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Non-Review Review: Leon (The Professional)

What makes Leon so fascinating is the combination a wonderfully disturbing script that puts a novel and unsettling twist on that “suddenly a father” subgenre, Besson’s understated direction, Eric Serra’s atmospheric score and a trio of fantastic central performances. The movie is never less than completely engaging, especially when it’s being very deeply uncomfortable. The movie is very much a “messed up”portrait of the survivor of a family massacre and her unconventional surrogate father figure, with the difficulties that both have adapting to their situation, although it’s probably Gary Oldman’s powerhouse villainous performance that you’re going to leave the film thinking about.

Leon is a bit daunted by the scope of fatherly responsibility...

Hollywood is very fond of the “surrogate father figure” film, in which a character who prides themselves on their independence suddenly finds a dependent thrust upon them. It’s a nice opportunity for character growth and development, and the movies seem to generally favour male characters discovering that sense of responsibility. Think of George Clooney’s “back-up parent” in The Descendents, or Adam Sandler’s opportunistic adopter in Big Daddy, or even arguably Tom Cruise’s newly-responsible brother in Rain Man. I think that Leon is so deeply engaging because it takes this core concept and really mines it very well. The unspoken assumption in all these films is that the child (or the child-like figure) will be sheltered and protected by an unexpectedly loving figure – Besson’s film dares to ask what if the relationship isn’t so conventional or so functional?

The eponymous Leon is “a cleaner”, or “a professional”, both euphemisms for a contract killer. It seems he’s very good at his job, based on the efficiency with which he executes it and the esteem in which he is held. He’s also alone, living in a depressing version of New York City, an anonymous hell-hole where an entire floor in an apartment complex can’t help but be deaf to a brutal quadruple homicide, and where allegations of pedophilia will only get you booted out of your hotel room. Leon keeps to himself, sleeping upright in a chair with one eye open. He occasionally attends a musicals, where he stares in awe at the silver screen.

Gun play...

In many ways, as portrayed by Jean Reno, Leon is curiously childlike. He cannot read or write. He doesn’t seem to aspire to financial independence, allowing his employer Tony to manage his finances. He probably has no idea of how much money he has earned for Tony, who seems to allot him a meagre allowance. Nor does he care. He did fall in love as a teenage, but circumstances forced him to America, and it seems that he never recovered. He is emotionally immature, unable to deal with complexities of interpersonal interaction. “I’m old enough,” he confesses at one point, “I need time to grow up.”

And then Mathilda arrives in his life. Mathilda is almost something out of a disturbing fairytale, a young girl living with her father and her step-mother, and her step-sister. She’s abused by them, beaten by her step-sister and bruised (it’s implied) by her father. When her family is brutally murdered by a psychotic classical-music-loving sociopath, she manages to escape into the apartment of the strangely silent European man down the corridor. She stands at the door, crying and begging and pleading that he let her in before the murderers figure out she’s a survivor of the murdered family. Seemingly wrestling against his better judgment in a wonderfully charged sequence, Leon relents and lets her in.

This is sure to be a hit...

Of course, in weaker movies, Mathilda and Leon would forge a quirky but relatively conventional father-and-daughter relationship, finding a happiness and stability with one another than neither had apart. Leon would be protective of the young innocent girl he had taken in, and would try to do right by her, ensuring that she got a better chance at life than she had before or he had ever had. It’s to the credit of Besson’s script that he doesn’t succumb to such cliché. The script acknowledges that both Leon and Mathilda are fundamentally broken people, and that the dysfunction in the dynamic will be more than cosmetic. In some ways, it will be so deeply damaged as to make their relationship almost tragic.

Natalie Portman made a massive impression as Mathilda, and I can’t imagine that it was an easy role to play. While Leon is surprisingly emotionally immature for a cold and dispassionate contract killer, Mathilda consciously tries to seem older and more worldly. Watching cartoons on television, she switches over to the news whenever Leon comes into the room to seem older. She takes charge of the pair’s logistics, filling out the paperwork when they move. She downs her alcohol, even if she can’t hold it. When the two play a dress-up game, her first two costumes are disturbingly hyper-sexualised – Madonna in lingerie singing “Like a Virgin” and Marilyn Monroe cooing “Happy Birthday.”

