My Favourite Film of 1990.

Film  Of the various seminars I attended during my MA film studies course, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary French Cinema was the weekly two hours I was least comfortable with. Not because of the content, we saw many excellent films many of which aren't generally available in the UK and which I'd really love to revisit, especially Place Vendôme, Nicole Garcia's thriller about diamond merchants starring Catherine Deneuve. But because of the approach to discourse which was to apply various critical perspectives to the work, which I found extremely difficult in open discussion having been unable to absorb, much less understand whatever it was we'd been asked to read that week.

Frequently I'd simply sit listening which as anyone who's met me will know isn't my usual pose. But this was the one spot when the gap between my own education and my fellow students, most of whom were on high qualification language or literature courses really showed. Many of them were working from knowledge already gained at undergraduate level and between the commuting the college from Liverpool and all the other courses and essays I had to write, there wasn't really time to catch-up on the necessary Freud and Lacan.  This struggle really showed in my writing and some of my lowest marks were for these essays.

On the upside I did get to write about some cherished films, of which Nikita is an example.  After seeing Leon at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds one night, I went straight the university library to find more of Luc Besson's work and the only thing they had in was the VHS Artificial Eye of this which I must have watched on one of the 14" monitors in the library.  At home, my main copy was an off-air recording from Channel 4 (I think) which I revisited on and off for a while until I eventually bought the dvd when I realised I needed a decent copy to study from (probably from since it's not in my order history at Amazon) (which never forgets).

In truth, I'm not sure that I've watched it since, one of the films I haven't been able to get back to after having studied them intensely for the purposes of academia.  Magnolia's another and you've seen what happened to Love Actually.  As you'll see if you bother to read the ensuing text which merited just 60% when it was submitted, I generally had to pick it apart, especially in its presentation of the central character.  Reading through now I don't know that I still agree with myself.  Does the film undermine Nikita's right to be considered a strong female figure because she appears tomboyish or is disguised as male at various junctures?

As the debacles surrounding films with female protagonists this year has demonstrated, we seem to be in the position that if a woman is presented as being "too feminine" she's not feminist enough for some people but if my essay's correct, she shouldn't be "too masculine" either.  My guess is that we have to approach this on a case by case basis and depending on the narrative requirements of the film and that we have to take those into consideration if the film makers are making an effort to tell a woman's story for a change in genres which are otherwise generally dominated by men.  Anyway, have fun with some of the punctuation....

To what extent does Nikita subvert or comply with representations of gender in the action movie genre?

Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990) is the story of a young drug addict who murders a cop at the end of a gun battle in a chemists, but instead of serving a prison term is co-opted into a state programme which trains her to become an assassin. Often considered to be a modern day Pygmalion story or even ‘a French action remake of My Fair Lady (1964)’ (Hughes & Williams, 2001:163), it is an example of the ‘cinéma du look’, a filmmaking movement prevalent in the late 1980s which was ‘preoccupied with striking stylistic effects’ with ‘improbable plots usually based on permutations of the urban thriller genre’ (Smith, 2001:39).

On release and since, the titular character has often been presented as an example of a strong female role model within a story of female empowerment, subverting the expectations of a male lead at the centre of an action film. As Susan Hayward describes, ‘much of the female audience of Nikita perceive the central character positively and read her story as a trajectory towards freedom’ (Hayward, 1998: 110). Problematically that disregards the roles played in the film by the three central male characters, Bob, Marco and Victor the Cleaner as well as the only other female character Amande. The following report will attempt to understand whether the film subverts expectations of gender roles within action films or confirms them.

Nikita appears central to the action, placing her within the pantheon of such feminist icons as Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley, and the main characters in Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991). But Yvonne Tasker highlights that the latter, ‘far from being about empowering women, in this view the image of women-with-guns is considered to be one which renders the protagonists symbolically male’ (Tasker, 2002:135). In none of these films are such characters allowed to present an image of femininity. Compare Linda Hamilton’s appearance as Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) and then Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992) and it is clear that both the actress and the filmmakers assumed that she needed to pump up in order to present a credible action character.

