By John Ruch
Cherche l’homme: “La Femme Nikita” and Macho Drag
Drag is a (perhaps the) revolutionary modern aesthetic. In a society increasingly churned by role-playing, identity-seeking and gender-definition-questioning, it’s everywhere, from actual drag shows to the gender/identity ambiguity of the Internet and video games. (Even the relatively dry, numbers-crunching, currency-tracking site Wheresgeorge.com classes users’ self-reported gender as “People generally consider me a….”)
That’s not to say that all drag is revolutionary. Indeed, the classic drag queen gig is crypto-sexist, a menstrual show answer to the minstrel shows of yore. Less obviously, much of the straight masculinity it rejects is its own lethal sort of drag.
This can become apparent in extreme, costume-based examples: heavy metal bands, neo-Nazis, investment bankers (or, as is quite possible these days, all of the above).
But that only reflects the insidious internal drag that demands that men cloak their inner worlds with emotional deadness. There may only have been one Man in the Iron Mask, but the vast majority of us still have this disguise riveted firmly in place, from our Mean Dad of a president on down the sullen line.
This affectlessness is, of course, not just for effect. Macho masculinity is not merely an act or a costume; it’s ingrained behavior. Indeed, it’s usually a useful adaptation in a sick society that expects and demands males to provide and survive violence. (I grew up in schools that in aesthetics, administration, population and threat level replicated minimum-security prisons, and found grim detachment a potent tool indeed.) Useful, but insidious, as most circumstances in our highly culture-crafted world are not unavoidable high-noon showdowns. I fear that, like all adaptations, the emotional death that characterizes modern masculinity seeks—or creates—its own biological niches: battlefields, torture chambers, serial killer basements and suicides-by-cop. Or, to be less dramatic and just as tragic, broken marriages, abused/neglected children and joyless, wasted lives.
While this stoic phenomenon is very real—even promoted as a lifestyle or apotheosized as some kind of genetic inevitability—it is also illustrated and informed by entertainment. Obviously, the defining genre is the action movie, with its ever-narrowing emotional range. The early, impenetrably gruff icons like John Wayne gave way to the likes of Clint Eastwood, someone so lifeless that only the occasional lip curl lets you know you’re not watching a documentary about pharaonic mummies. And even he was supplanted by walking tree stumps like Chuck Norris or quasi-sentient fleshblobs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal.1
Like all drag, macho expressionlessness has elements of camp. I’ve always enjoyed action movies while finding them hilarious at the same time—an experience that, I think, is common but unstated. Sometimes the movies themselves dip into it, like the quasi-parodies “Commando” and “The Dead Pool” (of Schwarzenegger and Eastwood, respectively) or the general eyebrow-arching of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Humorlessness is often humorous. But action movies are meant to be taken seriously—not in their fantastical content, but in their emotional tenor.
Action movies are often talked about in terms of their politics, since they’re usually about crimefighting or international conflict. But what they’re really about is blue-collar jobs—cops and soldiers, especially—and the frustrating crappiness thereof. Even the sleek James Bond was a working man who had to show up at the office to get his assignments. The vast majority of action movies are damn-the-boss fantasies. Paranoia, delusions of grandeur and false moral clarity are typically injected to heighten the high.
The defining trait of the action movie is what it presents as a successful coping strategy for crummy work environments: numbness, hostility, uncommunicativeness and eventual explosive violence. And maybe there’s something to be said for all that. However, the action movie is all about justification and nothing about consequences.
Perhaps the only significant action movie to let the drag slip, to appear briefly sans make-up, is “First Blood,” the outstanding first Rambo movie. In this tale of Vietnam vet flashback freak-out and revenge on vile, small-town cops, Sylvester Stallone makes it clear his character is motivated largely by fear, and collapses blubbering at the end.
Still, the main impression of the movie is Rambo as an invulnerable ultimate survivalist whose unleashed vengeance cuts through cops, an entire town and the National Guard like a custom-made Bowie knife through butter.2
I bring all of this up because I have belatedly discovered a true action epiphany, the 1990s syndicated TV series “La Femme Nikita,” a show that uniquely explored macho action drag in-depth and found it to be, well, a drag.
