Besides being a stylistic and appealing concept, La Femme Nikita has helped women expand acting roles into the action genre. The male dominated genre has more female roles than ever before. Movies continue to expand the female boundaries and ideology while still providing appeal to a mass audience.
Audiences have been amazed at the mental toughness and physical strength of Sydney Bristow as she’s tortures in the TV series Alias, yet she’s still seen her wearing lingerie providing the same amazement in an aesthetic and feminine way. The audience really believes that these women can hold their own unlike the sometimes laughable roles of female action stars in the past such as Charlie’s Angels or Wonder Woman. Times have changed.
Other female lead movies and television shows, like Dark Angel, show how the women are tough under pressure while still showing emotional vulnerability especially to a love interest or her male counterpart. The problem with female characters in the action genre has usually been weak stories and lots of action.
All of these visual works borrow a bit of ideology and conceptual ideas from a previous work, the 1990 film, La Femme Nikita (as Nikita as borrowed some from previous works as well) which was followed by Point of No Return (1993) and the USA Network television series, La Femme Nikita.
The 1993 movie, Point of No Return, directed by John Badham, follows the action genre formulism the closest, but La Femme Nikita, directed by Luc Besson (The Professional, Fifth Element) and TV series, La Femme Nikita, provide a more realistic film type, strong plots and engaging female lead performances to strengthen these works beyond mediocrity.
All three works make a good use of intertextuality. Notice the beauty and femininity of all the female leads:
- Anne Parillaud (Map of the Human Heart, Man in the Iron Mask)
- Bridget Fonda – a.k.a. Nina (Jackie Brown, It Could Happen to You)
- Peta Wilson (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)
All of these performance have elements of a female mentor…
- Amande, played by Jeanne Moreau
- Amanda, played by Anne Bancroft
- Madeline, played by Alberta Watson
…who instructs Nikita (Nina in Point of No Return) to use her beauty to each other goals (completing missions; gaining access to areas a seemingly threatening male couldn’t; getting out of precarious situations; acting as a mediator between two warring parties). Nikita’s femininity masks the ugly part of some pretty gruesome operations and action sequences as she participates in many actions against her will.
The Nikita Films
The modern French film, La Femme Nikita (also known as Nikita), continues the grand tradition of film noir, or, in this case, French film noir. Superbly directed by Besson, Nikita has a dark urban setting with violent subject matter and protagonists, gangsters and loners who are not quite on one side of the law or the other. Besson fills the screen, and screenplay as writer, with deep contrasts in lighting, shadows, character, and emotion. The emotion is natural, but the lighting and visual elements always stay artificial in the mise en scene.
Besson uses cold colors, particularly blue (which James Cameron’s T2 mimicked), artificial light, and hard edges to give a rigid, almost metallic feel to the film and an accurate textual feeling of the subject matter. The bright artificially lit scenes where Nikita receives some detailed instructions and training show hope for her, but the irony, which comes later, is her discovery that her life does not belong to her anymore.
The random power of the controlling characters in Nikita’s life (particularly her “boss” named Bob, played by Tcheky Karyo (Addicted to Love, Bad Boys) extinguishes each “positive” aspect of Nikita’s life soon after it is presented. Notice how the contrast in lighting accentuates this point and ask yourself why her boss does these things for her.
Nikita, well played by Parillaud, transforms the role of action hero into a sleek, emotional package as Nikita undergoes an involuntary life transformation due to her checkered past. The opening camera shot shows a road which tracks some street people. The audience gets a personal style of shot from the characters’ point of view, but Point of No Return usually has quicker shots of characters including Nina to keep the audience’s interest, an element of formulaic film style, but Besson allows the audience to get a feel of the environment with longer shots that add more emotion and create emotional moods.
“The Cleaner”, yet another great performance by Jean Reno (The Professional, Godzilla, French Kiss), plays Nikita’s counterpart who enters the plot when “an assignment” is not completed. Reno has all the features to be coded as a character who can complete this type of morbid work. Large enough to dispose of bodies and stoic enough to complete the work on a mental level. This situation eventually shapes the film’s climax where the main characters’ means come to a violent end.
True to the film noir genre, the audience always has a sense of unease, menace and paranoia throughout this masterpiece. You are not expected to condemn or admire Nikita, but you should be able to identify with her rebellion against society as a whole. Nikita’s only connection to “regular” society is her apartment where she deals with the emotional impact of her missions and interacts with people from the “real world.” This element provides more emotional connection with the audience as they make Nikita more relatable.