The foregrounding of Nikita’s masculinity begins in the opening moments of Besson’s film. As four figures drag themselves through the darkened streets it is not entirely clear that one of them is a woman. The character has a mass of hair, jacket and Doc Martins and is not until later when approached by the cop that it is even close to certain which gender she is. Similar to Annie in Jan De Bont’s Speed (1994) she in a ‘“femme tomboy” guise, with the combination of butch/femme elements found in high street fashion’ (Tasker, 1998:78). The character is ‘coded as male, through her androgynous name and appearance and her monosyllabic, abusive and violent behaviour’ (Austin, 1996:130). The director shot the film in sequence, so that the actress who portrays Nikita, Anna Parillaud, ‘could let herself go completely as the punk’ (Hayward, 2000:298). This image continues throughout much of the first half of the film and the character almost blends in with what appears to be an almost all male environment (the only females to appear are Amande and a woman glimpsed during a lunch scene).

Nikita is unable to comprehend the idea of becoming feminine when she visits Amande for her first lesson. Casting Jeanne Moreau, a renowned French beauty, in the role as her mentor makes the contrast all the more vivid. As the character sits with her face in the mirror and her mentor places the wig on her head it is an uncomfortable image. She hardly registers her attention as Amande presents her advice: “Becoming man’s perfect complement … a woman.” When asked to smile, her face becomes crooked; the implication is that this isn’t an expression her face has had to use often during her presumably difficult life, but within the context of a beauty class it suggests that she has never tried to be a woman before. The scene would appear to represent the first in what would be a series of lessons leading up to her transformation, but it is significant the spectator is present for at a time when she is at her most androgynous.

Underlining her masculinity throughout the film, her strength is enforced through the use of technology. As Tasker explains within ‘action narratives, access to technologies such as cars and guns (traditional symbols of power) represent means of empowerment. These technologies are also intimately bound up with images of the masculine’ (Tasker, 2002:139). Nikita ‘is reborn into an all-male world of technology, electronic mass media and surveillance’ (Hayward, 2000:307). Unlike many action heroes, Nikita does not engage in hand-to-hand combat. Throughout the film, whenever she is required to take a violent action a gun is required. The images are particularly ‘phallic’ – they help to enforce a masculinity she is not able to exude when presenting her femininity. Hayward points to the assassination scene in Venice when Nikita is required to murder another woman using the rifle, suggesting that ‘the probe used by Nikita (the telescopic lens on the rifle with its camera-eye properties) is a displaced male probe’ (Hayward, 1998: 117). The assassin is metaphorically given that which she does not have in order to carry out her mission. Lucy Mazdon notes that this approach is unusual in French cinema, that ‘not only is there no real depiction of ‘women with guns’ […] roles for woman in France since the 1980s have been characterised by an increasing emphasis on youthful beauty and/or an overt femininity’ (Mazdon, 2000:115).

Despite her outward appearance, Nikita does not suddenly become female. She remains someone who is ‘symbolically male’ (Tasker, 2002:135) – with a ‘womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed’ (Doane, 1991: 765). Her training has presented her with the ability to become female when required. Throughout the film, Nikita oscillates between this and her original image. The former predominantly appears when she is directly working for the state, when she becomes ‘Joséphine’. An example of this occurs during her first mission, when called to the hotel to deliver the bugged tray. Before entering the service rooms, the camera focuses on her body and she is still wearing camouflage pattern tights and a grey business jacket, symbolically male clothes. After gaining entrance to the room by giving her codename, she is given the maids outfit. Nikita is literally substituting one appearance for another in order to carry out her mission.

