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Author: Mary M. Wiles
Title: Mapping the Contours of Cyborg Space in the Conspiracy Film: The Feminine Ecology of Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Fall 1997

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Source: Mapping the Contours of Cyborg Space in the Conspiracy Film: The Feminine Ecology of Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita
Mary M. Wiles

vol. 1, no. 1, Fall 1997
Article Type: Essay

Mapping the Contours of Cyborg Space in the Conspiracy Film: The Feminine Ecology of Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita

Mary M. Wiles

Always two things
Current runs through bodies
and then it doesn't
It was a language of sounds,
of noise,
of switching,
of signals.
It was the language of the rabbit,
the caribou,
the penguin,
the beaver.
A language of the past.
Current runs through bodies
and then it doesn't.
On again.
Off again.
Always two things
One thing instantly replaces
It was the language
of the Future.
Laurie Anderson

In her discussion of Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, film historian Ginette Vincendeau has noted the film's reliance on a master narrative, the relationship between a beautiful, young heroine and a controlling father figure, a father-daughter axis which French cinema has returned to, challenged, and reworked (16). This theme, according to Vincendeau, has a long history in French culture, which can be traced to its source in the eighteenth-century fairy tale (La Belle et la Bête) and to the nineteenth-century realist melodramatic novels by Balzac, Hugo, and Zola (16). Vincendeau points to the pattern that began to emerge in classical French cinema in the 1920s with Abel Gance's La Roue (1922), Jean Renoir's La Fille de l'eau (1925), and that was pursued with renewed zest in the '30s and '40s (16). Marc Allégret's Gribouille (1937) and Julien Duvivier's Panique (1946), which was recently remade as Monsieur Hire (1988), rework the conflict between an older man torn between his erotic and his protective, paternal feelings towards a daughter, adopted waif or very young wife (Vincendeau 16). During the 1950s, a series of Jean Gabin films continued the trend. The dialogue exemplifies the point: "We'll tell them I'm your father," Gabin says to Nicole Courcel, whom he intends to marry in La Marie du port (1950); "I could be your father" to Françoise Arnoul in Des Gens sans Importance (1955) (Vincendeau 16). In two of the most successful French films of the '80s, Jean de Florette (1986) and Manon des Sources (1986), mature male actors Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu are played against the very young Manon (Beart). On the surface, La Femme Nikita (1989) seems to continue this historical trend that Vincendeau details in which cultural sources and institutional forces conspire to perpetuate a pattern in which fathers dominate very young women.

Yet, this film recontextualizes the French master narrative within the well-known American genre that Marxist cultural critic Fredric Jameson terms "the conspiracy film" (9). The National Review has described La Femme Nikita as "a Frenchified, and therefore much more chic, version of that notorious American genre, the political-paranoia picture, of which Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View were prime examples" (56). The master narrative that informs both French film history and this film's structure is here recast within the intertextual frame of the conspiratorial text, defined by Jameson as:

whatever other messages it [the conspiratorial text] emits or implies, may be taken to constitute an unconscious, collective effort at trying to figure out where we are and what landscapes and forces confront us in a late twentieth century whose abominations are heightened by their concealment and their bureaucratic impersonality. Conspiracy film takes a wild stab at the heart of all that, in a situation in which it is the intent and the gesture that counts. Nothing is gained by having been persuaded of the definitive verisimilitude of this or that conspiratorial hypothesis: but in the intent to hypothesize, in the desire called cognitive mapping—therein lies the beginning of wisdom. (3)

In La Femme Nikita, the father-daughter axis is remotivated and made to mean something of a supplementary and symbolic nature. The master narrative is allegorized and, thus, signifies something extra: a late capitalist conspiracy recirculated through the familiar figure of the French father becomes, in reality, a class and gender war. From a Jamesonian perspective, the filmic narrative cannot but remain allegorical, since the object it attempts to represent—the social totality itself—is not an empirical entity and cannot be made to materialize as such in front of the individual viewer (45-6). In my discussion of La Femme Nikita, I intend to localize the interrelation between dual intertexts, the French master father-daughter narrative, and the American fantasy-narrative of the conspiratorial text, which undergo a radical transfiguration and restructuring to engender a wholly new configuration—a cyborg space.

The Gendering of the Rebel Paradigm

The film opens with a tracking shot of black pavement followed by extreme low-angle shots of a street gang dragging a body. Accompanied by hard punk-rock music, this opening segment imitates the aesthetics of an underground music video. As the underclass of marginals (loubards) revel in the random, orgiastic violence initiated by the ensuing pharmacy break-in, neon-blue smoke obfuscates screen directionality. Only the scientific precision of the red telephotographic viewfinder is able to penetrate the haze and accurately target its victims, assuring the victory of state law. As the dense smoke rises, a final series of rapid shot-reverse shots pinions addict Nikita against a wall in a halo of white light face-to-face with a street cop. At point-blank range, she blows off his head. Nikita engenders a femme rebel paradigm that has its origins in both the French New Wave (Michel Poiccard's murder of a cop in Godard's Breathless) and in the American political-paranoia genre (the unruly belligerence of the Warren Beatty character in Pakula's Parallax View). Yet, Nikita's rebel persona deviates from the paradigm established by these male precursors. Emerging from the half-light of a neon-blue underworld, the representation of the femme rebel in La Femme Nikita frames the female body as "dark continent," as abject "wild zone" to be feared and despised.