There’s a bit of the ridiculous in me gushing about a decade-old series I still haven’t watched all the way through.3 But this particular facet of the popular show seems to have drawn little attention. The ground this show broke, and the incredible talent it displayed in so doing, deserve much wider recognition.
“La Femme Nikita” is based on the 1990 Luc Besson action movie of the same name, a modern-day “Pygmalion” about a woman street criminal who is unwillingly turned into an assassin by a cynical government agency. That was itself a groundbreaking action movie that plays madly with gender roles and macho drag. (The woman as action hero is a subversive subgenre all its own, with rules and influences that are frankly too complicated to fit into my glib action movie encapsulation above.)
The TV show (1997-2001) followed the same basic storyline, with the remarkable Australian actress Peta Wilson in the title role. But naturally, it domesticated the show more, turning Nikita into a member of an anti-terrorist spy team called Section One, and documenting the grotesque office politics that unfold in the group’s subterranean headquarters.
The strange seas Nikita navigates are a diabolical blend of male and female evil, with undercurrents of brute force and cruel manipulation. The gestalt is built and personified by the Section’s evil Daddy and Mommy, the vicious Type-A executive Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer) and the icy psychologist/analyst Madeline (Alberta Watson).
All Section agents are convicted murderers operating under constant threat of death if they fail or disobey. Emotional suppression is demanded; horrifying ruses and exploitations are routine. Nikita, a lively, emotional, basically decent person, struggles daily to survive the insanity.
Someone surviving well, and typifying the macho drag portion of the program, is Michael (the French-Canadian actor Roy Dupuis), Nikita’s mentor, evil genius and love interest. Stoic to a point of Zen-like facial immobility, Eastwoodian reticence and robotic economy of movement, and capable of killing anyone, anywhere, anytime in about a nanosecond, Michael is a classic modern action hero.
Thus, he should also be a classic bore. Instead, he’s a remarkable, moving deconstruction of masculinity, thanks both to the screenwriters’ conception and Dupuis’s talent, which results in one of the finest screen performances I’ve ever seen (speaking as a one-time professional critic of such things).
As in all action movies, Michael’s persona is presented as an efficient, useful adaptation to a hideous job. But “La Femme Nikita” lets slip the dirty secret that at best it’s useful only in highly limited circumstances. It tells us that Michael has a much richer inner life. It shows him fumbling to reach Nikita through his own emotional armor, and Nikita similarly unable to touch him. It shows Michael’s mask as something he struggles to remove, something that sometimes suffocates him. It shows him dying to reveal himself, but feeling more comfortable in disguise. It shows him confusing his identity with his act.
In short, it shows us your average guy writ large.
The masks in the show are almost literal. Facial expressions and other emotional displays are verboten in “La Femme Nikita”; its drama happens almost entirely through the eyes. Glances, blinks and eye contact have stunning significance in this creepy little world where human relationships can transpire only as a form of espionage. Wilson, whose eyes are among the most captivating in the business, and who has a remarkable ability to express several emotions simultaneously, leads the way, her active vision discomfiting everyone else as they carry out their poisonous routines.
But Dupuis is even more restricted. Indeed, his performance is avant-garde in its astounding minimalism, something that goes beyond the required machismo and into a realm that, if he had flubbed it, would have risked his leading-man status. At virtually all times, his face is less mobile than an Easter Island head. He works almost exclusively with his soft, blue-gray eyes. (In this way, Dupuis reminds me of Alain Delon in the great crime film “Le Samouraï”—only better.)
Their language is not the squinty glare of classic action heroes. Michael’s eyes are open, receptive, but also shy and avoidant. The primary syntax of Michael’s glances involves him looking away briefly, blinking thoughtfully, as if repressing an emotional response, then locking eyes, as if trying to imply a much deeper message than the few words he might be simultaneously offering up. As the friend who turned me onto “La Femme Nikita” put it, Michael’s eyes are never hostile, even when he’s dispatching villains. (Ditto for his face; Michael/Dupuis is truly expressionless, as opposed to scowl-locked like the classic one-note action hero.) And far from the Classical Reptilian spoken by, say, Norris’s eyes, Michael’s looks are relentlessly communicative. While the classic action hero attempts to look like a predator through and through, Michael’s eyes constantly tell us that his dispassion is just a necessary act, that there is something still living inside him that is frightened by the evil he’s forced to commit. He appears not angry, but shell-shocked.