Under these circumstance, since Nikita is given the ability to be the subject of the male gaze, it may be that she is actually fulfilling a similar role to a 'male figure in the contemporary action picture (who) controls the action at the same time as he is offered up to the audience as a sexual spectacle' (Tasker, 2002:16). Given the iconography of the film poster, which features Nikita with a short-cropped hair, little black dress and revolver alongside the tag line ‘A New Kind of Lethal Weapon’, it is not surprising that a prospective viewer could reach this conclusion. The difficulty with that approach, however, is that far from being in control of the action, throughout the film, in almost every scene, none of her decisions are motivated by her own choice. As Hayward explains ‘if we unpack the presentation of Nikita it becomes difficult to read her trajectory positively […] there seems to be a gap between representation and perception’, including as has already been described ‘the female body as a displaced figure of masculinity’ (Hayward, 1998:110-111). Viewing the film more closely reveals that, in fact, men are still in control of the narrative, in keeping with Ginette Vincendeau’s suggestion that ‘in French cinema it is generally men who hold power’ (Vincendeau, 1993:158). A more traditional reading needs to be employed.

One of the frequently demonstrated traits of the action film is that the male lead will rebel against the system. A repeated cliché, is when a cop is advised to leave a criminal investigation by their superior but carries on regardless, usually completing the mission with a commendation or as in Jim Cameron’s True Lies (1994) when ‘Schwarzenegger’s government operative actually has to disobey orders to get the job done’ (Keller, 2001:84). Nikita is unable to transgress in this fashion, and whenever she appears to be rebelling successfully it is either treated as ineffective or a joke and is always punished. When she attempts to break out of The Centre using Bob as a hostage, there is a lateral tracking shot of their feet – Bob is striding to the destination whereas Nikita’s are being dragged along. The music is ‘a light, upbeat major theme, detracting from the seriousness and urgency of the scene, which only becomes minor and darker-sounding when it is apparent her plan will not work (MacRory, 1999:59). His face has the expression of someone who is in control and it comes as no surprise when he wrestles the gun from her and shoots her in the leg.

In these different gender roles (which still predominate within the action genre) it is the strong male figure at the centre of a narrative. Laura Mulvey (paraphrased by Yvonne Tasker) suggests this as a ‘division of labour […] in which the male figure advances the narrative whilst “woman” functions as spectacle’ (Tasker, 2002: 16). Amber Mendez, Maria Conchita Alonso’s character in The Running Man (1987) who despite a sharp wit, is by the end of the film dressed in spandex and must be rescued from certain doom by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character Ben Richards. Even in films in which the female has much action potential the male protagonist will always be the one to beat the threat. Perhaps the most ludicrous of example of this would be the appearance of Michelle Yeoh, a well respected Asian action star, in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) who even after choreographing her own action sequence still plays second fiddle to the secret agent in the dénouement. ‘Bond Girls’ are as important an element as the exciting gadgets, villain and exotic locations and this proved to be the case again.

When Nikita shoots the cop it could be argued that her action moves the plot along. However the events that lead up to the moment are a result of her colleagues in crime, Zap, Rico and Coyotte. In Nikita, the majority of the different facets of the expected modes of the male action hero are present. This is the only scene marking the appearance of the male body built muscular physique so prevalent in the action film genre. Alison Smith highlights that ‘when we do at last see them closely, they are shown at a low-angle, which […] creates a sense of menace’ (Smith, 2001:29). Of the three, Rico is closest to the stereotype; during the gun battle following the botched robbery, he is presented bare-chested, guns outstretched, shouting his name and trying to fulfil a leadership role. Nikita spends her time hidden under the counter, waiting for her friends to steal her drugs. Killing the policeman is the last gasp of the battle and decreases for the first time the character’s freedom.

A number of commentators argue that Nikita is child-like and examples of this analogy tend to begin here. Hayward characterises Nikita’s demeanour underneath the counter as ‘foetus-like’ and asks for more much like a youngster would to her mother (Hayward, 2000:299). She is ‘the naughty, subversive child who out hits the karate teacher, attempts to run away, shouts abuse, but then, counter to type, performs a ballet dance’ (Hayward, 2000:300). The implication here and in other sources is that part of Nikita’s oppression stems from a search for a parental structure. Smith suggests the judge during her trial is with ‘his dark clothes, his position, his stern face and discreet stubble […] a phallic father figure and a representation of authority’ (Smith, 2001:20). The character calls out to her mother twice whilst the knock out injection is administered. The man who eventually becomes the father figure and helps Nikita develop to maturity is Bob.