The rebel paradigm that defines the conspiratorial text establishes the violence of a character such as the belligerent Beatty in Parallax View as anti-social, bordering on the pathological (Jameson 56). Georg Lukacs provides the theoretical foundation for Jameson's characterization of the male rebel, asserting that pathology forms a fundamental aspect of the wresting of dramatic action from the stasis of bourgeois social life and culture:

...if the excessiveness is to be confirmed on psychic grounds, these cannot be drawn from the limits of normal psychology, and even less to the very degree that the situation of the character is itself dramatic.... If there is no mythology...everything must be based on and derived from character itself. But a motivation thrown back exclusively on character, and the exclusive interiority of that character's destiny, now always drive character to the very borders of pathology. (qtd. in Jameson 57)

Indeed, the representation of Nikita as femme rebel does take into account class context, the drug underworld, and violence of French loubards viewed as aberrant from the perspective of this one. Yet, her excessiveness cannot be confirmed simply on psychic grounds, for we learn nothing of her personal history or her private motivations. Rather, it is Nikita's body that incarnates pure id, a sheer uninhibited violence that shatters middle-class social convention. Her somatic rebellion is opposed to the legally sanctioned aggression of street cops who rap the prisoners' cages with their batons. A high-angle long shot of the prison maze fixes our vision of Nikita as caged creature. This animalistic representation of Nikita is reinforced by her leopard vest, disheveled hair, dirtiness, stench of her body odor, and the physicality of her violence. In opening scenes, Nikita's body is vilified as dangerous, deviant, and potentially castrating. During the interrogation, she responds to the chauvinism of the fat cop who addresses her sardonically as "cutie" by picking up her pencil and grinding it into his hand, while screaming defiantly, "My name is cutie!" Upon sentencing, Nikita denounces the jury with the invective "Motherfuckers!" and attempts to break free from cops who drag her screaming and kicking from the court room. The femme rebel paradigm is established at the scale of the body, which has been defined by Neil Smith:

The primary physical site of personal identity, the scale of the body is socially constructed. The place of the body marks the boundary between self and other in a social as much as physical sense, and involves the construction of a 'personal space' in addition to a literally defined physiological space.... Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir argued that masculine culture identifies women with the sphere of the body while reserving for men the privilege of disembodiment, a non-corporeal identity. (102)

Within the film's opening segments, the surplus value of Nikita's violence, which is inscribed across the scale of the body, is ideologically justified by her apparent hatred of masters and the patriarchal social order.

Rebirth: Initiation Rites

As Nikita is resituated within the clinical setting of the state, her staged death by "lethal" injection precipitates her regression to the point where she cries for "Maman!" The main-line fix sanctioned within what Foucault calls the "medical gaze" of the conspiratorial state displaces and legitimates the illicit narcotic injections self-administered by Nikita (30). In similar fashion, the dispersed neon-blue haze of the punk underworld is displaced by the controlled subterranean blue glimmer of high-tech government-driven computers. The "lethal" main-lining of the state precipitates Nikita's metaphoric return to the womb and her rebirth within the sterile white institutional cell where she encounters the duplicitous persona of Bob. She asks him simply, "Is this heaven?" Bob serves simultaneously as the protective matriarch who brings her back to life, providing her with "another chance," and as sheer superego that seeks to rechannel her libidinal drive and to draw its energies back within a government-sponsored program.

The film's opening scenes, which show Nikita's induction into a government conspiracy, also serve to aggressively solicit the spectator into a participatory identification with the trajectory of the character. Her story will unravel in an allegorical fashion across a cartography that has already been mapped and named in the film's title Nikita. The dual signification of the name "Nikita" points, like a compass, to the work of ideological recuperation that the film will attempt to accomplish across both the body of the character and that of the spectator. The character's antisocial violence becomes tied to her name that points us towards the East, the cold war of Nikita Khrushchev, international socialism, and the communist Red Star. As her explosive excess is progressively tapped by the imperialist expansionism implicit in the capitalist conspiracy of which she will become a trained member, the signified of her name will shift towards the West, pointing us towards the American capitalist consumer culture from which the name "Nikita" was originally derived by director Besson—an Elton John pop tune. In this manner, the film's title Nikita maps the geopolitics of an allegorical narrative in its attempt to demonstrate how the uninhibited violence of the drives, ideally suited for the demolition of the archaic local order, can be marshaled in the formation of a new global one. Even the communications technology that the local criminal judge, jury, and police interrogators employ, pencil and paper forms, seems old-fashioned and outmoded in comparison with the high-tech computer labs of conspirator agents.

The articulation of corporate power at the global scale is everywhere apparent in LaFemme Nikita. Neil Smith defines the global scale in terms of social and geographical space:

It might seem that the borders of the global scale are self-evidently given by the natural borders of the planet but, as with other scales, the global scale per se is socially produced. "The global" is very actively constructed....'We do business in only one place,' reads a Salomon Brothers ad for their financial services, beneath a dreamy spaceshot of spaceship earth. (112)

Global corporate power is discernible in the sets and decor of the film. The establishing shots of the tasteless, anonymous basement architecture of high-tech corporate capitalism provide a representational confirmation that the streets and buildings of the visible social world are mirrored in this secret underground world that, in principle, spans the globe. Within this vivid postmodern, if paranoid, cognitive map, corporate power is evidenced in the sanitized, clinical interior of the lab cell where operants are inducted, the labyrinth of corridors that lead nowhere, the gigantic scale of clocks garnishing the cafeteria line that refer to, while effacing, the differences between international time zones. It is more subtly apparent in the subterranean imagery that runs like a refrain throughout the film: the clicking of surveillance cameras, the replay of key scenes on closed circuit video monitors, the low-key flicker of computer monitors, and finally the close-ups of tape reels, microphones, and cassette recorders that constitute the circulatory system of the surveillance apparatus (Shaviro 134-5). The bureaucracy of the state conspiracy resides in the activity of surveillance, and Besson's camera concretizes this clandestine process.