Dupuis vocalizes Michael in a similar way. He employs a low Eastwoodian whisper that matches the screenwriters’ Eastwoodian terseness of dialogue. Much of Michael’s dialogue is literally one word long, delivered so as to convey the message that the conversation is now over. While it is fundamentally cold and menacing, it is also unfailingly calm and polite—once again, not hostile. It is also avoidant, hinting at contempt for his own actions; one of Michael’s favorite responses is simply, “Of course,” a line that sums up his air of machine-like obedience mingled with implicit distaste.
Besides intent and talent, happenstance also aids this sense of emotional repression. Dupuis has a québécois accent (though so terse is he, it took me about three episodes to notice). The huge French vowels often battle with the American English terseness inside his mouth, sometimes creating a clipped or slightly choked sound. Facially, this is accompanied by Dupuis opening his mouth a bit more than a pure English-speaker would, then catching himself and closing it up again, drawing his upper lip down more tightly. By nature, Dupuis has to hammer flat his beautifully expressive native tongue; by accident, it adds greatly to Michael’s aura of emotional strangulation. At times, it makes him sound almost on the verge of tears.4
Dupuis/Michael’s appearance, again by both accident and design, has similar hints of softness. Dupuis is a dazzlingly attractive guy, well-built with a strong jawline and the usual hunky fixins, but made truly gorgeous by individualizing imperfections (most prominently, a nose that appears to have been thoroughly broken at one time, probably with a hockey stick). He exudes “athlete-warrior” typing, but he also has those remarkably plush eyes, as well as a somewhat sensual mouth. Design-wise, Michael is always dressed in trim, funereal black and bedecked with macho stubble, but also with longish hair that softens his otherwise severe visual impact.
Watching Michael is like observing an eclipse—a darkness surrounded by a halo of fiery hints. There’s no doubt he’s dangerous, virtually invincible. But he’s also buried alive in a tough-guy coffin, and we’re given plenty of chances to smell the dirt around it. Dupuis gives us a Michael who seems less cruel than clinically depressed—which is what most tough guys are.
Michael is a brilliantly designed and executed character, but the show doesn’t just let him float out there on his own subtleties. It actively explores the themes of macho drag.
In the show’s theme song, a female voice muses, “Cherche la femme,” and indeed, much of the first season is about Michael seeking Nikita. Using (and abusing) his authority as her mentor, he stalks her in her private life, breaks into her apartment on a regular basis, and generally expresses romantic interest in highly dysfunctional ways. But when Nikita challenges him—or worse, responds to the interest—this tough guy turns on his heel and flees back into the underworld. Macho machines who are little boys inside are not the meat and potatoes of action dramas, but “La Femme Nikita” spills the secret relentlessly.
Indeed, by the second season, it’s now, “Cherche l’homme”—Nikita seeking Michael as he withdraws further behind his walls. Like so many shows, “La Femme Nikita” is built around the sexual tension between its leads. Unlike the rest, it takes the amazing step of plopping them in bed together at the beginning of the second season. That would be a farewell, they-lived-happily-ever-after episode of any other series, considered both the pinnacle and death of the drama. In “La Femme Nikita,” it’s where the drama—and the realism—really begin.
After finally confessing and expressing love together, Nikita and Michael do not become warm and fuzzy. In fact, Michael doesn’t even get his pants back on before becoming icy and withdrawn, already disappearing back into invulnerability. This stunning retreat into emotional unavailability right at the culmination of intimacy is criminally absent from most romances, even as it’s utterly familiar to, I daresay, the vast majority of men and women. It’s one of “La Femme Nikita’s” most remarkable and honest moments.