Bob is the character who leads the action. It is certainly not his voice on the end of the telephone when Joséphine is activated, though it is he that she reports to at the end of each mission for good or ill. He requires others to do his bidding, although it is worth mentioning that total control does not rest with him. He too has a manager to which he must answer and Smith strikes a parallel between their dynamic and that which he has with Nikita: ‘In a sense this superior acts as Bob’s conscience in the same way that Bob gradually appears to gain status as Nikita’s ‘conscience’, reproaching him for indulging in the pleasure of a presence that he cannot discipline’ (Smith, 2001:32). The difference is that he has the facility to transgress; when Nikita has adolescently bitten the ear off her Judo instructor and dances to Mozart his look through the window is one of humour and pride.

Extrapolating Bob as the father figure is problematical since their relationship though ambiguous, certainly has a romantic dimension. After Nikita fights her way out for the restaurant and returns to her room, when she attacks him their positioning on the floor has sexual overtones. The moment is ‘highly sexualised (by the film, not by the characters) and ends in a kiss; she is the initiator both of the violence and of the sexuality but his response is decidedly positive’ (Mazdon, 2000:37). She is unable to see him in those terms – when she kisses him it is for the last time. Although Nikita says that she understands his ‘sadistic games’ it is difficult to see his role as anything other than protector; from their first meeting in which he drags the table across the room to meet her on the bed, everything he does is to keep her safe. All of the negative information she hears (for example, when he advises her that she has two weeks to improve or live) is filtered through him, making it acceptable.

Nikitas’s retraining explicitly and consistently takes the form of what the French call éducation, a word closer in meaning to the English upbringing than to its own exact cognate, since it refers to a specifically parental right; (they) clear function as educators in the French sense, that is, as substitute parents (Durham, 1998:176).

That said, his intentions are not entirely sympathetic. Seeing Nikita in childish terms, she ‘is reborn into the family of the State, (and) it is clear that there is only one true parent, the father as embodied by Bob. And we see Nikita being shaped, tamed and reformulated by him’ (Heywood, 1998:160).

One trait of action orientated female role is a requirement to ‘explain away the actions of the heroine and to reassert her femininity’ (Tasker, 2002:20), in other words to present a reason why a woman would break free of their usual role as romantic interest in order to operate as the ‘hero’, ‘a common device has the heroine explicitly taking over her father’s role after his untimely death’ (Tasker, 2002:20). In common with many of Luc Besson’s characters, Nikita lacks a history, nothing about Nikita is real, and ‘she is the fictionalized commodity of the state’. (Hayward, 2000:301) The audience only sees and hears scraps of information -- the nostalgic moment when she sees her friend Titi on the photograph of her ‘funeral’, asking for her mother prior to her injection and that she can handle a gun. When Bob visits her and presents a story from her childhood over the dinner table, he ‘becomes, literally, her author’ (Smith, 2001:33) and he his presence reminds her that he has reshaped her into the person who embraces Marco.

This reshaping is within and without. It is Bob’s bidding that Nikita is presented with the ability to become female. As has been shown, Nikita is not comfortable with the process of learning. The turning point happens when Bob advises her over cake that she must change or face execution that she embraces the programme. Significantly, during that scene Bob removes her shoes and jacket as though he is removing her claim to her past self with him. When with the help of Amande, she is re-moulding her into a new form, it is done reluctantly – Nikita does not have a choice in the matter. Indeed her femininity is not a case of re-enforcing her natural state; Nikita actually embodies ‘the male construction of the femme fatale’ (Hayward, 1998:114). During the restaurant scene, as Bob ‘gifts’ the revolver he is completing the task of remaking her. It is worth noting that in the Hollywood remake, John Badham’s Point of No Return (1993), her counterpart Maggie’s transformation presented in far less gradual terms – in one shot she walks up a spiral staircase with one appearance and is revealed in her evening dress stepping downwards in the other. The transformation seems more complete and less ambiguous.

