Film Feature: Léon: The Professional (1994)

If there is one aspect of Léon: The Professional that is truly captivating, aside from the stellar performance of the cast, it would probably lie in the impressive display and execution of two elements stretched at their maximal points throughout the film: love and death

Léon, played by the French actor Jean Reno, is a hired hitman and an assassin whose remarkable expertise in his profession is clearly presented in the first few minutes of the film.

But as tough as his gun stints may be, the film uncovers a different side to Léon’s character, one that is far from the terrifying image of a murderer. Underneath his heavy loaded suit hides a delicate (almost dysfunctional) man, too paralyzed to function as a common individual, but even more too fragile for the world outside in which he plays as a killer.

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His steady monotonous routine as an assassin is disrupted by his encounter with Mathilda, played by the then 11 year old Natalie Portman.

Against his usual business, Léon saves Mathilda from the hands of a crooked DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) enforcer named Stansfield exceptionally played by Gary Oldman, the same DEA enforcer who, earlier on, murdered Mathilda’s family. Mathilda forces Léon to take her under his care, which the latter eventually did but not without hesitation.

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When Mathilda finds out about Léon’s line of work, she is more than determined to use this advantage to avenge the murder of her family. She asks Léon to train her to be like him: an assassin, a cleaner.

Throughout the film, the audience witness Mathilda’s intellectual superiority through verbal intimidation as she was able to convince Léon to provide her an assassin training.

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Further into the film, we witness the development of emotional attachment between Léon and Mathilda. What appears as a simple juvenile crush in the original version (where extra 25 minutes of footage was crossed out because it was deemed inappropriate for the American audience) is represented more explicitly in the international version.

This part of the film reminds me so much of Lolita and it comes as no surprise that many viewers find this resemblance in the film uncomfortable. The instinctive revulsion over the idea of the relationship between a man and a young girl is a sentiment shared by many, but while this may be generally unacceptable, I personally do not think that it should get in the way of the creative portrayal of such a relationship.

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In other words, while it is no question that the cast delivers a spectacular performance in the film, still strikingly evident is the amount of censorship that interfered with the creation of the film’s original mood.

Had it been the case that Léon was allowed to be portrayed more just a half-retarded sniper but as a capable, domineering, strong-willed gun man, I think it would have created more contrast between him and Mathilda’s character, thus making him an effective anti-thesis to the equation. And had it been the case that Mathilda was presented more like the young Lolita, it wouldn’t have been confusing to see her for what she is: not as a child, but as a lover.

On second thought, perhaps it is with intention to cover up this easy tendency of the film to slide into a perverse interpretation. After all, what the film has successfully presented, above all else, is the unique portrayal of love: both as an affectionate fatherly kind, and also as an asexual romantic kind.

The film’s excellent interpretation and representation of the balance that underlies the platonic relationship between Léon and Mathilda composes the overall appeal of their combination and makes an engaging pair out of the strange unconventional couple.

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I enjoyed this film as much I found it confusing all throughout: confusing as I was trying to read each character but failing miserably so. At some points in the film, I hated Mathilda for her mawkish arrogance on matters she assumed she knows full well (like putting revenge on her own childish hands) and for placing her life as a burden of responsibility on Léon’s shoulders (clearly, she is not his responsibility).

I even hated her for the way she has disturbed the silent frame of Léon’s solitary life. I was so confused that I actually felt sorry for Léon and for his little potted plant more than I did for Mathilda at the scene where the SWAT Team is bombing the apartment building.

Towards the end of the film, part of me was still cross at Mathilda for Léon’s death, and how I found it unfair that she was allowed to live in the story, but Léon wasn’t. (But of course, this is just me and my irrational unpopular opinion and it is completely beside the point).

On a positive point, Léon’s sacrificial death ultimately becomes a symbol of his love for Mathilda and allows the latter a chance to live a life that is established, rooted on safer grounds.

It can not be denied that Léon: The Professional is a classic: both in its attempt to present a film that captures love and death in a fashion that combine elements of polar opposites and in its elegant execution of a perfect balance between the two. The only task that remains for the spectator is to tread that equilibrium and come back with a story.

 

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