Early in the new spy thriller Anna, the title character played by Sasha Luss is selling matroyshka dolls on the streets of Moscow, until a talent scout notices her beauty and whisks her away to Paris to begin a modeling career. Soon enough, she’s introduced to a cadre of similarly lanky, striking housemates, anyone who has seen the film’s trailer, or knows that it’s directed by Luc Besson, might reasonably expect that the modeling agency will turn out to be a cover for some kind of elite agency of gorgeous, deadly assassins.
That isn’t the case—though Anna herself is, indeed, a deadly assassin working for the KGB. Further details about her situation are filled in through the movie’s frequent flashbacks, and Anna isn’t really a movie about a model-turned-spy so much as it is a spy movie with a few modeling scenes to explain why its ass-kicker looks like, well, a supermodel. It’s a very ’90s conceit that Besson indulged all through that decade and beyond. La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element, and even Lucy all feature variations on this theme.
But Besson goes further in Anna by making the lead character an actual model. In the past, his mostly-waifish leading ladies enter into a world of violence through more extraordinary circumstances: a fantastical version of nature creates Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element; a fantastical version of science gives Scarlett Johansson superpowers in Lucy; a tragedy turns a young Natalie Portman into a hitman’s protégé in The Professional. The new film’s set-up is closest to the limited-options recruitment of La Femme Nikita, and while Anna technically gets into espionage before modeling, scenes of cartoonishly obnoxious European photographers mincing and barking at groups of irritated supermodels give the film explicit overlay of trash glamour that was previously only implied.
The modeling scenes may be played broadly, but Besson seems serious about drawing parallels. Much of Anna’s first half is dedicated to the process of Luss’s character getting “discovered”—by both the modeling agency and her KGB handlers. In both cases, she’s treated less as a person than an ingénue who fits a profile. In the middle of the movie, Besson even assembles a montage that intercuts Anna’s modeling jobs with a series of her efficiently executed hits. They both require frequent costume changes and a general indifference to humanity.
The metatextual element of this juxtaposition is simultaneously fascinating and a little discomfiting, not least because multiple women have accused the director of sexual misconduct. Anna is a smaller movie than he’s made in a while, and its combination of smaller scale and indulgence sometimes makes it feel somewhere between confession (to, at very least, fetishizing and dehumanizing his performers) and defense (but you see, it’s the industry that’s sick!). Of course, systemic problems don’t excuse the kind of behavior Besson has been accused of, any more than Anna’s unconvincing gestures toward agency and solidarity elevate it about trashy thriller territory.
What makes the experience even more uncomfortable is Besson’s facility with trashy thrillers; it feels like the rare movie that has gone un-screened for press not because it’s incompetently made or the product of behind-the-scenes turmoil, but because it’s a slick manifestation of exactly what’s on its director’s mind.
I don’t want to overstate this movie’s craft. By most standards, Besson is not a great action director. His action sequences are mostly coherent, and sometimes thrilling, but they court sensation without strong construction, and he can be downright lousy at building suspense. Still, he doesn’t create his Euro-trash fantasies in a vacuum, and the influence of his EuropaCorp production company can be felt in plenty of recent films, especially the work of Chad Staleski and David Leitch. The John Wick movies are more elegant than Besson’s, but the first one especially, with its glowering Eurotrash bad guys, has a certain resemblance to the EuroCorp pictures he’s written and produced throughout the 2000s. Anna returns the favor by closely resembling Leitch’s similarly ‘80s-set Atomic Blonde (though characteristically, the two scene of action-movie mayhem, exciting as they are, fall short of that film’s stylish choreography). It’s not high drama but the brisk, twisty Anna is far from his dumbest or silliest movie. The cast keeps it energized. Two of Anna’s handlers are played by a conniving Luke Evans and Cillian Murphy, rather than the usual heavy-lidded semi-sadsack male characters who wander through some of his other films.
Both male leads have relationships with Anna that aren’t strictly professional. Yet no coupling in the movie is much more developed than any given mark that Anna half-seduces before shooting in the head. Is Besson critiquing the male characters for their inability to keep it in their pants, celebrating Anna for wielding her sexuality as she pleases, or, gulp, is this just how he thinks adult relationships work? I think back to how in 1997, even as a 16-year-old watching The Fifth Element, I found the supposedly innocent and healing romance between Jovovich and a much-older Bruce Willis far squickier than the movie ever intended. Taken on its own, Anna could almost be read as a rebuke to that dippy, inappropriate romance; there’s some wit in how movie deals with both Evans and Murphy (Murphy in particular has a lot of fun with the role) and doesn’t sell either of them as Anna’s true love. But it often feels like Besson is revisiting his ’90s stomping ground and making a few revisions without a genuine reckoning (this even includes the movie’s tech, which is supposed to be late ’80s but largely looks like it’s from around 1996). Anna is just as confident as anything Besson has made, but more than ever, he feels lost in his own fetishized and shrinking little world. As enjoyable as this sub-airport trash can be (and it is!), this may not be a world a lot of his ’90s fans are willing to revisit.