You get the feeling that Nikita could be living next to you, but might not necessarily feel threatened because of her mostly approachable nature. In the TV series, Nikita takes a while open her door to her neighbor, but eventually does. Nikita’s eyes scan back and forth quickly between the neighbor and other possible threats in the hallway. You see this camera shot from the neighbor’s point of view on a personal level, so again, the audience gets a close emotional connection with the main character.
Nikita’s cold, violent actions do not really reflect her true self and other people’s perceptions of her. She uses this trait to her advantage which saves her life more than once. This element of her character tells you that Nikita stills puts value in her life even though she’s in a situation that warrants her to conform to a certain mold of activity. She attempts to make a new life for herself, the main narrative, which remains in the two American works, though to be fair the TV series has much more time to explore characters’ pasts and Nikita’s personal life and background.
There was also the element of the femme fatale, a standard in the film noir genre.
Nikita as a dangerous woman to her closest superior, who just happens to be male…
- Bob, played by Tcheky Karyo
- Bob, played by Gabriel Byrne (Usual Suspects)
- Roy Dupuis, played Michael Samuel
…but the danger is in physical attraction as well as being a physical threat. Nikita also gives her male superior an appealing escape from the depressing world of following morbid orders and constant danger. The typical femme fatale is a woman who seems to be good, but is really bad because she uses seduces or tricks people for her own motives. This model can be true for Nikita’s mission enemies and antagonists. This model doesn’t fit for the relationship between Nikita and her respective superiors.
In the films, the boyfriend characters, Marco, played by Jean-Hugues Anglade in La Femme Nikita and J.P., played by Dermot Mulroney, in Point of No Return also create interesting challenges to Nikita’s struggle to free herself and have her own life. These characters act as the bridge to the real world.
Nikita’s respective superiors, the Bobs, feel so much emotion for her they’re willing to risk their security by providing Nikita with a chance to have a happy life with her boyfriend. The boyfriends eventually get suspicious and probe Nikita’s life more even jeopardizing her mission as she struggles to protect them. The Point of No Return sequence where Nina sets up a sniper rifle as her boyfriend JP grills her about being unemotionally detached to him, unwilling to share her life with him. Nothing could be further from the truth as the audience sees Nina break down and cry on the other side of the door. JP eventually discovers her secret world by the end of the narrative, the world of ‘lawlessness and guilt’ (interesting to point out that this world is represented by working for the government), which Bob knows about.
As the dialogue between characters explain and drive the narrative, Bob and his knowledge of the system is used to explain more of what is expected of the lead female and her hopeless position. The opening shot of the White House presents a new element of the secret organization working for the government – the lies, deception and special information you’re not supposed to know. The additional involvement of the U.S. government also changes the movie’s ideology by adding a more prominent political element into the narrative. It changes the way the audience looks at Nikita’s world by showing an even stronger power in control compared to La Femme Nikita.
Badham uses many point of view shots in the beginning sequence as Nina accompanies other men who enter a store to steal items. The distorted shots and action indicate the drug induced street world of Nina. She kills right away which also presents some social aspects that seem to blame drugs for Nina’s actions though the audience may also have some sympathy for her condition and struggle to find food to survive. The Hollywood action genre demands ideals and certain elements of the plot change to satisfy the intended audience who drives the narrative change of Point of No Return.
Besson has more creative control as opposed to Hollywood studios and audience expectations who want explosions and action every few minutes in Badham’s version which has a quicker pace including the action sequence where Nikita jumps down a laundry chute, which exists in all three works.
Television Series General Significance
The television series, La Femme Nikita, Peta Wilson plays Nikita, code name “Josephine”, contained 96 episodes and began in January 1997 (Letters from fans helped the show extend its’ life to 8 episodes in season 5, ending in 2001). I remember watching most of them off and on, especially near the end of its’ run. The third season focused a lot on Michael. I rented the first season DVD set (released in 2003) to brush up on what I remembered specifically citing scenes from the first four episodes.
Alberta Watson plays Madeline, Nikita’s female role model for her etiquette and social coach, but doesn’t have a significant relationship with Nikita as the films in the beginning. “No weapon is as powerful as your femininity,” she tells Nikita. Eugene R. Glazer plays Paul Wolfe, head of Section One’s operations. “If she fails, you fail,” he tells Michael Samuel, played by Roy Dupuis, Nikita’s superior who’s surprised to eventually discover there’s more to her than meets the eye. Don Francks plays Walter, the gadget wizard and “dirty old man.” He represented someone who still held on to the ideals that women have certain roles in society, but still respected Nikita. Seymour Birkoff plays computer wizard Matthew Ferguson (later replaced by Jason Birkoff) who pushes the cold technology that Section One uses to achieve their goals.