Voyeurism: The Superego of the State Apparatus

In the film, the extreme close-up of Bob's disembodied gaze from the institutional aperture of Nikita's chamber door provides our introduction to the panoptic apparatus of the conspiracy. The reverse high-angle shot of Nikita from his point-of-view solicits our identification, positioning us as participatory voyeurs. In Freud, the technical term for the desire to see is scopophilia. For film theorist Christian Metz, this "perceptual passion" is the condition of the possibility of cinema:

The practice of the cinema is only possible through the perceptual passions: the desire to see (=scopic drive, scopophilia, voyeurism), which was alone engaged in the art of the silent film...(this is the 'pulsion invocante', the invocatory drive, one of the four main sexual drives for Lacan...). (58)

All sexual drives are dependent upon a lack, a perpetual absence of that which could satisfy the desire. But for Metz, the perceptual drives have a clearer and more special relationship to that lack. The perceptual drive "concretely represents the absence of its object in the distance at which it maintains it and which is part of its very definition: distance of the look..." (Metz 59). In classic Hollywood cinema, identification typically assumes the form of an identification with a male voyeur who forwards the action and maintains control over the narration, promoting the image of woman as site of a static spectacle whose primary feature is its "to-be-looked-at-ness" (Doane 27). The discourse of the narrator typically sets in motion this cinematic structure of voyeurism/exhibitionism in which the phantasmatic construction of "having" or "being" the phallus is instituted and allocated through the paternal narrative economy of mainstream cinema. In La Femme Nikita, the panoptic gaze through the aperture refers not only to the perverse voyeurism of Bob but bears allegorical weight, replicating the attention of the conspiracy in its attempt to ground the representation of Nikita.

The underground world of the state is spectral and sterile, rather than womb-like. Yet, it is precisely within this glacial space that the father figure Bob will recreate his daughter, giving her new life. Nikita's body is narrated in a fragmentary fashion, in the same way that a voyeur looking through an aperture would see only isolated parts of a woman's body (Hayward 294). The compartmentalization of Nikita's body into parts (face, feet, hands, hair, and eyes) as the trajectory of her professional training unfolds and its corresponding fragmentation into separate disciplines, because it can be perpetually replayed, is used by the father to enhance his sexual fantasies. The narrativized fragmentation of the body in La Femme Nikita serves to stave off gratification of the total gaze and the notion of final possession, and so in this sense, the gaze becomes fetishized too (Hayward 294).

Childhood: The Reformulation of the Id

Bob's fetishized glance is accompanied by the constraints that he places on Nikita in his attempt to immobilize her as a privileged object of his fascination.

Voyeurism which is not too sadistic (there is none which is not so at all) rests on a kind of fiction...sometimes institutionalized as in the theatre or strip-tease, a fiction that stipulates that the object 'agrees,' that it is therefore exhibitionist. (Metz 62)

Nikita initially refuses her exhibitionist status. She exposes Bob's blind spot at the aperture of her door by launching a surprise assault in which she disarms him and marches him to the exit at gun point. Yet, Bob physically overpowers her and "clips her wings" (Nikita) by grazing her leg with a bullet. As Vincendeau has remarked, "The sadism with which the men treat the young women is in direct proportion to (and therefore a disavowal of) the sexual attraction they feel for them, heightened by the women's rebelliousness" (15). The physical immediacy of Nikita's rebellion solicits Bob's fascinated surveillance of her appearance and actions. During her training sessions, Nikita rebels against the male instructors whose cardboard authority she systematically collapses. At the firing range, she responds to the patronizing instructions of the trainer by manhandling the gun he gives her and pulverizing the designated target. Nikita upstages the phallic pretense of a karate instructor's showy demonstration by slapping him violently across the face before he has a chance to respond. Here, female dexterity and capability expose male lack and so seem progressive. Yet, Nikita's physical action against male aggression becomes a spectacle of male desire for the child-woman, who with her infantilo-innocent sexuality (seen in her tomboyish demeanor and dress) solicits paternal ownership. Beneath the guise of professional interest, Bob wields the phallic glance behind the glass partition, his smile betraying the obvious pleasure he takes (it's all right to do in other phalluses as long as mine remains intact) (Hayward 290). The glaciation of the space and the compartmentalization of the body entomb Nikita's sexuality, anesthetized beneath the eye of the Symbolic Father (Hayward 294).

During the second karate lesson, the disgruntled instructor vengefully demonstrates his mastery by throwing Nikita over his shoulder onto the floor. In response, Nikita bites his ear, rises and kicks him in the face, completely disabling him. She breaks into an awkward ballet step, and a medium close-up rivets our attention to her boots that emblematize her excess. We share in Bob's detached amusement from behind the glass (an allusion to the cinema screen that serves as invisible partition between spectacle and spectator), watching Nikita flapping her arms wildly to the patronizingly triumphant rhythm of a classical overture. Circumscribed and contained from within Bob's paternal perspective, her aggression appears childishly nonthreatening: Nikita dances her fights. Feminist cultural critic Cathy Schwichtenberg has observed that in the TV series Charlie's Angels, female violence is a stylishly choreographed spectacle that solicits male desire: "their athletic ingenuity combined with their innocence...allows them to dance their fights like wholesome, animated cheerleaders ("Patriarchal" 13). In this scene, Nikita's status as theatricalized spectacle is foregrounded against the plush backdrop of the purple curtain and the non-diegetic quality of the classical music to which she moves.