"Bring your child to work" day was a big success...

And the film goes to some very daring and very uncomfortable places, as Mathilda develops a creepy sexual crush on Leon, even though neither of the pair is emotionally developed enough to make sense of it. She’s struggling to deal with the grief she won’t admit to having, and seems to refuse to accept Leon as a surrogate father. She plays out her own disturbing fantasies about the killer inside her head, with little regard for Leon himself or the consequences of her words. “Except he’s not really my father,” she tells a hotel receptionist. “He’s my lover.” Leon himself proves entirely incapable of dealing with this disturbing emotional displacement, uncomfortably avoiding it rather than ever actually dealing with it.

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman give two absolutely brilliant leading performances. I honestly think that you could make a case for Leon as the high-point in both of their careers. However, the show is well-and-truly stolen by Gary Oldman as Norman Stansfield, the creepy Beethoven-loving drug dealer. Both Leon and Mathilda are somewhat stoic characters, both played very straight by their actors. Oldman as Stansfield, on the other hand, just cuts loose. This is one of those performances that makes it even more unbelievable that Oldman’s first Oscar nomination was for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

This behaviour is not the Norm...

Stansfield demonstrates Oldman’s wonderfully creepy almost chameleon ability. When we first see his face, we recognise Oldman under it, and yet there’s something fundamentally different to this face than the one we saw in Sid and Nancy or Dracula or any other film. Without the excessive use of cosmetics, Oldman is able to seem entirely different than he ever did before. While we recognise him, there’s also a very deep sense that we don’t recognise him. It’s hard to articulate, but I think that’s a wonderful testament to Oldman’s ability as an actor. Even if you can’t stand the over-the-top style of Norman Stansfield (which I think fits the movie around him), it’s hard not to be awed by Oldman’s mastery of his craft.

Consider, for example, his creepy introductory scene, where he literally sniffs around an associate he believes to be withholding from him, or any of those sequences where Stansfield takes one of his pills, his body seemingly writhing and spasming in some sort of momentary release of energy – it’s almost a werewolf transformation scene rendered without practical effect. Hell, the fact that Oldman can make lines like “bring me everyone!” so memorable is a testament to his skill.

Getting his (gun)point...

Eric Senna’s ambient score gives the movie a strange and almost off-putting sound, fitting much better here than it would on GoldenEye. Besson proves a deft hand behind the camera as well, delivering any number of sequences with wonderful effect. From our introduction to Leon to the introduction of Stansfield through to the powerhouse final sequence, there’s a reason that Besson is so very highly regarded by cinema fanatics.

Leon is a superbly crafted little thriller, and a wonderfully unsettling psychological drama with a powerful edge, and more heart than most conventional takes on this type of story.

5 Responses

  1. It’s one of my favourite films, ever. Jean Reno is a terrific actor, although I think his voice is more compelling in his native French language. I agree with you that Gary Olman should have got an Oscar a long time ago. Having said that, he will probably lose out to Gorgeous George or someone playing someone called George (Jean Dujardin). The star of “The Artist” is often called “the French George Clooney”, in France, as an interesting sidebar!

  2. In my rush to comment, I forgot to add that your review of “Leon” is terrific! It’s intellgent and informative and makes me want to watch “Leon”, yet again.

  3. Great review, Darren, of a truly wonderful film. The uncut international version is my preferred option, of course, and I’ve reviewed it on my own blog too. I haven’t seen it in a while, and you’ve made me want to go home and watch it tonight!

    I don’t think Natalie Portman has done better than this, although she came close with Closer a few years back.

    Jean Reno is always, always watcheable.

    I too can’t believe Gary Oldman only scored his first Oscar nom for TTSS…. this role it at least deserving of one….

  4. Sweet review sir!

    I’d probably argue that is definitely Besson’s finest hour. Watched this loads as a teenager and although a recent re-watched took it down a peg or two, it’s still a great film.

    Oh, and I’ll never watch the directors cut again, ever.

  5. Actually, the characters that left the biggest impression on me in this movie were the two main characters- Leon and Matilda. I didn’t even remember Gary Oldman was in this movie until you mentioned it. ha! This is one of my favorites but I have not watched it in a very long time.
    Thanks for the post.

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