Hayward likens her to a cyborg – ‘a hybrid of machine (the weaponry of death) and organism (the female body), a creature of fiction and social reality’ (Hayward, 1998:115), ‘she is trained not only in computing, martial arts and target practice, but also in the construction of a new and ‘feminine’ identity (Austin, 1996: 130). Nikita even has new names selected for her and their connotations -- the virginal Marie or erotic Joséphine -- demonstrates a forced shift into femininity. In the final reveal, as Nikita sits at the practice table, the spectator views her new appearance through the eyes of Bob and the scene is problematic because although Amande aided the transformation, Nikita is his ‘creation’, the implication being that he is surveying his handy work as much as enjoying her new female identity.

In the final reel of the film, Nikita’s destiny is passed to Victor the cleaner. It is in these scenes that the standard gender roles of the action film reassert themselves: ‘Nikita is no longer the cool assassin, she is merely Victor’s sidekick’ with the cleaner being ‘a ludicrous parody of the macho hit man of convention’ (Austin, 1996:131). He is the man of action, completing a mission that Nikita is not able to. Although Bob apparently gives her control, she is still very much under the eye of the State, ‘she is unable to independently arrive at the appropriate result; the Organisation will always know more than she does’ (Smith, 2001:35).

Victor represents the person that the Organisation would require her to be in order to work within their guidelines, emotionless and charisma free. If Nikita is a cyborg, still capable of some humanity, Victor is ‘a programmed robot, unable to think independently, unable to react to what he is doing either in revolt of enjoyment […] entirely subordinate to the immediate needs of the organisation’ (Smith 2001:35). Their differences could not be starkly drawn than when they stand face to face in the final shoot out. Nikita is dressed as the ambassador and they are almost a mirror image of one another – except that she is crying and imploring for the killing to stop, as Victor looks on not able to comprehend.

An assumption could be that within gender opposite reading of the film using the traditional tropes of the action genre, Marco is in the position of romantic interest usually associated with a female. As Tasker relates such roles ‘provide little for the actress to do but confirm the hero’s heterosexuality’ (Tasker, 2002:15). Like those male action stars, Marco’s presence allows Nikita to present a more vulnerable state often in direct contrast to the person she has to be elsewhere. After the assassination scene in Venice, Nikita meets Bob in a café. She appears as the model of controlled womanhood, all dress and large white floppy hat as though she is parodying his expectation of who he wants her to be (she even says: ‘I know you and your sadistic games.’) In the ensuing conversation her face is nearly emotionless, accepting the mission whilst offering barbs. In the next scene, she sits on a couch with fizzy hair and shirted, smoking a cigarette and contemplating the next move. Marco appears carrying a large bouquet of flowers and she laughs – it is a spontaneous gesture, completely natural. The audience is once again able to see a sympathetic side to the character.

Marco’s presence also demonstrates Nikita’s inability to be both romantic and powerful concurrently. This limitation is underlined by Tasker as being a trait of many action heroines, giving the example of Julia Nickson’s character Co Bao in the film Rambo who is killed just after her relationship with the titular hero ‘shifts from that of comrades-in-arms to romance’ (Tasker, 2002:26), effectively it is made clear that ‘the two roles are incompatible’ (Tasker, 2002:26). There is a key moment during the trip to Venice. Nikita and Marco return to their hotel room after the gondola tour and they are in amorous mood, Nikita even calling room surface because she jokes she gets hungry after sex. That mood is broken when the phone rings and an operative says the code word ‘Josephine’ signalling the start of the unexpected mission. Marco is surprised by her changed emotion as she curtly disappears into the bathroom. As the scene progresses, Nikita follows the mission orders as Marco on the other side of the door talks about the future they may have together. The wall between them is a physical and metaphoric divide between Nikita’s romantic life and her work as an assassin. The two must remain separate. ‘If the film combines the macho thriller with ‘feminised’ romance, it is always the former which wins out’ (Austin, 1996:131).

