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Archive for April 12th, 2020

At last year’s Golden Globes, while accepting the award for best foreign language film, director Bong Joon-ho stated (via his now famous translator Sharon Choi) suggested “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”.  At the time I intended to write about the first time I personally crossed the proverbial barrier, but didn’t get around to it.  Since then, it has won four Oscars (including best picture, and director), and to BAFTA’s and has grossed over $250million.  What better time to revisit this idea.Bong Joon-ho

The film that made me the breach the “one inch tall barrier” was Nikita (1990) from French Auteur Luc Besson.  The first I heard of it was probably from Barry Norman on Film 90.  As far as I can recall, like most people at the time, he gave it a lukewarm review praising the style but suggesting it lacked substance.  However he showed a clip from the film including part of the big action scene at the centre of the story, I was hooked.  At the time I didn’t visit the cinema often, and had I wanted to, had the issue of being four years younger than the 18 certificate would allow.  I was however, a very good customer of my local video shop!  They didn’t know, or more to the point chose not to ask my age, so sometime the following year, the day the movie was released on VHS (ask your parents) I was there waiting to rent it.

It didn’t disappoint.  With far less action than I expected, and more style than I had ever seen, it was a neon masterpiece.   For those who don’t know it, the obligatory synopsis (warning – spoilers, most of the first act revealed).  A group of junkies break into a pharmacy, chaos ensues, three cops, and all but one of the kids are killed.  The lone survivor Nikita (Anne Parillaud), is sentenced to life imprisonment.  He death is faked by an apparent suicide, she then wakes to be given the option of death, or serve her country as an assassin.  To date, it has spawned tree adaptations  Just three years after the original, there was an American remake: The Assassin (aka Point of No Return) (1993).  There have also been two TV series: La Femme Nikita (1997-2001), and Nikita (2010-2013). All three have some merit,  but are a shadow of the original movie.

Anne Parillaud is perfect for the part.  Throughout the film she goes through a series of transformations, from the feral junkie, the petulant teenager impossible to teach, to the sophisticated killer.  But the real character is then revealed.  The woman who doesn’t know what to buy in the supermarket.  And most importantly the real person, the one who falls in love, and is trapped between by her past and her job, unable to talk about either.  There is action, and it is very slick, but my modern standards it is also very realistic.  Thanks to the 18 certificate, the film can be brutal and violent.  This gives a surprising sense of realism.  But the film has more to offer, the titillation of the action and violence, gets people through the door, but the real appeal of the movie is its portrayal of humanity, despair and distrust.  Made just after the end of the cold war, and the tail-end of the excess of the 80’s.  This is year zero of the Tyler Durden generation “the middle children of history” – “No purpose or place” as described in Flight Club (1999) at the end of the decade.

I was unable to find Barry Norman’s original review, but in looking for it, I found a lot of other  opinions.   It appears Nikita has a 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but most of these reviews are more recent.  Back in the 90’s most people and critics seemed to dismiss the film, focusing on the style and/or the violence.  Not surprising, it is after all a key film within what has become known as the Cinéma du look movement.  However, I did find one contemporary review, from Roger Ebert.  As you would expect it is more interesting and insightful; concentrating on the transformation of the character, and the price we pay for decisions.  He called it “a version of the “Pygmalion” legend for our own violent times”.

Back to that one inch tall barrier: It wasn’t the first time I had read subtitles.  I had seen films with sections in other languages.  I also remember my mom watching a French film, I think it was Mourir d’aimer… (1971), which looking back seems bizarre as she hates reading subtitles now!  But most importantly, Director Bong was right it did introduce me to so many more amazing films.  My favourite film of the century so far, Oldboy (2003) is subtitled.  It was a good time to discover subtitled movies, as well as everything that had gone before, within a couple you years of Nikita there were some excelled films released including: Delicatessen (1991), Hard Boiled (1992), El mariachi (1992), Cronos (1993), Three Colours: Blue (1993), Three Colours: Red (1994), Chungking Express (1994), and The City of Lost Children (1995).  People have said to me they can’t read, and concentrate on the movie.  I have never had an issue with this, after a while, you forget you are reading.

My experience of subtitles hasn’t always been perfect.  As a student I had a part time job in bar.  I worked with a French girl who complained she couldn’t go to the cinema in England.  She explained that although she could converse in English she struggled with movies, especially American ones where people either mumble or speak too quickly to under understand.  Growing up she always watched “version originale” films; films shown in the original language but with French subtitles.  It had the dual benefit of being able to read anything she didn’t understand, but also helping her learn English.  I was unable to find her a screening with French subtitles but did take her to see a French film, La Haine (1995).  Not only did she hate the film, but spent the entire screening telling me the English subtitles were wrong!

If you are yet to get past the one inch tall barrier, why not give it a go, their is a whole world of amazing movies waiting for you.  What else are you going to do, watch Gone with the Wind? 

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