Adolescence: Cinderella and The Creation of the Femme Fatale

In the film, the female body as object of voyeuristic fascination must not simply reflect the 'reality' of the self-grounding posture of the masculine subject Bob but must come to represent the phallic plenitude of the conspiratorial class, the "haute bourgeoisie" that Nikita must serve. Instead, rebel Nikita's relentless exposure of male lack precipitates the aggressive backlash of the director who tauntingly remarks to Bob, "lost your touch?" insinuating that even Bob's sadistic professionalism has proven insufficient in this instance. Indeed, the cryptic inscriptions and designs decorating Nikita's wall are read as freeform icons that signify the irrepressible id. The parodic self-portrait of a cartoon-character girl adorning Nikita's door gives form to her libidinal surplus, as it simultaneously grimaces due to tight state strictures. Nikita behaves like a teenager, munching popcorn while watching TV, as Bob interrupts to sternly reprimand her for her lack of progress in required disciplines. In this scene, popular culture imagery creates the ambiance of Nikita's adolescence, including romantic scenes and moody music from a TV melodrama, the visceral appeal of her garish designs and the hot-pink glow of her cell. Such iconography is set in sharp contrast to the classicism and subdued formalism of the Degas ballerinas that Bob pins to her wall. Low culture/class imagery that runs like a motif throughout the film is not only feminine-gendered but subordinated to high culture/class imagery, which is systematically associated with the mature sophistication of Bob's paternal persona. After fulfilling his professional role as overseer, Bob leaves and reenters Nikita's room, this time to play a nurturing, maternal role. He surprises her with a birthday cake and asks her to blow out the candles. Yet, the gleaming switchblade that Bob pops open to slice the cake points to the sadism that undercuts the sentimentality of the scene. Bob offers Nikita a final ultimatum along with her slice of cake and in so doing, rearticulates his duplicitous role as both matriarch who gave her life and as patriarch who could sever her umbilical lifeline to the state.

The grim Cinderella story of Nikita continues to unfold as Bob offers her the possibility of upward mobility. Nikita has little choice but to opt for high fashion and high art, the salaried position and sexualized image that her government position will require. A low-angle close-up reveals Bob removing the fetish objects (her boots are foregrounded in the frame, while her naked feet dangle evocatively behind them) that had marked his fascination with her libidinal excess. The final shot of the scene is punctuated by the end of the TV melodrama, "FIN" marking the end of Nikita's adolescent rebellion and the beginning of her evolution into the image of womanhood sculpted by the state—the femme fatale.

As Nikita enters Amande's private chamber, a medium close-up focuses on her soft suede shoes, which suggest the glass slippers perfectly sculpted to fit the feet of Cinderella. However, when Nikita encounters this magical fairy godmother for her make over into svelte womanliness, it is Nikita, not the slippers, who must be modeled and reshaped to fit the princess role proscribed for her by the state. During their first rendezvous, Amande had commented on Nikita's "looks":

You don't look like much now. But if we work hard together, if fortune smiles on us, we will be able to make you into a human being, an intermediary step, but a necessary step before becoming man's perfect complement—a woman.

Amande's remark, accompanied by the visual reference to the black and white photographs of Nikita poised beneath the makeup mirror, images Nikita as less than human, as raw, untamed nature to be "worked on." At the end of their first session, Amande presents her with a wig, the intermediary step in Nikita's progressive ascension to human stature. As Schwichtenberg observes in "Congruent Paradigms in the Analysis of Beauty Culture," female eyes, mouth, and hair that are not "worked on" (that are natural in the true sense of the term) are viewed as perverse or "unnatural" from within the dual ideological frames of patriarchy and western capitalism (297). The "unnatural" is culturally coded as unattractive, bizarre, inhuman or animalistic and, thus, is destined to remain outside the signifying system of beauty, which uses "the natural look" as currency in the marketing of beauty products (Schwichtenberg, "Paradigms" 297). This inversion of meaning, she argues, exposes a contradiction that is informed by aesthetics ("Paradigms" 297).

Nature is transformed by art and is consequently perfected through aesthetics, which changes nature into something "natural" and thus beautiful—better than nature itself (Schwichtenberg, "Paradigms" 298). According to Marxist cultural theorist Judith Williamson, the Romantic fascination with perfectibility reflects "a sort of Platonism where the perfect forms, of which society sees merely the shadows, are found not in some 'ideal' area, but in 'nature'—which of course then becomes an ideal area" (125). Aesthetics screens out nature's violent, frightening, primeval aspects and re-presents these qualities as an idealized "essence." In similar fashion, an aesthetics of natural beauty is predestined to disclose the perfect design that previously lay latent and inherent in feminine nature itself (Schwichtenberg, "Paradigms" 298). Thus, as Amande advises Nikita by the make-up mirror, "And don't forget, there are two things that have no limit, femininity and the means of taking advantage of it," she is merely uncovering the intrinsic design inherent in feminine nature itself.