The dénouement, in which Nikita is forced to disguise herself as a man in order to complete her mission, paradoxically confirms that she is not fulfilling the traditionally male role in the film. The difficulty is that because of the numerous personalities that are being impressed upon her, she is unable to maintain the pretence. Once she enters the embassy, the security guard can see the difference through the camera and the alarm is called. This is because she is attempting to repress her female identity in order to masquerade as the male, something Hayward sees as an impossibility: ‘She cannot make herself fetish, nor can she make herself phallus. She cannot possibly, therefore, cross-dress convincingly’ (Hayward, 2000: 304).

When Nikita disappears, it does not as some might argue, offer her the chance for freedom. In leaving, she acknowledges the incongruity between the identities which have been given to her by the Organisation and Marco which allow her to function within each of their societies and the person that she is, in other words be accepted without ‘losing the radical unconventionality, which is effectively her identity’ (Smith, 2001:39). For the film to be a story of female empowerment, Nikita would have had the ability to use her own nature to change the Organisation or at the very least to work within her own limits – she leaves since this is not possible. Hayward’s assertion is that because Nikita does not re-affirm the difference with the male because rather than being submissive she is transgressive she must disappear because ‘she threatens the very thing that secures masculinity’ (Hayward, 1998:114).

Nikita is a film of ambiguities both in relation to the gender roles of characters and the intentions of the filmmakers. As has been demonstrated, what would initially appear to be a feminist story of female empowerment that subverts the expected positions of the male and female within the action movie genre, actually confirms them. Nikita maybe a displaced figure of masculinity, however by highlighting her femininity, her role as the motivator of her story cannot be maintained.


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Hayward, Susan. 2000. Recycling Woman and the Postmodern Aesthetic: Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990). In. French Film: Texts and Contexts. Second Edition. Edited by Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau. Routledge, London.

Hughes, Alex and James S Williams. 2001. Gender and French Cinema. Berg, Oxford.

Mazdon, Lucy. 2000. Encore Hollywood: Remaking French Cinema. BFI, London.

MacRory, Pauline. 1999. Excusing the violence of Hollywood women: music in Nikita and Point of No Return. In. Screen 40:1. Spring.

Tasker, Yvonne. 2002. Spectacular bodies: gender, genre, and the action cinema. Routledge, London.

Tasker, Yvonne. 1998. Working girls : gender and sexuality in popular cinema. Routledge, London.

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My Fair Lady. 1964. Production: Warner Bros. 170 mins. Directed by George Cukor.

Nikita. 1990. Production: Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica, Gaumont, Les Films du Loup. 115 mins. Directed by Luc Besson.

Speed. 1994. Production: 20th Century Fox. 116 mins. Directed by Jan De Bont.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day. 1992. Production: Carolco Pictures Inc., Le Studio Canal+, Lightstorm Entertainment, Pacific Western. 137 mins. Directed by Jim Cameron

The Running Man. 1987. Production: Braveworld Productions, Home Box Office (HBO), J&M Entertainment, Keith Barish Productions, TAFT Entertainment Pictures. 101 mins. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser.

The Terminator. 1984. Production: Hemdale Film Corporation, Cinema 84, Euro Film Fund, Pacific Western. 108 mins. Directed by Jim Cameron

Thelma and Louise. 1991. Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Pathé Entertainment. 129 mins. Directed by Ridley Scott.

Tomorrow Never Dies. 1997. Production: Danjaq Productions, Eon Productions Ltd., United Artists. 119 mins. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode.

True Lies. 1994. Production: 20th Century Fox, Lightstorm Entertainment. 144 mins. Directed by Jim Cameron.

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