action-sequences movies about revenge or whatever else American audiences usually expect in these kinds of movies.

When we meet Nikita, she is a detached drug addict whose random and reactionary violent nature leads her to the death penalty, after petty criminal activity with her crew escalate into casualties. But when she wakes up from her “lethal injection”, she is in a white room, visited only by a man in a black suit named Bob (yeah, “Bob” in a french movie, weird to me too). Bob offers her an option: the french government can kill her (since she is legally dead anyway, at this point) or they can train her to be a killer, her life completely in their control to kill whatever targets they choose.

Bob: You died Saturday at 5:00 p.m. The prison doctor confirmed suicide after an overdose of tranquillizers. You’re buried in Maisons-Alfort, row 8, plot 30.
Nikita: [looking at pictures of her funeral] Titi… That’s Titi!
Bob: I work, let’s say, for the government. We’ve decided to give you another chance.
Nikita: What do I do?
Bob: Learn. Learn to read, walk, talk, smile and even fight. Learn to do everything.
Nikita: What for?
Bob: To serve your country.
Nikita: What if I don’t want to?
Bob: Row 8, Plot 30.

While initially resistant, she reluctantly gives in, and spends years changing from a rebellious disillusioned girl to a more grounded, matured woman.

But here’s where things get crazy. From start to finish, Nikita takes time to build up scenes, leading us on in certain expected directions, and then wowing us with unexpected twists that leave Nikita in tricky situations. Throw in the romance Nikita begins in her new identity and she finds herself brought to emotional extremes, trying to juggle the heartless, abrupt imperatives of her handler, Bob, and the mental stability and happiness she’s always wanted.

Anne Parillaud does a fantastic job playing Nikita. As a drug addict, Parillaud plays Nikita as a dispassionate, destructive, impulsive individual, seemingly driven by her id more than anything. She acts out violence, throwing tantrums, and causing mischief without hesistation. But it’s the matured, vulnerable Nikita where Parillaud really shines.

Nikita is many things depending on the situations she’s put in, but overall she has a childlike innocence to her. I mean that in a good way. This is a character who has lived in the gutter (probably for her entire life) and for once she’s given a life of luxury, life that introduces her to new places, new food, new fashion, new people, and most importantly, a new perspective. One could argue that Nikita was more or less dead before, that she hadn’t actually lived enough t ofind life worth living. She wasn’t scared of the consequences because she really didn’t have anything to lose.

The assassin’s life, though, came as a double-edged sword, giving her a life to enjoy, to love, to hold onto, and, worst of all, a life she could lose. So when thrown into insane situations, she’s caught in a catch 22: she can’t refuse, or else they’ll take her life away; but she can also lose her life if she does a mission and it goes wrong. This very dichotomy builds the movie up from the foundation up, and really makes you root for her in her most dire situations.

Tchéky Karyo (Goldeneye, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Kiss of the Dragon, the Good Thief) plays a great lovable asshole, both caring for Nikita (possibly in multiple ways) but never allowing Nikita to forget that she is an employed assassin when they need her, first, no matter how that conflicts with her newfound joy and happiness.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mentioned Jean Reno, whose role later in the movie as the ruthless, hardcore killer “The Cleaner” not only provides for a dark (and somewhat humorous) set of scenes but also nicely brings the movie full-circle with a thematic conclusion that reflects exactly the worst of everything Nikita is exposed to as an assassin, and why she must choose whether to live a hard, double life as an agent of the french of government, or rish death if she finds herself unable to go on in this world of misery and death that she thought she had somehow left behind.

This is a spectacular movie that takes a much used movie character archtype and really gives it a heart, breaking it down into its most emotional and engaging components. If you need a reason to know why this decades-old movie has spun off multiple successful TV shows and another movie, seriously buy this ASAP or watch it on Netflix, now.

You won’t be disappointed.

(Unless you don’t like watching movies with subtitles).

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