La Femme Nikita (1990, directed by Luc Besson) is a neon action thriller; a very silly, very enjoyable movie concerning an ex-junkie put to work as a French government sleeper assassin. Backed by an industrial electro pop score, sound and visuals converge alongside the protagonist’s cool couture – specifically a little black dress that re-defines the use of such a garment on film.
As of its time as Laserdiscs and virtual reality, La Femme Nikita is about transformation by fashion – similar in subtext to Pretty Woman, that enduringly fluffy romantic fairytale also released the same year. Where as Julia Roberts’ heroine Vivian abandons the world of prostitution to become, we presume, a lawyer’s wife, Nikita (Anne Parillaud) leaves homicidal drug addiction to become arguably something worse: a paid for, sanctioned killer. Yet despite this, Nikita is legitimised by the clothes she wears. Her high fashion wide-brimmed hats and boxy jackets ensure she could not possibly pose any threat to society.
Nikita’s makeover into ‘respectable’ citizen takes time however. Our introduction to the character occurs during a nighttime pharmacy robbery with her pumped, drug fiend friends. She barely moves in the ensuing gunfight except to commit cold blooded murder by shooting a policeman in the face. We learn more about the real Nikita during subsequent scenes when she is questioned, tried and then sentenced to thirty years in prison. Evidently a live wire with an aggressive temper, her thrown together clothes set the costume tone for the movie. Not real punk but ‘neo-punk’ or ‘junkie chic’.
Wearing a customised leather biker jacket with dogtooth panels, long sleeve t-shirt, leopard print waistcoat, fatigues and black leather motorcycle boots, Nikita is the creative interpretation of a drug addict. Not style over substance per se, but an artistic decision by director Luc Besson to manufacture his own version of reality. If such a genre as ‘European’ exists, then Nikita is typical of it: cold and clinically stylish.
Administered what she believes is lethal injection, Nikita wakes up in a bright white cell. Dipping her toes on the tiled floor, she recoils slightly; the cold tells her she is still alive. Mystery man-in-black Bob (Tchéky Karyo) then offers her a choice: become a government assassin or go back to being dead – and really this time.
After being ‘clipped’ in the leg by Bob for attempting to escape, Nikita reluctantly agrees to enter the assassin training program. Locked in an underground facility fully equipped with computers, canteen and training areas, at first she attempts to subvert the rules; spray-painting her room and cutting her own clothes, refusing to accept ‘feminine lessons’ by aged gentility Amande (Jeanne Moreau). Eventually, however, Nikita runs out of time and Bob informs her that if she does not show improvement in two weeks then, basically, she will be killed.
Nikita relents. She visits Amande (wearing a peculiarly clean pair of brown suede brogues), who plonks a wig on her head as the first step to becoming “Man’s perfect accompaniment: a woman”. After hair comes make-up; make-up is the mask. The trick is for Nikita to remove the make-up and still retain some semblance of self underneath.
Flash forward a stretch and we meet Nikita 2.0. Plumping her eyelashes in the mirror with obsessive concentration, she is barely recognisable as the same person. This ‘transition to womanhood’ is marked by Bob taking her outside the facility for the first time in three years to a high-class restaurant. Amande hands Nikita the dress she will wear, a slinky black number. A killer LBD:
Above the knee black sheath dress in viscose and Lycra or silk jersey; backless with two crossover straps and v-neckline. Worn with opaque tights and black suede high heel shoes. Black single breasted jacket, tailored in silk, with padded shoulders. Pearl necklace and short black silk gloves.
The pearls are significant as a final glint of innocence for new Nikita. Note her elegance now too. Still rough around the edges, but minor details such as removing her gloves via the tips of the fingers, one by one; precisely and without fumbling, denote Nikita as unexceptional in her environment.
She belongs in the fancy restaurant because nobody notices her – invisible enough to walk up to three VIPs and murder them in plain sight. At this point, of course, her anonymity is compromised and she has to flee. In a cocktail dress. In high heels.
Nikita’s escape involves defending herself against a heavily armed group of bodyguards, primarily in the restaurant kitchen. She wields an absurdly oversized handgun. A phallic metaphor, the gun is a symbol for displaced sexual aggression. Militaristic strapping to the rear of her dress further indicates its role as Nikita’s ‘battle wear’. Apart from a moment of near tears after running out of bullets, her outfit is uninterrupted by fragility.
There is an intentional contrast here between something designed for aesthetic beauty and the very physical situation in which Nikita finds herself wearing it. Yet as Coco Chanel is credited with instigating the LBD in 1926 as wearable (i.e. functional) chic, the dress itself is actually reverting to type.
The little black dress was made most famous as designed by Hubert de Givenchy and worn in two versions by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Latterly New York designer Donna Karan is more associated with its connotations of uncluttered, grown-up sophistication, having introduced her own stretchy version in the 1985 with asymmetric neckline and long sleeves as antidote to increasingly padded structure over form.
Nikita survives the shoot-out by plunging head first into a rubbish chute and then running to safety in the rain (carrying her high heels). She continues to wear items that contrast between purpose and situation throughout the story.
Her childish, cherry patterned underwear during the Venice hit, for example. The suggestion that, right up to her disastrous last assignment, Nikita does not have the opportunity to prepare. Her ‘work’ uniform is whatever she finds herself wearing, no matter how inappropriate it may be deemed within the context.
Induction completed with the restaurant job, Nikita is able to rejoin society. She rents an apartment, even finds a fiancé Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), attempting to live life as normally as possible. When her telephone rings with the codename ‘Josephine’, it means she has a mission to complete. Generally, at least some part to play in an assassination.
Her attire develops an austereness the more she becomes ingrained in this hidden world of murder and deceit. Leaving behind the training facility wearing a dark blue unstructured raglan sleeve jacket and short skirt with black rollneck sweater, the outfit looks like it is wearing her. She has yet to become accustomed to such repressed self expression.
Though when she meets Bob in a cafe much later in the story, Nikita wears a ludicrously wide hat with circular holes cut into the sloping brim. By now she is attention seeking; something a person in her profession should presumably opt to avoid. Furthermore she then rendezvous with a black clad contact wearing a full face balaclava and red fur-collared coat.
The same is true of the stone-‘Zazous’ long single-breasted jacket and dark sunglasses she chooses for what will turn out to be her final assignment. It is a costume, Nikita is playing a role as an ‘artist’, yet this blankly detached style has now become indistinguishable from her own. Beyond those impenetrable shades she is trapped in a lie of dual, even triple identities. Nikita no longer has a clue who she is.
Violent, sweeping melodrama draws the film to a close. Nikita eventually regains herself by leaving; leaving Marco, Bob and the government agency behind. The last time we see her is in nondescript pale jeans and a leather blouson. If the little black dress represented the moment Nikita changed, this outfit represents the moment she changed back. How far is left open to question.
Perhaps she will find contentment, or perhaps those pharmacy robbing days will seek her out once more?
Nikita costume design by: Anne Angelini, Valentin Breton Des Loys, Mimi Lempicka.
© 2010 – 2013, Chris Laverty.