Luc Besson is better known these days as the producer of high-octane Euro thrillers in the Taxi and Transporter series, but from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s he was one of the principal exponents of the so-called Cinéma du look, a mini wave of French directors turning out glossy movies that seemed to favour spectacle over story, style over substance and solipsism over social conscience.
They didn’t always find favour with critics, but Besson and his compatriots Jean-Jacques Beineix (maker of Diva and Betty Blue) and Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-neuf) certainly struck a chord with audiences. For a while, their slick tales of alienated young protagonists living on the edge were all the rage, but the mood passed, the wave broke and the three filmmakers appeared to lose their grip on the zeitgeist.
Now there’s an opportunity to take another look at the Cinéma du look and revisit Besson’s directorial heyday with Optimum’s release of seven of his films on Blu-ray. Nikita, Besson’s sleek 1990 thriller starring Anne Parillaud as a Parisian junkie who gets transformed into a chic government assassin, spawned a lame US remake starring Bridget Fonda, Point of No Return, and an even more rubbish cable TV series starring Peta Wilson, La Femme Nikita. More rewardingly, its fantasy figure of a kick-ass heroine surely fed Quentin Tarantino’s geeky imagination. And there’s undoubtedly a trace memory of Nikita in Eliza Dushku’s Echo in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse as well.
Besson’s babe, Parillaud’s Nikita, starts out as a zombie-like punk who gets sentenced to 30-years imprisonment after shooting a cop during a bloody raid on a Paris pharmacy. Instead of locking her in prison, however, a shadowy government agency fakes her death and puts her in a training programme to become a hired killer for the nation.
In Besson’s perverse twist on the Pygmalion myth, Nikita undergoes a total makeover, from feral waif to coolly elegant assassin. Tcheky Karyo’s serenely cynical Bob is her sinister Professor Higgins, who grooms her in the ways of undercover espionage, while Jeanne Moreau’s world-weary Amande coaches her in feminine wiles. After three years, Nikita is given a new identity and set free, to be called upon at regular intervals to kill for her country.
When Nikita goes on her first assignment, brandishing a huge gun while wearing a string of pearls and a figure-hugging little black dress, she is every inch the fantasy sexbomb, yet the naked intensity of Parillaud’s performance gives her surprising depth, exposing the paradoxes at the heart of her character.
Nikita starts out as a callous sociopath, raging violently against the world, but she learns to get in touch with her emotions while being trained to become an unfeeling assassin. She develops a moral dimension as she pursues her amoral profession and rather than becoming inured to killing becomes increasingly squeamish.
By the time Jean Reno’s implacable Victor the Cleaner (the inspiration for Harvey Keitel’s Mr Wolf in Pulp Ficton) rolls in to mop up the grisly fallout from a bungled mission, her disgust with killing is absolute.
Much about Nikita now seems dated, not least Eric Serra’s cheesy synthesised score, and parts of the film drag – the middle section, charting Nikita’s moral and emotional growth through her relationship with supermarket clerk and would-be boat designer Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade, Beatrice Dalle’s frustrated writer lover in Betty Blue), certainly slows things down. Yet when it comes to the action sequences, Besson’s explosive gunplay and visual pyrotechnics still blow the viewer away.
Here are the other films in Optimum’s Luc Besson Collection: The Last Battle (1983) Besson’s debut feature film is a wordless sci-fi drama set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a lone warrior (played by Pierre Jolivet) is one of a handful of survivors struggling to stay alive amid the rubble of civilisation. Look out for Besson stalwart Jean Reno in his first role for the director. Subway (1985) Christopher Lambert is the bleached-blond, spiky-haired hero of this offbeat thriller, playing a safe-blower who flees with some stolen papers into the Paris Metro, where he finds his way into an underworld of maintenance tunnels frequented by a bizarre community of fellow outcasts and fugitives. The Big Blue (1988) Reno and Jean-Marc Barr play childhood friends who become deep-sea-diving rivals in this cult romantic drama inspired by Besson’s first love – the son of diving instructors, he spent his childhood travelling around the world and set his heart on becoming a marine biologist until a diving accident made him change tack. Atlantis (1991) Besson continued his exploration of the deep with this meditative documentary revealing the richness of marine life around the globe, from the Galapagos Islands and the Seychelles to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Léon (1995) Besson’s first English-language film gave Reno his first starring role, playing a professional hit-man who trains Natalie Portman’s 12-year-old orphan in the art of killing so she can seek revenge for the murder of her family. This is the first UK release of the director’s cut. Angel-A (2005) Filmed in lustrous black and white, this offbeat fantasy was Besson’s Gallic version of It’s a Wonderful Life. Jamel Debbouze, the put-upon greengrocer’s assistant from Amélie, plays a suicidal Parisian whose life turns around after he encounters his guardian angel, a gorgeous enigmatic blonde – played by Danish supermodel Rie Rasmussen.