The series still has the cold style without the blue cinematography in Besson’s film. You see a lot of technology, machines, computer screens (mapped in layouts) and other equipment dominate the characters’ environments.
The open sequence of the first episode has no dialogue and immediately challenges the audience to figure out what’s happening. The audience participation remains high throughout this series creating a more rhetorical mode of this American version of Nikita opposed to Point of No Return.
The non diagetic music as Nikita fights with a man who knives the cop adds emotion to the chaotic visuals of the sequence that changes Nikita’s life. Conventional editing techniques, such as the shot/reverse shot of this sequence, accentuate the violent interaction between characters in this sequence. This sequence gives an essential background about who Nikita was arrested for a crime she didn’t commit, unlike Point of No Return where we see Nina committing crimes with filmmakers blaming drugs for the problem which takes away from the fact that Nikita must adhere to her new world or basically die. Section One owns her now.
The beginning episode of the TV series provides a different reason why Nikita finds herself in a more innocent situation so the audience will identify with her predicament more. The films use more dramatic, harsh themes – “do what we say or you die” certainly gets the point across, but allowing Nikita to have an ideology to help people.
The visuals play an important symbolic role especially when you see Nikita in the Section One’s grasp. You see a white room with Nikita in white clothes symbolizing her purity and innocent that’s about to be changed. Michael does ask about Nikita’s identity before he changes it forever.
Nikita’s vulnerability and emotional openness that make her such an admirable character cause her a lot of distress in this world. At dinner, Michael inquires about her background – why she was street person and how her mom kicked her out; then tells her she has to complete a dangerous mission which turns out to be a cruel test of her abilities as an expendable asset of Section One.
“You don’t want a person, you want a machine,” Nikita tells Michael after the ordeal. Michael does have some emotional attachment to Nikita especially when you see him hide his reaction as they drive away in a limousine.
Unlike the films, Nikita doesn’t kill here – she doesn’t even kill until late in this episode. Nikita won’t even shoot an enemy poses as a bellboy who sets off the alarm jeopardizes Section One’s mission. Ironically, Nikita kills to save Michael who returns the favor in the second episode.
In the second episode of season one, you see Nikita’s protective and motherly side come out (the first episode only showed her protection to the police officer who she was wrongfully accused of killing in the beginning sequence). Nikita is a good-natured person at heart which becomes a weakness for her in the cut throat world of Section One.
This struggle becomes the main point of the series and the films. If the audience feels for Nikita, then they want her to conquer this world and make it better. Nikita’s actions change the entire organization, most directly Michael.
Nikita uses her talents for good and overall betterment of people and never has the intention of destroying any one. Unlike the two films, Nikita doesn’t kill the man in the restaurant a part of her first test. She doesn’t even kill someone until she has no other choice. La Femme Nikita and Point of No Return provided the previous material to make Nikita’s character in the TV series very strong, not something you normally see on television.
Nikita’s past comes to light when an apparent childhood friend recognizes her in the street. A flashback is used to provide visuals of Nikita’s childhood which provides some emotion as well as a logical link as to why Nikita would feel this woman is her childhood friend, Julia. Nikita’s motherly instincts take over as she tells Julia, “I’ll protect you”, which has become a fully realized goal thanks to Nikita’s new skills. Maybe if Nikita had those skills when the street man was killing the police officer, she could have been able to subdue him quicker and save the police officer. Everything happens for a reason, thought tragic in Nikita’s case which makes her such an emotional and admirable character.
Nikita breaks down social barriers and stereotypes by having the opportunity to realize her full potential as a person, even though this opportunity comes to her against her will and she’s constantly manipulated. “Do whatever you have to and you will,” says Nikita. “Nothing can change what’s inside you.” A stark contrast to Julia’s dialogue to a captured Nikita – “We know more about you, then you do yourself.” Julia really intends to kill a Russian diplomat, but Nikita eventually stops Julia with her intuition as she tells Michael “I feel her. She’s here.”
Again, Nikita’s femininity backfires in an embarrassing incident when the diplomat thinks Nikita’s an escort or prostitute for him. Nikita eventually recovers and acts as a liaison for Section One to ease his worries and make him happy. Nikita’s femininity also masks the “dirty work” action sequence. The diplomat goes to use the restroom while Nikita and her counterparts quell an assassination team in a vicious action sequence. The diplomat comes out of the restroom a bit suspicious, but again Nikita gives him a smile and puts him at ease.