Michael is literally naked during the scene—but only physically. Emotionally, you can almost hear him saying, “Time to become a man again. Time to disappear behind the mask.”5
The show doesn’t constantly focus on this theme, but it keeps Michael’s choice between romantic life and emotional suicide constantly in play. When it does delve deeper, it remains powerful and insightful.
A key example is a nice twist on a hoary spy cliché—the amnesia episode. Drugged by terrorists, Michael loses his memory—not only of his past, but of his macho drag. We see the real Michael for a brief time—kind, affectionate, expressive. Painfully, but wisely, Nikita pulls away from him. “This isn’t you,” she says in a searingly complex line; of course, it is him, but not the Michael she can have long-term, once his memory returns. In a bit that is simultaneously very funny and deeply sad, Nikita instructs Michael (whose amnesia, if revealed, would get him executed) how to act inside Section: “Use as few words as possible. Be terse.” She trains him in rebuilding the macho mask she’s struggled so long to smash. In the end, Michael regains his memory, and Nikita re-loses Michael.6
Nikita, an innocent who can’t stop trusting and caring, is the show’s poignant victim. But Michael is its most tragic figure.
Lest I get too gushy, it must be acknowledged that “La Femme Nikita” also exploits the macho masquerade as much as it peeks behind the mask. Michael’s main attraction is his standing as the Unattainable Hunky Boss of romance cliché, a role many women have been trained to respond to submissively by the deathly macho codes that pervade much of our storytelling. (To the show’s credit, Nikita at least challenges and rejects Michael as much as she yearns for him.)
More significantly, Michael is still a credibility-straining superhero whose macho shell is justified in classic action-movie terms by the false clarity of externally imposed forces—vile bosses and even more vile villains. Action heroes are never responsible for themselves; they’re always “forced” to be obnoxious.
For most men, the only real imposition is the emotional deadness itself, presented as a tautological definition of masculinity. Real emotional deadness is a symptom, not a solution.
Michael compensates by becoming extremely competent—indeed, as one episode mentions, it appears to be his only determination of self-worth, possibly his only pleasure. There is considerable emotional truth to that; our society often forces men into perfectionist personality disorders, then rewards them well for it in work environments.
Still, most men do not become glamorous ultra-heroes like Michael. They become gray drudges with early heart attacks.
This concept of the action hero as a glorification of (over)compensation has some relationship to stories that present handicapped people as bearing magical powers. A good example is the amusing TV show “Monk,” a mystery-comedy about a severely obsessive-compulsive detective. (Like “La Femme Nikita” once did, it airs on the USA Network.) Monk, who evinces a veritable “DSM”-load of neurotic symptoms, is depicted as benefiting from his extreme detachment and attention to detail. He becomes one of the world’s greatest detectives, though his emotional life is tragic and crippled.
Of course, most real neurotics or other injured people do not have amazing compensations. They’re just plain screwed. Normal, screwed people.
Likewise, someone who acted like Michael in real life would almost surely not be pursued by women. He would be laughed at. (Remember that all drag has camp elements; Michael’s seriousness begs to be mocked, and one of the thrills of Dupuis’ performance is how dangerously close it comes to being a punchline. Indeed, in at least one episode about subliminal persuasion, Michael’s deadpan image is employed as unintentional self-parody.)
And in the worst irony, most men who emotionally duplicate action heroes are not active. They’re frozen, dormant.
Less obviously, few men act like any one thing, hard as they may try. Obviously, Michael has struck me because he resonates with my own personality, which involves many of the same syndromes and flaws. But I’ve begun thinking of myself as responding more on a Nikita-Michael spectrum—sometimes more acting out, like Nikita, sometimes more cold and shielded, like Michael. Still, most men identify with the male gender role and actively imitate it, whatever their actual spectrum of behavior.
All that being said, “La Femme Nikita” deserves enormous credit for its honesty and how much it gets right. It shows love as the ultimate secret mission in a male world. It shows that emotions are the real action, the real danger, the real terrorism. It suggests that emotionally dead people may make great fighters, but in another way have already lost. I fear in some ways it’s unbearably, specifically timely, as I ponder what impact our cynical warfare and cultural paranoia is having on men’s souls, and what will happen when soldiers come back home.