In the film, the role of beauty adviser profits from the prestige of international celebrity Jeanne Moreau, associated with her previous roles in the high art films of the French New Wave. Moreau is especially well-suited to her mentor role for, as Amande, she vehiculates the intertextual frame of high art and culture to re-work the raw, primordial nature represented in the unadorned black and white images of younger actress Parillaud, who aspires to the technicolor glow of "the natural look." Amande's task, so similar to the psychoanalyst's, is to liberate the inner woman. As Nikita applies her lipstick before the mirror, Amande encourages her "Let your pleasure be your guide, your pleasure as a woman." Cultural critic David Schroder has commented on the similarity between the roles of the psychiatrist and the hairdresser:

The psychiatrist or therapist is another frequently mentioned role hairdressers play. They frequently conjure up the image of clients approaching the styling chair with wet, drippy, stringy hair; and leaving the salon one hour later, the picture of radiant beauty, transformed by the ministrations of a sort of tribal witch doctor. (qtd. in Schwichtenberg, "Paradigms" 161)

A fade from a close-up of Nikita tentatively applying lipstick to a close-up of Nikita masterfully applying mascara demarcates a temporal ellipse of three years, the time it has taken her to magically reappear before the mirror renatured as a ravishing beauty ready for the ball. Bob's remark upon receipt of the finished product, "You look beautiful" is double-edged. The aesthetic of natural beauty filters out Nikita's violent, frightening, primordial aspect and reformulates her libidinal drives as an idealized "essence" of femininity that can be commodified and controlled by the conspiratorial state.

The Final Departure: Circumscription of the Drives

Sheathed in a chic, black mini-dress by her fairy godmother, Nikita prepares herself for the grand soirée. Playing the gallant Prince Charming, Bob sweeps Nikita away for dinner in a posh restaurant that resembles a royal palace. The scene opens as curtains unfold, and a slow tracking low angle shot reveals a classical Renaissance ceiling ablaze with light, adorned with golden molding, crystal chandeliers and brass railing. The phallic grandiosity of such ornate architecture inaugurates the high art/class paradigm associated with the conspiratorial state, providing a prelude to the patriarchal posturing and polished social graces of the princely Bob. Strategically seated at the table, Bob surprises Nikita with a birthday gift. The gun she receives serves as a fetish, a surrogate object that stands in for the disavowed but desired female body. Insofar as the phallus is both culturally and historically inscribed as the valorized signifier of sexual and cultural plenitude, the glistening gun, a visible signifier of masculinity, will become the heavily cathected characteristic that makes Nikita tolerable to the state as both a sexual and social object. This fetishistic object of fascination comes to represent the phantasmatic plenitude of the late capitalist corporate conspiracy—the high culture and class to which Nikita must aspire.

The gun fetish furnishes the masculine subject Bob and the state conspiracy that he represents with a surrogate and a safeguard, while it simultaneously provides the perverse negation of abjection. Julia Kristeva's description of the circumscription of the abject by the fascist state in Powers of Horror provides clarity:

The vision of the ab-ject is, by definition, the sign of an impossible ob-ject, a boundary and a limit. A fantasy, if you wish, but one that brings to the well-known Freudian primal fantasies, his Urfantasien, a drive overload of hatred or death, which prevents images from crystalizing as images of desire and/or nightmare and causes them to break out into sensation (suffering) and denial (horror), into a blasting of sight and sound (fire, uproar)...At the doors of the feminine, at the doors of abjection,...we are also...given the most daring X-ray of the "drive foundations" of fascism. For this indeed is the economy, one of horror and suffering in their libidinal surplus-value, which has been tapped, rationalized and made operative by Nazism and Fascism. (154-155)

As Bob cautiously wipes his mouth, segregating his own body and space from contamination, he advises Nikita to please wait until he leaves. The body of Nikita thus becomes the receptacle of a patriarchal ideology that finds woman where she lives, performing the dirty work of the state within the domestic sphere of the kitchen. In this scene, Nikita's libidinal surplus value formerly associated with her violent rebellion against male masters is marshaled in the service of the state, targeting a Third World counter-conspiracy comprised of the Other, the dark continent of Arab, Oriental and Black assassins who pursue her. Swinging out from behind a kitchen counter, a close-up frames Nikita's face against the gun barrel as she takes aim and fires. The rapid zoom in shot that matches the bullet's trajectory serves as a metonymic signifier for Nikita's excessive libidinal drive that has been tapped, rationalized, and made operative by the conspiratorial state.

During the restaurant sequence, the representation of Nikita oscillates between the status of objet (a) (a lost object which the state seeks to reincorporate), or of the abject (of that which defiles, and which must consequently be jettisoned). Trapped behind the kitchen counter, Nikita runs out of ammunition and realizes that the dark hole of the incinerator is her only means of escape and survival. She runs and leaps through the narrow hole, just as her opponent releases a sheet of fire that covers the screen. Caught in an abject space between inside and outside, life and death, her body is propelled by the fire's force down the dark chute. As Nikita crawls out of the waste bin, she is born into the class of conspiratorial professionals to which she had aspired. As newborn assassin, Nikita assumes the status of objet (a) (the phallic object of possession that the state seeks to circumscribe and reincorporate); as a filthy body thrust from an incinerator into an empty street, she assumes the status of the abject (of that which defiles, and which must be jettisoned). Kristeva locates the ultimate of abjection in the birth-giving scene and makes it clear which fantasy is involved:

something horrible to see at the impossible doors of the invisible—the mother's body. The scene of scenes is here not the so-called primal scene, but the one of giving birth...flayed identity. Giving birth: the height of bloodshed and life, scorching moment of hesitation (between inside and outside, ego and other, life and death), horror and beauty, sexuality and the blunt negation of the sexual. (155)

