by Ryan Smillie
How do you know if the person in front of you is who they say they are? In a spy movie, this question is twofold. On one level, there are the spies: deceiving, concealing, and outwitting throughout the film. On another level, however, are the actors playing these spies: expressing, suggesting, and emoting at the same time. Though their purposes seem to be at odds - one seeks to hide, the other to show - the two are more similar than they initially appear. For both, one identity is concealed in favor of a manufactured one, and whether the goal is gathering intelligence from a foreign government, committing a clandestine assassination, or simply creating a believable character, the success of the spy and the success of the actor are contingent on their ability to play with identity. Rarely is this connection explored as thoroughly as in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita.
Nikita opens in the dark, with a menacing group of punks approaching a store they plan to rob. Bathed in the blue light of the shop, the men of the gang force their way in and begin their burglary, all while Nikita (Anne Parillaud) stands with them in a daze, barely speaking. When the shop owner interrupts the robbery by turning on the lights of the store, he reveals the gang to be a bunch of ill-equipped junkies, with Nikita hardly in the frame, strung out behind the counter. Neither good spies nor good actors, the gang fails at being stealthy or convincing. A disorienting shootout with the police sends the group scrambling and leaves Nikita as the only survivor after she shoots an officer in her stupor.
Quickly, Nikita is arrested, tried and convicted in a series of loud, fast-paced close-ups. Besson cuts to Nikita waking up in a stark white room, now dwarfed in the frame by the size of the room. Here, she learns that she has been pronounced legally dead, and a mysterious man, Bob (Tchéky Karyo), gives her two options - either become a government assassin or actually be killed in jail. Eventually, she accepts Bob’s offer and her training begins. Her lessons in computer skills, firearms and martial arts are not far off from an actor’s rehearsal, and this link becomes even clearer in her lessons in traditional femininity. Nikita learns to apply makeup in a vanity mirror, evoking the image of an actor preparing backstage, and it is no coincidence that her teacher is none other than the French New Wave icon Jeanne Moreau.
Weeks into her training, Nikita has been transformed. Now in pearls and a little black dress, she gets invited to a fancy dinner outside the compound with Bob. With its celebratory mood, dressy attire and glasses of champagne, this dinner has all the trappings of an opening night after weeks of rehearsal. It should come as no surprise, then, when Bob reveals that this dinner is her final test: she must kill a diplomat and escape from the restaurant. Though Nikita initially seems hesitant to carry out the mission, it is nothing like the initial robbery. For the most part, the camera focuses on Nikita and her steely, confident face as she makes her way through the restaurant, her target and his henchmen barely entering the frame. Echoing her position from the robbery, she winds up crouching behind a kitchen counter. This time, however, she is focused and determined, pulling a clip out of her dress, firing at her pursuers, and leaping through a garbage chute to safety.
Her training completed, Nikita is sent back into the world as “Marie,” with instructions that her missions will be conveyed to her through the codename “Josephine” (a reference to famed entertainer and World War Two spy Josephine Baker?). Far from her dark and messy life prior to the instigating crime, Nikita settles into a seemingly normal life with her new boyfriend, Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), as she reintegrates into life in Paris, now buoyed by her lessons from her training. It isn’t long, however, until “Josephine” is called for her first mission. Like an actress backstage, Nikita has her costume changed (into a maid’s outfit), is handed a tray of props (disguised gadgets), and is sent out on stage (to her target’s hotel room).
When Bob sends Nikita and Marco to Venice, her skills as both an actress and a spy are doubly put to the test. Ostensibly a gift from generous “Uncle” Bob, the trip to Venice turns out to be another mission to be completed. In her hotel bathroom, Nikita finds and assembles the pieces of a sniper rifle (placed as if on a well-laid stage). While she gingerly punches a glass pane out of the window and positions herself to shoot her target, Marco, from the other side of the door, broaches the heretofore undiscussed topic of “Marie’s” guarded personality. Not only must Nikita remain inconspicuous in her attempt to take out her target, but she also has to keep up her facade of normalcy against Marco’s questioning. Though her mission is completed successfully, Marco almost catches her with her rifle, and her focus on her mission and not his questions wind up appearing cold.
Upset by her inability to be honest with Marco, but nevertheless continuing to succeed as an assassin, Nikita is assigned another mission. This time, she is tasked with trailing a diplomat and stealing documents from an embassy. When the mission goes awry in the diplomat’s all-white apartment (reminiscent of her former cell), Nikita quickly springs into action, disguising herself as the now-dead diplomat in order to retrieve the targeted documents without detection. Again, her ability to act is the way out of a seemingly inescapable white room, though this time her escape is much faster. No longer the unaware junkie, nor even the unsure beginner spy, Nikita is now able to save herself as this mission continues to implode around her, eventually driving away from the embassy unscathed. When Marco then reveals that he knows about her secret life, the escape continues with Marco’s encouragement and Bob’s reluctant acceptance. Nikita gives a new meaning to “disappearing into a role.”
This idea of identity and role-playing is central to spy movies. From Roger Thornhill’s mistaken identity in North by Northwest to George Smiley’s hunt for a Soviet double agent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the drama hinges on characters’ ability to hide, prove or ferret out their or others’ identities. Even in something like Mr. and Mrs. Smith that goes in a more comedic direction, the comedy still hinges on the protection and revelation of the titular spouses’ hidden identities. And while these identities are propelling the plot forward, the actors behind these characters are engaged in their own identity games to create the characters who are so focused on the identities around them. With Nikita, the relation between these two is made clear, as we watch Nikita undertake both of these processes at the same time (which also highlights Anne Parillaud’s César Award-winning work as Nikita). Though rarely made as explicit, the idea of spying as acting (or vice versa) is pervasive throughout the genre, and once you start to look for it, it is hard to unsee.