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‘La Femme Nikita’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 04, 1991

Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita" is like a James Bond movie crossed with a Euro-disco production of "Pygmalion." The Eliza Doolittle in this case is a junkie street waif in punk regalia who runs with a gang of desperate and far-from-bright dopers who get caught one night breaking into a drugstore. A gunfight ensues in which all the other gang members and a couple of policemen are killed. Only the beautiful Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is left, sitting on the floor, plugged into her Walkman, oblivious to the bullets whizzing past her head.

Besson -- who also wrote the script -- is a pop sensualist, interested only in the style and caress of his images. He's concerned only with surfaces, with anything that a candy-colored light can be bounced off of. What he likes about Nikita, you imagine, is her blankness; it gives him a clean canvas to work over.

There's a look of dangerous vacancy in Nikita's eyes; at first glance, it appears she might be brain-damaged, a catatonic punk Barbie doll in ripped fish-net stockings. Actually, she's a kind of urban wild child. Morality is a luxury far beyond Nikita's means. All she knows is what she's picked up from the streets -- gutter smarts, basically, which boils down to the survival of the most savage. Her years of scavenging have given her certain valuable skills, though, which haven't gone unnoticed by a special branch of the government specializing in political assassinations, and after her trial she is given a choice: She can either accept the death penalty or become a trained government killer.

It's an easy choice to make, but a tough one to live with. Essentially it means that she has to be rebuilt from the ground up, and roughly the first half of the film deals with her transformation into a sophisticated, attractive and soullessly efficient killing machine. In this she has two Henry Higginses. The first -- an agent named Bob (Tcheky Karyo) -- instructs her in the art of spying, in weaponry, strategy, self-defense and general education. The second, Amande (Jeanne Moreau), instructs her in the womanly arts -- how to dress smartly and make up her face, how to order a meal at an expensive restaurant, how to look and act the part of a wealthy, cultured lady of the world.

This first part of the film is more compelling than the second, because we get more of Nikita's rebelliousness, her gritty anger at her programmers. Her relationship with Bob, though, doesn't have enough levels to it. He's a manipulator, but it's hard to see if he gets any pleasure out of his triumphs over her will. He's too cool a spirit for their scenes together to have much of a charge to them, either erotically or psychologically. The tensions between them just hang there, unresolved.

What we have in Nikita's case is a successful operation in which the patient dies. In the film's second half, all her demons have been put to sleep, but because there's very little satisfaction seeing this wild spirit broken, our involvement is broken too. As an actress, Parillaud is expressive but rather mundane. She's best at playing sullen, but there are so many French actresses who specialize in this particular talent -- the French have mastered the apathetic pout -- that she seems generic.

This may have been just what Besson was looking for -- that and her way with Lycra. He seems to like playing off the generic, though he probably thinks of it as working with the mythic, the classic. His sense of the mythic, though, is too impersonal to strike any deeper chords. He can give a flow and rhythm to his movies, even give them a certain voluptuousness, a sexy attitude, but that's it. He has a facility for the medium, but no real talent for it.

"La Femme Nikita" is rated R and contains violence, drug use and some nudity.

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