Like the disenfranchised Cinderella who fled the palace at the stroke of midnight, weeping Nikita, stripped of her finery, runs home barefoot in the rain, her high heels in her hands, her stockings smeared with blood. When she confronts Bob, he subdues her by reassuring her that as new assassin, she is now legally sanctioned by the state and will be released imminently into the world. Wet and blood-smeared like a newborn, Nikita approaches Bob and kisses him. Bob's static, patriarchal posture of impersonal composure dissolves just as the imagined vision of the maternal body unleashes the source of an erotic, abject fascination:

But devotees of the abject, she as well as he, do not cease looking within what flows from the other's "innermost being," for the desirable and terrifying, nourishing and murderous, fascinating and abject inside of the maternal body. (Kristeva 54)

Bob's fetishistic gaze that circumscribes Nikita as phallic object of possession is coincident with his perverse and obsessive interest in the abject, which as Kristeva observes, provides the underside to the smooth, specular image of narcissism, "The more or less beautiful image in which I behold or recognize myself rests upon an abjection that sunders it as soon as repression, the constant watchman, is relaxed" (13).

Reentry into the World: Domestication

Before Nikita's departure, the Center director reinstates the function of paternal super ego, circumscribing Nikita's abject status with his stern warning, "I can't stand you. I'd have let you die. So toe the line." The director here acknowledges that the femme rebel paradigm engendered by Nikita has the potential not only to represent the phallic plenitude of the state but to expose the fragility of patriarchal law. Upon release from the subterranean world of the Center, Nikita's libidinal surplus value is rechanneled into the domestic sphere. When she visits the supermarket, she makes multiple purchases of each item. This sign of excess becomes the source of a humorous interchange with the checkout clerk Marco and provides the pretext for their rendezvous. During their candlelight dinner, Marco attempts to initiate casual conversation but is admonished by Nikita, who first advises him to simply eat but who then proceeds to overwhelm him with her carnal appetite, crawling over the table and murmuring apologetically, "Sorry I want you." As id incarnate, Nikita is recirculated within the sanctity of domestic space. The kiss serves as a transitional moment that reawakens the sexuality of this entombed Sleeping Beauty and is signified by an inspired fade out from darkness to a dazzling daylight that floods the screen.

The function of the paternal superego is reinstated in the perpetual threat implied in the pervasive, disembodied male voice that invades telephone lines. Nikita's first government job provides a grim parody of the role she plays with Marco, as she must actually don the costume and perform as "the domestic." Marco, infantalized, insubstantial, and from the lower class, is totally subordinated to the patriarchal persona of Bob (Vincendeau 16). Masquerading as "Uncle Bob," he arrives at Nikita's new apartment for a family dinner. His indulgence in lengthy reminiscences about her imagined childhood, when she had long ribbons in her hair and a pigtail, provides a refiguration of his paternal relation to her (Vincendeau 16). In this scene, Nikita and Marco are represented as dreamy children who play house, a tenuous situation that could be sanctioned or sabotaged at any moment by the state Bob represents. Before he leaves, Bob offers them a honeymoon trip to Venice, the seductive European capital of high art and culture that reinvokes the conspiratorial paradigm.

The Honeymoon: An Intersection of Nature and Culture

Accompanied by a jubilant classical refrain, the camera tracks forward to reveal Nikita and Marco reveling in their honeymoon cruise through Venice canals. When they return to the hotel room, they jump into bed as Nikita recites all her physiological cravings that include sex, thirst, and hunger. The phone rings ominously, however, and a deep-throated male voice abruptly aborts the act of sexual reproduction anticipated of newlyweds. In the hotel scene, the technology of the state apparatus not only marshals the surplus value of the drives but regulates the female reproductive cycle as well. Kristeva has observed that, "Fear of the archaic mother turns out to be essentially fear of her generative power. It is this power, a dreaded one, that patrilineal filiation has the burden of subduing" (77). As feminist theorist Sherry Ortner has argued, woman is relegated to a subordinate social sphere by virtue of her universal identification with nature:

Because of woman's greater bodily involvement with the natural functions surrounding reproduction, she is perceived as more a part of nature than man is. Yet in part because of her consciousness and participation in human dialogue, she is recognized as a participant in culture. Thus, she appears as something intermediate between culture and nature, lower on the scale of transcendence than man. (qtd. in Schwichtenberg, "Paradigms" 298)
click to enlarge image
click to enlarge image

In the bath, Nikita's denuded body is wrapped within the surveillance apparatus of headphones and a transmitter that emits a disembodied male voice-over, broadcasting instructions. An extreme close-up reveals her eye within a circular viewfinder, her vision literally defined by the site of the gargantuan gun she holds. Her body, enveloped by the technological surveillance apparatus of the conspiracy, functions as the receptacle of a patriarchal ideology that finds woman where she lives, in the domestic space stratified between nature and culture. Even the chic European apparel that Nikita sports, a black and white polka dot dress and white wide-brimmed hat with its large gaping holes, serves to metonymically signify the formal pattern of holes (bullet, gun viewfinder, door aperture) that form a visual motif connoting technological violence. Both the form and content of the Venice sequence seem to confirm Simone de Beauvoir's observation that the feminine is more associated with the scale of the body, while reserving for the state the patriarchal privilege of disembodiment, a non-corporeal identity (qtd. in Smith 102).

