Monday, February 22, 2010

France: La Femme Nikita (Nikita); 1990; directed by Luc Besson

Following a disastrous attempt at a drugstore robbery, strung out druggie Nikita is sentenced to death for killing a police officer. However, instead of being killed, the chaotically violent young woman is officially labeled dead and sent off to be trained as a government assassin and spy. “Uncle Bob,” who comes to have an interesting sort of fondness for her, saw the potential in Nikita so long as her outbursts of aggressive wildness could be controlled and channeled into a useful outlet. This observation saved her.

Nikita undergoes her training at a top-secret facility, both in fighting and in matters of femininity. Once she has proven herself in her first major mission—at a high-class restaurant, deliberately set up to force her to use her skills and resourcefulness to escape—Nikita must re-enter the world as an apparently average person. By that point, her humanity is all too clear, and she is already a highly sympathetic character. As she fixes up her new apartment and commences her new life as a supposed nurse, we can see her transformation into a much better-adjusted person. Nikita falls in love with Marco, a supermarket cashier with nautical dreams, who moves in with her and tolerates her secretiveness regarding her past.

Of course, every time Nikita settles too comfortably into this newfound happiness, that past returns in the form of a phone call, directing her on missions of increasing risk and difficulty. “Uncle Bob’s” gift to the couple of a Venice vacation is merely a setup for one of these, and Nikita must hide everything from Marco, aiming a gun through the bathroom window while he tries to hold a sincere conversation with her.

The climax arrives with the announcement of the embassy mission. Their password is changed to something unknown, and a “cleaner” is sent in, determined to finish the mission at any cost. Ultimately, Nikita succeeds in obtaining the necessary materials, though much suspenseful action and high-speed danger ensues first. Meanwhile, Marco has long since discovered the reason behind Nikita’s secrecy and now has to deal with losing his love. He is paid a visit by her “uncle,” who’s concerned that she must be tracked down. Marco, however, is able to hand over what he requires. He then implores him to leave Nikita alone, reasoning that she has taken more than enough lives for them by now to repay her debt. This logic seems to satisfy Bob, who should surely be well disposed to the notion of freeing her.

 While certainly an exciting, entertaining and fast-paced thriller, “Nikita” is more than that. This intelligent and very well-constructed movie is something of a study of the main character’s abnormally fascinating psyche. Nikita’s initial disturbances and issues are demonstrated outwardly when she lashes out in displays of extremely antisocial behavior. As the plot progresses she is given a second chance at life, and by the end, one can conclude that despite everything she has been through, she has probably been cured of all that at last.

At its beginning, “Point of No Return” honestly seemed hardly worthwhile, like a rushed rehashing of the events in “Nikita.” Eventually it does diverge more significantly from its source and has its own merits, but on the whole, the one thing I can say that I rather preferred in the remake over Besson’s quite brilliant original is the elaboration on the ending. To see her walking away in the rain as she’s declared dead for a second time really helps you to literally feel her sense of freedom from what was essentially ownership. Though it’s bittersweet, she is once again being reborn out of a life of violence--and this time, she owns herself again. So that was a nice bit of semi-hopeful closure. On the other hand, Besson’s femme fatale seemed a much more compassionate type of character than the one portrayed by Bridget Fonda.

I personally liked “La Femme Nikita” very much. It brings to mind other, later movies featuring the “beautiful but deadly female warrior” archetype, such as “Kill Bill,” in which the Bride is thwarted in her attempt to escape the role of assassin and lead a “normal,” peaceful life of personal fulfillment. While it appears impossible for them to inhabit both roles of their double lives, she—like Nikita—does emerge as a victorious survivor. As a character, Nikita was played in an often delightfully eccentric manner, almost like a dangerous, mercurial and uninhibited child. At times she recalled, for me, Allison the ‘basket case’ from “The Breakfast Club.”

Everything from the excellent score to the cinematographic “look”of this movie (courtesy of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast) suited it perfectly. During the first half and much of the second, the predominantly low-key, bluish lighting and color palette leant the ideal threatening, ‘underground’ atmosphere. Whenever it brightened, the contrast served to juxtapose the two sides of Nikita’s life and personality—dark versus light. Sets, camera movements, etc. also heighten the suspense and drama of her world. In my view, “Nikita” is most deserving of its status among Besson’s most resounding international hits.

France is an important country to discuss in any film class because its own Lumiere brothers are credited with having given birth to cinema itself through showings of their documentary (‘reality’) films in the 1890s. Following them came Georges Melies, whose films such as "A Trip to the Moon" were, conversely, imaginative flights of fantasy utilizing elaborate sets. By the late 1920s, Abel Gance was being even more experimental with various innovative film techniques, resulting in products such as his epic "Napoleon," about the famous Emperor.