At the end of the episode Nikita’s superior Paul always looking down at Nikita as she’s shown in the area near the bottom horizontal half of the screen showing Nikita’s lack of power and danger that he could order her killed at any time.
Nikita infiltrates a group that’s holding Michael’s wife who is surprisingly still alive only to disappear again in a tragic circumstance that adds development to Michael’s character and leaves the door open for a possible relationship with Nikita, but not any time soon. Nikita sees that she and Michael aren’t so different when they believe in a cause. Michael almost jeopardizes the mission because of his kind heart and willingness to save people, namely his wife.
Still, Michael still has a dangerous element because Nikita has to stop Michael from shooting a young man who has knowledge about his wife. Nikita has more control over her emotions, even though she hesitates at times while Michael “can’t just drop it” – a stereotypical, male trait. The man relentlessly looks for a way to even the score and won’t let anyone get in his way.
This episode also builds on the female intuition stereotype that began in the second episode. Michael tells how his wife wanted back-up that he refused on a special mission. His wife was captured on this mission and was believed dead. Michael’s guilt becomes expressed in anger, frustration and violence. Michael can complete Section One’s mission quicker because of these traits, but Nikita is too emotionally invested in helping people – a weakness in this world, but an admirable trait in the real world the audience can relate well to.
Nikita recognizes this weakness but still manages to use it to her advantage. At the end of this episode Nikita tells Michael, “You told me the facts. I want to know how you feel.” She also tells Michael that he has a right to feel anyway he wants. She uses her emotional strengths to help Michael deal with his life the same way she has dealt with her life.
Nikita is assigned to acquire Intel on a man played by Simon MacCorkindale known for helping troubled youth, not much different from the street people in her previous life. He convinces her with talk about growing up on the streets and learning how to take care of himself. Again, her weakness for people to do good hurts her when she finds out he’s running the business to hide his other evil business dealings.
Nikita feels very betrayed because Michael doesn’t reveal helpful information and be honest with her as she has been to him. Michael again risks his livelihood by letting Nikita see more information than she should, but does it in an insensitive way that only hurts her more. Michael lets her in on his interrogation of Skylar
When Nikita gets a tour of the center to help street people, some hard rock non-diegetic music surfaces as well as diegetic elements like police siren sounds provide a stark contrast to the “normal” view of society – a place that’s always associated with turmoil and the outcasts of society.
Many more cinematic elements surface here such as the angled camera shots as Nikita is followed. One shot angles in a similar direction of an escalator as we see Nikita’s follower in the background. Another shot shows the camera parallel with the ground as Nikita hits the deck – a normal action that gets more personalized treatment because the shot and editing with a point of view that shows Nikita’s physical exertion in this action.
Again Nikita also uses her femininity save herself and provide alternatives for herself. She uses the stereotype of women typically taking a long time in the bathroom to her advantage so she can have enough time to plant some bugs underneath a boat, then exits the restroom acting light-headed to erase any suspicion and receives concerned attention from the surrounding males. When she is captured on the boat she uses femininity to get what she really wants to do – escape – by seducing the male guards and revealing her lingerie under her dress.
In the fifth episode, Nikita again infiltrates a suspect’s personal life as Section One uses her background to their advantage. Section One fabricates Nikita’s background to get the wife of a spousal nuclear smuggling team to believe she’s her daughter – Nikita’s most emotionally challenging mission yet as she makes a convincing performance to achieve her mission as well as getting the audience on her side a constant theme of the television series – strong character development.
All three visual works represent an interesting spin on existing female roles and stereotypes including an odd kind of My Fair Lady element where a woman of less social class learns to become a refined lady with etiquette classes and charm and a refined man with weapons and fighting training. The absence of specific diegetic time also helps the audience focus more on Nikita.
Nikita embodies an ideal female protagonist in the action genre able to hold her own against anyone while displaying appealing emotional traits the audience can identify with on a very personal level an appealing combination for a formulaic work like Point of No Return, where dialogue and characters drive the narrative more, which unfortunately did not succeed as La Femme Nikita, which uses visuals and mood to drive the narrative more, or the La Femme Nikita TV series did. The later two works pushed the female action hero into another level now seen in modern works such as Alias.
The actresses playing these roles had a have a lot of talent to display the varied codes and stereotypes at different times, most well displayed by Peta Wilson, mostly because she had the most screen time. The fan response to extend the TV series to five seasons and La Femme Nikita’s popularity has withstood the test of time.
© Michael Siebenaler