Married Life: Marco and the State

The nature paradigm that the film associates with the female body is mirrored in subsequent scenes depicting the urban Paris landscape. An extreme long shot that shows the last days of summer sunlight and darkening foliage immediately follows a warm sentimental moment between Marco and Nikita in which he gives her flowers, accompanied by a sweet musical refrain. This shot fades into an extreme long shot of the strident Tour Eiffel, amid the chilly barrenness of autumn trees. The final extreme long shot that closes the nature paradigm depicts Paris at night. As trees are cloaked in the technological glow of Christmas lights, the cityscape simultaneously becomes wrapped inside the sophisticated surveillance apparatus of the global conspiracy.

In urban Paris, surveillance is inscribed at the global scale, signified by the Western capitalist conspiracy's inclusion of both French and American operants. The counter-conspiracy of Eastern block Communists, signified by the ambassador's name Maximillien Jedreck and the Red Star that adorns the embassy entrance hall, has accessed computing and electronic data being sold by Western corporations. Nikita's mission is to record the names of the companies kept in the embassy vault, thus enabling the corporate conspiracy to expurgate global space of culturally intolerable companies that threaten to expose the fragility of political borders. Bob indicates to Nikita that the Boss wants a "clean, smooth job," "a magic act" that will effect political purge and purification. From a psychoanalytic perspective, cultural critic Gabriele Schwab has acutely observed that the postmodern vaults that contain dead memories remind us of the desire to control death and the dream of an artificial immortality:

How do these extensions [of our memory]—the computer, the media, the microfilm archives—affect the memory of a culture and the "individual" memories of its subjects? The "immortality" evoked by Baudrillard is based on "dead memory." How do all those postmodern vaults of dead memories, the archives, in conjunction with the speaking memories of the media build the memories of those who use them as technological extensions? How are processes of cultural memorization determined by the technological memories? (79)

As the late capitalist conspiracy seeks to perpetuate the illusion of its own immortality through the dead memories contained in microfilm archives, so Nikita serves as its technological extension, seeking to preserve the illusion of a life that the state allows her.

While serving the state as technological extension, Nikita sports the cultural chic and cosmopolitan savvy of a Parisian art dealer, now incarnating the high art and culture associated with the corporate conspiracy. A snag in the plan occurs when surveillance central radios Nikita to notify her that an access code has been switched. Victor the Cleaner is sent to complete the mission and "clean up their shit." His persona provides a vision of what Kristeva terms "a drive overload of hatred or death" (154), his name a sardonic metacommentary on the conspiratorial mission of political purification. As Victor ceremoniously burns the writhing bodies in the bathtub to death with acidic chemicals, he creates a grim memorial to the sheer sensation and spectacle of suffering and horror. Kristeva describes the abjection of the corpse:

Connected nevertheless with excrement and impure on that account...the corpse is to an even greater degree that by means of which the notion of impurity slips into that of abomination and/or prohibition, to'ebah. In other words, if the corpse is waste, transitional matter, mixture, it is above all the opposite of the spiritual, of the symbolic, and of divine law. (109)

As the embodiment of a cathectic death drive, Victor is conjoined to Nikita like a Siamese twin, threatening to burn off her face if the mission is not completed. Nikita, seeking simply to perpetuate the illusion of her half-life, will become literally transformed into a panoptic extension of the state when her glasses click like a camera to photographically record embassy documents.

Serving the state as technological extension, Nikita's perspective replicates its point of view. The patriarchal perspective that had initially framed her image as abject is reproduced in her own point of view when she surveils the dark, dangerous zone of the geopolitical Other. The anti-social violence originally associated with her name "Nikita" (signifying the East, international socialism, the cold war) is now displaced outwards onto the political borderlands of the counter-conspiracy. Even the neon blue that had initially signified Nikita's subterranean habitus resurfaces in her dark bluish surveillance video of ambassador Jedreck at the Eastern embassy. When she enters the embassy as operant Josephine to photograph the documents, however, the pivotal gaze of the counter-conspiracy is returned. A blue closed circuit surveillance screen recasts her image as the Other—outside the law.

It is precisely Nikita's capacity to serve the capitalist state as Josephine, a technological extension, that makes her a tolerable object, objet (a), possessing a vision that can become internalized within the ideological frame of the Western patriarchal conspiracy. Her representation as good object is a refined extract that has been distilled from the anti-social excessiveness of her primordial "Nikita" persona. The surplus of sensation is systematically rationalized, externalized, and made operative in the embassy when she consents to wear the bizarre and abject mask of Eastern Communist ambassador Jedreck. Yet, the representation of Nikita is reframed once again in this scene, this time from within the mobile camera eye of the Eastern counter-conspiracy. Her assumed identity as panoptic extension Josephine is reencoded in mise-en-abyme at the moment the blue surveillance screen reconfigures her body as that which is deviant and potentially dangerous. Within this mise-en-abyme frame that the film establishes, her masked persona definitively marks her as both a criminal and liar, thus exemplifying Kristeva's notion of the abject:

It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior....Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law is abject....(4)

In this scene, the diametrically opposed points of view that the respective state conspiracies represent collapse into one hegemonic, patriarchal perspective that determines Nikita's image as a recto-verso mirror reflection. Dependent upon which definition is activated at any given moment, the representation of Nikita oscillates between the status of objet (a) (that which the state seeks to incorporate) or that of the abject (that which the state seeks to jettison). The flip side of Nikita's trajectory unfolds during the embassy scene, when her image simultaneously assumes the status of both. Hysterical, Nikita screams at Victor, "I can't take any more of this!"

