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La Femme Nikita

"Men are supposed to be strong, and I like to show them when they're weak. Women are meant to be weak... and I like to show them when they're strong." Luc Besson

Anne Parillaud made her film debut at age 16, playing "la jeune fille" in Christian Lara's Un amour de sable (1977). Graced with expressive eyes and full lips but an athletic rather than curvaceous figure, the Paris native progressed to a string of girlfriend roles, twice opposite actor-director Alain Delon, who took credit for discovering her. Fed up with her reputation as eye candy, Parillaud considered dropping out of cinema entirely until filmmaker Luc Besson (whom she married in 1986) promised to write a movie just for her. Nikita, known internationally as La Femme Nikita (1990), cast Parillaud as a teenage junkie recruited from the Paris slums to work as a state assassin. The role was cathartic for Parillaud, allowing her to perform with action hero agility, dodge fireballs, karate chop opponents, and handle automatic weapons. Having given birth to Besson's daughter Juliette in 1987, the 26 year-old Parillaud was put into a year of training to get her into shape to play the 19 year-old heroine. The actress submitted to classes in acting (where the timber of her voice was lowered), singing, dancing, judo, and target shooting before she was allowed to see the script. La Femme Nikita failed to impress critics but was a hit with French moviegoers, earning nine César award nominations and allowing Parillaud to take home the honors as Best Actress.

The son of Club Med SCUBA instructors who ported their offspring around the world on their professional peregrinations, Luc Besson turned to filmmaking when a diving accident prevented him at age 17 of realizing his dream of becoming a marine biologist with a specialty in dolphins. An assistant to countrymen Claude Faraldo, Alexandre Arcady, and Patrick Grandperret, Besson made a reputation for himself as a director of short films, documentary subjects, and television commercials, both in the United States and in France. Besson's early films, Le Dernier Combat (1983), Subway (1985), Kamikaze (1987), and The Big Blue (1988), did not travel well beyond the borders of France but La Femme Nikita was a bona fide international sensation, lauded in Italy with a Donatello Award and in the United States with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film. Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers split the rights for acquisition, with Columbia handling distribution and Warners retaining film rights and hiring Besson to pen the American remake, Point of No Return (1993). In the two decades since its premiere, La Femme Nikita inspired two television series, the Canadian La Femme Nikita (1997-2001) and Warner Brothers Television's Nikita, which debuted on the CW Television Network in September 2010.

Influenced by the graphic bande desinée, Besson preferred to shoot his films in scope, an approximation of the comic strip's narrow gauge. Besson filmed La Femme Nikita in continuity to focus on Parillaud's physical transformation from gutter ruffian to (as one French critic tagged Nikita) "Mata-Hari irrésistible." A disused tobacco factory in the Paris suburb of Pantin was used for the film's interiors, the distressed aspect of the crumbling postwar structure adding to the dystopian theme. In his homeland, Besson's cocktail of ultra-violence, simmering sexuality, and high velocity forward momentum was branded "Cinéma de look," shorthand for an abundance of spectacle at the (arguable) expense of substance. Besson followed La Femme Nikita with Leon (The Professional, 1994), starring frequent collaborator Jean Reno and featuring 11 year-old Natalie Portman in a startling debut. Besson made use of Hollywood A-lister Bruce Willis in his 1997 sci-fi parable The Fifth Element but has been more prolific as writer-producer of such high octane entertainments as the Jet Li vehicle Kiss of the Dragon (2001), the parkour-propelled District B13 (2004), The Transporter series (2002-2008) starring Jason Statham and Taken (2008) and Taken 2 (2012) starring Liam Neeson.

Divorced from Besson in 1991, Anne Parillaud enjoyed a brief international career, starring as a vampire thinning the herd of Philadelphia's Italian-American community in John Landis' Innocent Blood (1992), a comely Native American half-breed in Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart (1992), and single mother raising a son afflicted with dwarfism in Michael Lindsay-Hogg's Frankie Starlight (1995). Parillaud also contributed supporting roles to such continental productions as The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) with Leonardo di Caprio and The Last Mistress (2007) starring Asia Argento. She gave birth to two sons with film producer Mark Allan and between 2005 and 2010 was married to film composer Jean-Michel Jarre. If the balance of Parillaud's career lacked the high visibility of her signature role, the influence of La Femme Nikita was carried forward by such female dominated action films as Stephen Shin's Black Cat (1991), Patrick Leung's Beyond Hypothermia (1996), Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2002-2004), Timur Bekmambetov's Wanted (2008), Phillip Noyce's Salt (2010), Steven Soderbergh's Haywire (2011), and Siu-Tung Ching's Naked Weapon (2002), which featured Maggie Q, the star of TV's Nikita.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Luc Besson (French Film Directors by Susan Hayward (Manchester University Press, 1998)
Luc Besson interview by Richard Jobson, The Guardian, March 2000
Luc Besson interview by Ryan Lambie, DenofGeek.com, April 2011
Anne Parillaud interview by Joan Dupont, Interview, September 1992

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