I don’t need to tell you about Léon, do I? Everyone knows Léon. Having said this, I’ve realised that I hadn’t seen it in literally decades and nothing much more had stuck in my mind than Natalie Portman walking down the street with a pot plant in her arms and Gary Oldman’s woeful overacting. Some critics saw Oldman’s performance as brilliant. Some critics were just wrong.
It’s not that there’s much of a plot for me to have forgotten. Towards the end, Portman’s character Mathilda summarizes it something like this: her father, step-mother, step-sister and brother were all killed by corrupt cops from the drug squad, she was taken under the wing of a great guy, who was a Cleaner (or hitman) on the side, and there were lots of explosions and deaths.
After Léon, director Luc Besson went on to make some truly awful films, but at the time, Léon was seen as the worthy successor to Betty Blue as the French arthouse film whose poster was to be found in most student kitchens. Often, looking back on films like this is a lesson in embarrassment, so after all these years (Léon was released in 1994), is it any good?
To be honest, it holds up pretty well. The plotline is ridiculous, but as this seems to be more a comic book story than, say, social realism, that’s not too much of a problem. There even seems to be a place for Oldman’s scenery chewing, although the performances of Portman and Jean Reno as Léon are much more understated – and satisfactory.
What I had almost entirely forgotten was the sheer inappropriateness of it all (partly, I think, because some scenes have been added since the original release). We are never told Mathilda’s exact age, but 2 people – who have no way of knowing her age – reckon that she must be twelve. She looks even younger, as indeed did Portman in her film debut.
And yet here we see Mathilda impersonating Madonna and Marilyn Monroe at their most salacious, there she’s telling the hotel clerk that Reno’s Léon is not her father as he claims, but her lover, and now she’s flat out asking Léon for sex. He puts her off, using a bad relationship with his one and only love (killed by her father) as justification, but he seems to also look interested.
And yet somehow it never gets too pervy. I can’t say exactly why, but I think its something to do with Léon being portrayed as being emotionally stunted. He prefers drinking milk to alcohol, is illiterate until Mathilda teaches him how to read in exchange for some tips about killing, and although we often see him effortlessly shooting down anyone who gets in his way, we can’t envisage him taking advantage of her.
We are also made very aware that Mathilda is a child. In between her playing with pistols and putting on make up, she regularly tries to watch the cartoons on telly, holding onto her cuddly bunny for dear life. Occasionally she glares with utter self-confidence. At other times, she looks lost and bewildered in a world that never told her how to behave properly.
Mathilda tells Léon that she loves him on a number of occasions, and while romantic love is part of this, it’s mainly a coming together of lost souls who have been ostracized by society. Mathilda was beaten by her father and step-sister and the only death that she wants to avenge is that of her 4-year old brother. Meanwhile Léon has a better relationship with his plant than he has with other people, and prefers pigs to other humans.
None of this is to say that Léon contains any deep insights into the human condition, but its characters are believable and empathetic, despite the ridiculous plot. And there are both some great crash-bang-wallop action scenes and a number of funny bits. Who’d have thought that Besson was able to pause the spectacle to add a few good jokes?