The Creation of Cyborg Space

Feminist theoretician Donna Haraway's doubled vision of a "cyborg world," which might be described as either the apotheosis of Euro-American white society in its drive for mastery, on the one hand, or as the resistant "indigenous" world views of cyborg feminism, on the other, is defined in the following passage:

A cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense about the final appropriation of women's bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. (154)

As feminist scholar Chela Sandoval points out, Haraway's definition of cyborg feminism is designed to include not only the mixture, or "affinity," between human, animal, physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual being, but between all these and the machines of the dominant culture too (248). The final shot of Nikita before her disappearance presents her in silhouette, a creature with dark, glowing eyes and wild hair against a deep blue horizon. As technological extension of the Euro-American machine, Nikita has unavoidably become its by-product. Yet, within this frame, she establishes a poetic movement in consciousness that moves backwards to reestablish its indigenous animalistic origins and that simultaneously moves forwards to create a cyborg space articulated across a global scale. In film theorist Gilles Deleuze's terms, the actual image of Nikita has formed a virtual image that corresponds to it like a double or reflection:

There is a formation of an image with two sides, actual and virtual. It is as if an image in a mirror, a photo or postcard came to life, assumed independence and passed into the actual, even if this meant that the actual image returned into the mirror and resumed its place in the postcard or photo, following a double movement of liberation and capture. (68)

The violent blue subterranean world from which the feminine body of Nikita arose is here reencoded and redefined as cyborg space by a differential form of consciousness that permits the oppositional femme rebel to use state ideology as "the departure point" for another semiological chain, a place where meaning escapes any final destination, a place that is unnamable and that escapes from any analysis (Sandoval 263). According to Sandoval, a differential form of oppositional consciousness is "the form love takes in the postmodern word" insofar as it permits "the generation of a new kind of citizenship, countrywomen and men of the same psychic terrain whose lives are made meaningful through the enactment of the methodology of the oppressed" (266). Sandoval envisions the revolutionary potential of oppositional consciousness:

...the oppressed have only one true mode of revolutionary activity, the ability to perceive and decode dominant order sign systems in order to move among them with a certain literacy, thus ensuring their survival; and one true mode of revolutionary consciousness, which is the ability of consciousness to differentially move through the being-of-meaning, and toward a possible but always unnamable world of social and psychic life. (268)

As cinema spectators, we are also "chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism" (Haraway 150), cyborgs in the sense of the term defined by Haraway. Our bodies, as film theorist Steven Shaviro asserts, have been profoundly transformed by the mass media of reproduction (263). According to Shaviro, the mechanism of the cinema itself, which would include its social and economic structuration as well as its modes of production and distribution, works only in relation to a certain dynamics of the body (263). Deleuze's discussion of the cinematic time-image provides the philosophical framework for Shaviro's observations. Deleuze delineates the interrelation between the body and the cinematic apparatus:

The body is no longer the obstacle that separates thought from itself, that which it has to overcome to reach thinking. It is on the contrary that which it plunges into or must plunge into, in order to reach the unthought, that is life. Not that the body thinks, but, obstinate and stubborn, it forces us to think, and forces us to think what is concealed from thought, life....It is through the body (and no longer through the intermediary of the body) that cinema forms its alliance with the spirit, with thought. (189)

Due to the cinematic machine, our bodies are transformed and affected in new ways and, thus, are perceived in a different light. Cinema articulates the body, bringing us into confrontation with an Otherness that can neither be reincorporated nor jettisoned. The body itself is at once sublime and abject, and as Kristeva has observed, every abjection ultimately "beseeches a discharge, a convulsion, a crying out" of the body (2). Kristeva affirms that there looms within abjection: of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there quite close, but it cannot be assimilated....[The abject] is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses. (1-2)

The driving passion of La Femme Nikita resides in the violent, persistent contact of the body, which provokes a deep ambivalence, an incessant affective oscillation. The unresolveable sensations inspired by the textual body of the film can be said to constitute an unconscious, allegorical effort at trying to determine what landscapes and forces articulate our desire in the late twentieth century (Jameson 3). It is in my intent to hypothesize, in my desire to map and create a place that the contours of cyborg space emerge (Jameson 3). While viewing the conspiracy film La Femme Nikita, I am coerced through my confrontation with Otherness, as is she, to "jump scales" from the local to the potentially global revolution of the body (Smith 112).

Works Cited

Anderson, Laurie. "The Language of the Future." United States. New York: Harper, 1984.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

Doane, Mary Ann. The Dialogical Text: Filmic Irony and the Spectator. Diss. U of Iowa, 1979.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1980.

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Hayward, Susan. French National Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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La Femme Nikita. Dir. Luc Besson. Perf. Anne Parillaud, Jean-Hughes Anglade, and Tcheky Karyo. Gaumont, 1990.

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Rev. of La Femme Nikita, dir. Luc Besson. National Review 27 May 1991: 56.

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—. "A Patriarchal Voice in Heaven." Jump Cut 24/25 (March 1981): 13-16.

Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Smith, Neil. "Homeless/global: Scaling places." Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, GlobalChange. Ed. Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, Tim Putnam, George Robertson and Lisa Tickner. London: Routledge, 1993. 87-119.

Vincendeau, Ginette. "Family Plots: The Fathers and Daughters of French Cinema." Sight andSound 1.11 (1991-2): 15-17.

Williamson, Judith. Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars, 1978.