George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion is is based on the myth and Besson’s film has many parallels to Shaw’s play. Prof Henry Higgins transforms Eliza Doolittle from street urchin to a lady, just as Bob (Tcheky Karyo) Bob transforms Nikita (Anne Parillaud), but in this case, not into a lady but into an assassin.
In the play, Eliza is fascinated by Freddie Eynsford-Hill, just as Nikita falls for Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade). There is a quasi-romantic connection between Bob and Nikita in the film just as there is between Higgins and Eliza in the play, and the endings are very similar, Eliza walks out on Higgins just as Nikita walks out on Bob.
But the parallels end there. Shaw’s Pygmalion is a comedy; Besson’s film is a violent journey of redemption. But with Besson’s typically morally ambiguous perspective, it appears to Nikita that her only chance of redemption for murdering a policeman is by murdering more people. With the death of Viktor, she realises that her only way out will be with her own death and she decides to cut and run.
In the final scene, between Marco and Bob, Marco tells Bob that Nikita had left a note for him but he has torn it up. What was in the note? We can only assume that is something that Marco did not want Bob to know: where she is going, that she is still in love with Bob? Like the end of Leon the Professional, where Besson leaves us uncertain about what happen to Mathilda, Besson leaves also leaves Nikita’s fate hanging.
What a great role Jean Reno plays, from his first statement, surely one of the great opening lines of all time, “Viktor, cleaner” to his death in the Mercedes, he is clearly the forerunner of Leon. He even wears the same sunglasses and carries the same kind of suitcase.
Viktor the Cleaner forerunner of Leon
But the standout is Anne Parillaud as Nikita. She is a cool and sexy killer and despite her later change of heart, there’s nothing to suggest she doesn’t enjoy the role that Maro has cast her in. And this character appears to be a forerunner of Mathilda. Both Parillaud and Portman are extremely beautiful but whereas Nikita is a beautiful and sexually active woman, Mathilda’s sexuality is far more ambiguous and places Matihlda in a tradition of sexually attractive young women in films.
If we doubt that Nikita will be able to walk away from her past, we are really left with no doubt in the case of Mathilda. Leon the Professional is a much darker view of the corrupting and addictive nature of the life of the professional assassin and we are left in no doubt that Mathilda’s homage to Leon’s memory will be to continue his work.
Many people have commented that the mood and atmospherics of the film are what makes it so great, which is true. The plot, however, is slightly uneven. The early parts of the film, the robbery at the store, Nikita’s training and the assassination in the restaurant are brilliantly paced and the trip to Venice firmly establishes the nature of the ongoing relationship between Nikita and Bob.
It is the longer section involving the ambassador and the theft of the documents from the embassy, that slows the film, not in an action sense, but in terms of the development of the plot and characters. It would have been just as easy to have Nikita’s crisis of conscience emerge as a result of killing the woman in Venice.
Was the death of Viktor necessary to bring this about? Certainly there was something chilling about Viktor and his dedication to his work but an unnecessarily large proportion of the film is dedicated to making this point. Perhaps a section of the film was simply a vehicle for Jean Reno.
But this is a small quibble, La Femme Nikita and Leon the Professional, remain the high points of this genre.