Hollywood may be progressing, or haphazardly fumbling its way, toward a more gender-balanced work ethic, but one cannot shrug off the itchy feeling that it’s trying too hard. Flipping beloved all-male classics into all-female remakes is a cheap and glib way of making a statement. Suddenly erupting with female-led historical biopics and fantasy epics seems like an expedited way of apologising for decades of underappreciated women on screen. It’s too much too soon; some things just need time.
But out of this cloud of muddy guilt there are a few whose consciences can remain clear. Luc Besson, like Quentin Tarantino, has always believed, since his formative years, in the raw charisma of that second X chromosome. Some of his best films have been about strong, confident women.
His most enduring female figure is unquestionably Nikita (Anne Parillaud), a savage killer exacting lethal justice on the world in a decade where beautiful women were playing little more than scantily clad sex magnets. Nikita, yanked from death’s door by the government and reconditioned into a hardened assassin, proved to a global audience that women were capable of executing a “man’s job” with just as much skill. She carved open a new arena for cinematic women, one soon inhabited by the likes of Trinity in The Matrix (1999).
Almost immediately after the success of Nikita, Besson directed four movies with formidable women in quick succession: 1994’s Léon: The Professional, 1997’s The Fifth Element, Joan of Arc in 1999 and Angel-A in 2005. Léon, of course, toyed precariously with notions of child violence and paedophilia, with Jean Reno’s titular hero fawning over the thirteen-year-old Natalie Portman while he taught her the assassin’s trade. It did, however, act as a springboard for Portman, whose razor-sharp performance propped her up against the veteran Reno and quite nearly stole the entire film.
Both The Fifth Element and Joan of Arc starred Milla Jovovich, who was married to Besson at the time. The Fifth Element does a sneaky thing; its hero is ostensibly Bruce Willis, with his questionable blonde hair and clumsy machismo, but it is really Jovovich’s Leeloo who has the strength and gumption to rescue the world. Leeloo, who is basically the indestructible re-materialisation of alien DNA into a messianic figure, would later serve as Besson’s template for Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a hero who becomes so powerful she need only glare at you to set your hair on fire.
The cinematic landscape of today begs for filmmakers like Besson. Audience appetite for relatable, fun, confident on-screen women has never been more voracious. All-female gross-out comedies are fast becoming hip. Doctor Who recently dominated television news with an earth-shattering announcement. People will pay to see intelligent women kick ass, especially when they look so much better doing it than men. Atomic Blonde is currently playing and looks very much like something Besson would think up. He, of course, is too busy with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the new romping sci-fi epic filled with blistering visuals and unlikely heroes. How Cara Delevingne slots into Besson’s army of leading heroines is anyone’s guess, but I suspect she won’t be someone you want to mess with.
Image courtesy of Palace Entertainment Corporation & Madman Entertainment