Back before Buffy and Katniss, Besson was one of the only directors championing stories with women as action leads. He’s a little cagey about this. “I pay the same attention to the girl and the guy,” Besson says. “What I like, in fact, is the strength of the woman and the weakness of the man. I will be interested in the Terminator the day he starts crying because he is missing his mom.”
This belies a more complicated truth. La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, and Lucy all portray women not just as action heroes but as women transformed into action heroes—usually against their will. As Susan Hayward wrote in her 1998 book, Luc Besson, Nikita undergoes an elaborate “civilizing” ritual. It’s Pretty Woman with murder. In The Fifth Element, men literally build Leeloo from a tissue sample. Bad guys in Lucy expose Johansson’s character to origin juice by forcing her to become their drug mule. Even when Besson’s main character is a woman, her change—Joan’s arc, if you will—is initiated by men around her.
Which, OK, this could be just the straight-outta-Cahiers du Cinéma academic theorizing that Besson says he ignores. Except Besson was in a relationship with Anne Parillaud, the star of Nikita, and with Milla Jovovich of The Fifth Element. His movies luxuriate in transformations of these women’s characters just as Besson was literally, in real life, transforming their characters. Gazes don’t get much more male.
Adam Rogers, “Luc Besson’s Outer Limits”, Wired (July 2017), 68-69.