Here is a list of some other French films I would recommend, ranging from the 1930s to the past decade:

  • Delicatessen (1991)-Director: Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  • Jules et Jim (1962)-Director: Francois Truffaut
  • The Rules of the Game [La Regle du jeu] (1939)-Director: Jean Renoir
  • A Very Long Engagement [Un long dimanche de fiançailles] (2004)-Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  • Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg] (1964)-Director: Jacques Demy 
  • Le salaire de la peur [The Wages of Fear] (1953)-Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
  • Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain [The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain] (2001)-Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  • 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her [2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle] (1967)-Director: Jean-Luc Godard
  • L'Enfant Sauvage [The Wild Child] (1970)-Director: Francois Truffaut
  • La Belle et la Bete [Beauty & the Beast] (1946)-Director: Jean Cocteau
  • Indochine (1992)-Director: Régis Wargnier
  • Baxter (1989)-Director: Jérôme Boivin

Spain: Bad Education (La mala educación); 2004; directed by Pedro Almodovar

This film’s plot starts out straightforward enough. Enrique is a temporarily struggling young filmmaker who receives a surprise visit from an old friend whom he does not physically recognize. This, we later learn, is significant. Ignacio, who now wishes to be known as Angel, is in turn a struggling young actor, and has come to see his old friend bearing a script he has written, in which he wants to play a specific role (‘Zahara.’) The script reveals secrets of the two men’s past: They became friends at a Catholic boarding school and began to discover sexuality in one another’s company. Ignacio was, however, lusted after by the priest, Father Manolo. Upon finding the two boys locked in a stall together one night, simply because they could not sleep and feared being caught out of bed, Manolo took the opportunity to expel Enrique, despite promising Ignacio otherwise when the boy “sold himself” to him.

Years later, Ignacio returns to Manolo’s life, disguised as his own sister, blackmailing the priest with his threats of publishing the tale of what happened during his childhood. Manolo pretends not to feel threatened but is not fooled by the disguise. Still later, we see Ignacio, aka Angel, re-involving himself in Enrique’s life. However, things take an enormous twist when the suspicious Enrique visits Ignacio’s mother and discovers that Ignacio has, in fact, been dead for years. Father Manolo, now called Mr. Berenguer, observes the shooting of the sad and dramatic climax of “Ignacio”’s and Enrique’s ultimately successful film, in which Zahara is killed while issuing a threat in exactly the same manner Ignacio had. We begin to gather why “Angel” had been so intent on playing that role; it is that of his dead brother, and Zahara happened to be Ignacio’s identity the last time he saw Enrique, passed out on a motel bed.

He then reveals to Enrique the entire story, explaining who this current “Ignacio/Angel” really is and why he was unrecognizable. As it now turns out, Ignacio’s brother Juan is the one who’s been assuming his identity all along and finally publicizing their story. Ignacio had become a transsexual and heroin addict as an adult, and waited endlessly for large sums of money from Manolo. Meanwhile, Juan and Ignacio’s former instructor had become infatuated with each other. The Father spent a lot of time with the brothers, but when he was alone in Ignacio’s apartment with Juan, they engaged in their intimate relationship. Finally, the two decided that they could never get on with their life as long as Ignacio was alive, and Juan gave Berenguer a deadly dosage to deliver to his brother in place of his usual drugs. Ignacio then shot up and fell dead onto his typewriter.

The two got away with the murder, but did not remain together, allowing Juan to eventually decide to come back in his brother’s place (the movie’s starting point.)  This “working backwards” structure essentially makes the story a mystery. The complex truth is hidden until certain revelations occur for Enrique and the audience. In the end, much is still unknown or uncertain. One can assume that the enigmatic Juan, who has multiple faces and goes by different names at different times, must have experienced guilt over the murder of his brother and came back to finish getting revenge. What started as a fairly simple and easily followed story grew into a more difficult puzzle, the challenge increased through the use of different actors in the same roles and many jumps back and forth through time.

One of the film’s most prominent themes is, obviously, sexuality—but mainly in a physical sense. Despite the steamy relationship between Juan and Manolo, and the definite tension between Enrique and both brothers, no real love story developed here. Ignacio may have had feelings for Enrique, and vice versa, but if so, little ever came of them. Mostly there was pure physical attraction and desire. Drug addiction factored in as well.

 Another important theme to pick up on is the abuse of innocent children by authority figures, entrusted by families with the care and education of their kids. Many would assume a priest, or any holy man, to be a model of goodness and purity. Alas, this “loosely autobiographical” movie borrows that plot element from well known real-life occurrences. Even before being killed, Ignacio believed that Manolo had ruined his life and was determined to make the child molester pay. Perhaps remorse and a feeling of being haunted by his past actions drove Manolo to finally confess the truth. The “movie-scene-within-a-movie-scene” created by “The Visit” was reminiscent of the “play within a play” scene from “Hamlet.” Seeing it acted out, even though it wasn’t the precise manner of Ignacio’s death, appeared to precipitate his revelation to Enrique.

 But he was not, as it seemed all along, the only villain. Juan clearly had a thin grasp on morality which allowed him to kill his own brother, justifying it flimsily. In the end he also kills the former priest, seemingly his final attempt to redeem himself.

“Bad Education” would likely be of particular interest to Spanish cinema fans and/or the GLBT community, but I think that it can also make an interesting and thought-provoking viewing experience for most other people. With its deceptively simple beginning and increasingly unconventional, non-linear narrative structure, the film effectively blurs the lines among characters and time periods, and between reality and the movies. Scenes we had perceived as objective reality may have been part of a character’s own film, and therefore we’re never quite certain through whose perspective we are getting this story, how many versions there are, or precisely what the whole truth is. Viewers probably have to retrace their steps backward through what they’ve seen, and perhaps watch more than once, in order to finally piece it all together and gather their interpretation of this fine, intriguing film.