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Natalie Portman Leon

How to be a woman, according to Luc Besson

The cult director has created some of the most iconic, insane and idiosyncratic characters in cinematic history – here’s how you can be more like them

Luc Besson loves an iconic leading lady. Since pioneering the stylish cinéma du look movement back in the 80s, the French director has been shattering ‘strong woman’ stereotypes with his complex and charismatic characters – from Léon’s vengeful 12-year-old Mathilde to The Fifth Element’s strange neon deity Leeloo. Although not perfect (male gaze, much?), Besson’s flawed creations helped to challenge the tired tropes of Hollywood, and offered fresh new takes on gender identity. So what better way to celebrate the 25th birthday of his first major breakthrough, La Femme Nikita, than to look a little more closely at his world of femininity? If you’ve ever dreamed of being a Bandidas bank robber, a killer-femme, or an army commander, this one’s for you.

BE YOUNG, LITHE AND EXCEPTIONALLY BEAUTIFUL (AND PREFERABLY A MODEL)

It doesn’t take too long to run into the first feminist flaw, here. With all of Besson’s films centered around a breathtakingly beautiful woman – see Milla Jovovich, Isabelle Adjani and new recruit Cara Delevingne – it can be a struggle to shift the scepticism. Especially as these aesthetically-blessed bombshells are normally pitted against less-than-perfect leading men, like Jamel Debbouze and Jean Reno. Luckily, Besson manages to steer clear of cliches by making these women less ‘manic pixie dream girl’, and more ‘manic divine dominatrix’ – offering rich, flawed characters who have plenty of their own (serious) issues. 

HANG ON TO YOUR GRUDGES

The ‘vengeful woman’ is now a common trope in cinema, with ‘strong’, gun-wielding ladies becoming more and more of summertime staple. Despite the implied positivity behind these roles, though, there’s still something that doesn’t quite sit right. Femininity, although celebrated via skin-tight latex and sky-high stilettos, is still very much a weakness – with female superheroes let down by their lame ‘maternal’ instincts, and physical inferiority. Besson’s films, while certainly not perfect in this area, at least try to keep it interesting, and revisit the revenge story with a host of colourful characters: including drug addicts, children, and 15th-century peasants. 

TAP INTO YOUR MASCULINE SIDE

While discussing his creative process, Besson reportedly claimed that he was more drawn to “the feminine part of the male character and the male part of the female character”. Given all the short, sharp haircuts and the lean, toned bodies of his leading women, it’s not exactly much of a surprise. These aren’t your stereotypically ‘feminine’ objects – these are women with a more fluid and open gender identity. 1991’s La Femme Nikita is the perfect example of this; with the titular role being presented as more than just mere sexual commodity, but as a muscular, strong and capable assassin.

BE A TOTALLY HEINOUS BITCH

To say that Besson’s women DGAF is mildly understating it. These are people who are so unbothered by social niceties that they may actually have a problem: ranging from obnoxious 12-year-olds to overzealous assassins. One of the worst examples – aside from all the people that get killed – is Isabelle Adjani’s turn in 1985’s Subway. After appropriating an elaborate Iroquois hairdo for a dinner party with her Daddy Warbucks husband, her character then proceeds to tear apart the bourgeois guests in attendance. “Your dinner is pathetic and your digs are pathetic,” she casually tells the host at the end. “Go fuck yourselves. All of you.”

BRUSH UP ON YOUR SELF-DEFENSE SKILLS (AND BE OK WITH OCCASIONALLY KILLING PEOPLE) 

In La Femme Nikita, the classic Pygmalion story gets a major twist, with the main character swapping elocution lessons for self-defence and target practice. Once only seen on screen as a penis-extension for the brawny, aggy action hero, guns are now a solid Besson staple – with all his women wielding some kind of deadly killing machine at one time or another. While some critics view this as male fetishisation, Besson seems to be urging for more levity: de-eroticising them, and normalising the whole ‘woman with a gun’ thing. Also, disturbingly, the ‘child with a gun’ thing.

REVEL IN THOSE MENTAL ISSUES

Like all of us, Besson’s women have issues. Peeling off Hollywood’s sparkling veneer, the director spearheads characters who are anything but basic. Despite all that flawless skin and breathtaking beauty, these are women who are swimming in imperfections – proving it is possible to be both a ‘strong’ woman, while also being a bit of a mentally ‘unstable’ woman. “(Joan of Arc) was nuts. She was really nuts,” Besson explains, remembering his research for his 1999 film The Messenger. “We read some comments from a monk who was following her and by night, at the camp with the soldiers, some hookers would come to the camp and she would chase these hookers with a sword. She actually broke her sword three times chasing these hookers. She was mad... I would never chase a hooker with a sword.”