One of the dangers of macho drag is confusing image with reality. It would likewise be dangerous to equate Dupuis with Michael. Indeed, from what I can tell, much of Michael’s effectiveness as a character seems to stem from Dupuis being a very different person, or one who lives out the similarities in very different ways: shy, retiring, sensitive, witty, emotionally open. (He reportedly choked up while addressing a “La Femme Nikita” fan convention and cried off-stage.) Upon playing a gay hustler in “Being at Home with Claude” (1992), he freely discussed how it led him to question his sexuality before settling into straightness. He praises the feminine. He seems comfortable with himself, living a rural life, supporting environmental and disabled-assistance charities. In short, he seems like a much healthier person, and role model, than his famous alter ego.
Back in the “La Femme Nikita” days, interviewers often asked Dupuis what it was like to play Michael. His typical answer: “Exhausting.”
As any man can tell you, it sure is.
1 I’m being conveniently glib and overly dynastic here. In fact, there have been some interesting developments away from these stereotypes in modern action movies, not the least of which has been the massive influence of Hong Kong action movies with their scrawny stars, female leads and occasional actual non-rage emotion. Also, the big-screen advent of extremely popular superheroes has included the geeky, sensitive Spider-Man and, in the hands of a gay writer/director, a Wolverine who manages to epitomize macho bloodthirst and cigar-chomping invulnerability while also expressing a range of emotional states. The Hong Kong influence is staggering and complex beyond the scope of this essay, much less this footnote; the neo-superheroes are still subtle in their paradigm shifts (and perhaps not so different from the 1970s Superman in these regards anyway); and neither force has had anything like a Wayne or Eastwood impact on the image of masculinity, which the movies as we know them are in any case probably now helpless to touch, only to follow Frankenstein-like across their own glacial wastes.
2 Living well is certainly not the best revenge in action movies. Indeed, the heroes often live morose, frugal lives that appear to punish themselves more than the villains. Obviously, the modern action movie owes a lot to Jesus. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting the old acting saw that it’s always more fun to play the villain. That’s often attributed to it being “more fun” to be evil; but it’s typically because action-movie villains are the only characters with an emotional life.
3 (placeholder footnote so that after John watches all the episodes he can confirm how right he was) (update: Man, I was soooo right.)
4 Dupuis has said he purposely retained his accent to give Michael an added “musicality”—another hint of softness. Also, Michael was French.
5 I have used the metaphor of a mask, implying a true identity beneath. In advanced cases, the true identity suffocates and the result is a death mask, an image that is the only part of the man that is actually alive. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the post-modern action hero, is a great example. He’s famed as a bodybuilder, movie star, politician and entrepreneur, but those are just personas he uses in an ambitious quest for abstract power. He takes none of these personas, these self-advertisements, very seriously, variously joking ironically about them and even fudging his way through them for the appearance of success (from steroid use to secret corporate funds and political donations). Even his marriage has bizarre aspects of political ambition and lurid cheating. The mask is the only thing about Schwarzenegger that appears to truly be alive. He’s become a self-promotion without a self. The epitome of the phenomenon is our clearly movie-imitating prep-school cowboy, G.W., a man so thoroughly phony that many people have embraced him as utterly authentic, apparently because they simply can’t comprehend the depths of such personal and emotional vacuity. Fleeing regularly to his Texas ranch, he clearly doesn’t even much like the presidential mask (and attendant responsibilities) his own ambition led him to put on. Perhaps when his term ends and he’s able to drop the act, he can return home, visit with himself once again, and see if anybody’s still there.
6 Quotes are paraphrased from memory.
Significant sources not cited in the text or footnotes include: http://lfnforever.tripod.com; “La Femme Nikita” Seasons 1-3, Warner Home Video; www.imdb.com; and various interviews at www.roydupuis-online.com, www.petawilson-online.com and www.royettes.com. Some of my ideas about masculinity were loosely informed by the works of Terry Real. Many thanks to Christine at The Boston French Center for double-checking my French. Any remaining errors are my own. Posted July 23, 2006. Updated Aug. 13, 2006.