Fairytale With Firepower: Luc Besson’s Leon (1994) – Blu-ray review
Still a ‘hit’ movie 20 years on, judging from IMDb. We’re calling it the Citizen Kane of Gallic-tinged, Lolita-themed 90s action flicks
(Luc Besson, 1994)
The IMDB Top 250 has been around long enough to be a reliable yardstick of the tastes of a certain breed of movie fan – let’s call him (it’s usually a him) the populist cinephile. In the populist cinephile’s world, cast-iron critics’ favourites rub shoulders with mainstream hits, while A-list directors from Hitchcock to Nolan have basically set up shop. The most surprising film in the Populist Cinephile’s canon is Luc Besson’s Leon, which doesn’t really fit into any of the obvious patterns. The only conclusion: it’s a film that populist cinephiles really, really like.
The film is certainly an oddity, and not least because of its whimsical plant-caring, milk-drinking protagonist. Besson, after establishing his credentials as a leading light of France’s high-style ‘cinema du look,’ brought his panache to bear on a typical Hollywood action movie set-up, only to deconstruct the genre’s usual bloodlust by placing a skewed, subversive fairytale romance front and centre.
The less charitable might argue that the film’s mix of sadism and sentiment has been pilfered wholesale from John Woo, but Besson had the sense to get to America before his obvious influence. It’s also that the thief is a Frenchman, given that Woo himself stole from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, on which Besson also riffs shamelessly.
Speaking of good timing, Besson tapped into the pop-culture savviness of Quentin Tarantino before Pulp Fiction made it ubiquitous, from the casting of Gary Oldman (fresh off the QT- scripted True Romance) to the film references (Natalie Portman’s uncanny Chaplin impersonation) to the detailing of character by how they dress (Mathilde looks like a mini-me Mia Wallace, while Stansfield is introduced facing away from us, like Marcellus Wallace).
So part of Leon‘s appeal owes to when it was made; the clarity of Besson’s action sequences, deploying stealthy suspense through gliding tracking shots and metronomyic rhythms, is more exhilarating than the default fast-cutting of his contemporaries in Hollywood. But that was then; why hasn’t Leon dated in the past twenty years? Other mid-90s hits have dated but Leon‘s average rating on IMDB hasn’t dropped. And Besson continues to produce English-language action thriller wannabes that clog up multiplexes in the gaps between blockbusters without actually troubling the box office.
The answer is that Leon has heart; it is essentially a character piece. After an explosive first half-hour, which maps out the skillsets of (anti-)hero and villain, Besson retreats behind closed doors to chart the unlikely relationship between the hitman and his 12-year-old, massacre-surviving neighbour. Unusually, for an action film, this is a primarily interior film, swapping crowd scenes for intimate tete-a-tetes between Leon and Mathilde. Partly, perhaps, that is down to budgetary and logistical concerns; partly it’s a French thing (the film sometimes resembles Eric Rohmer with added firepower).
Yet it’s also a point of character. Besson hints that Leon is agoraphobic, with his perpetual shutting of curtains and wariness of reflected light; he only ventures outside when he has to. Hell, he’s loathe even to open his door to a girl in trouble. Jean Reno’s performance accentuates the latent autism, portraying his coolness as a symptom of emotional immaturity. Besson’s masterstroke is to give him a foil, in Mathilde, who is technically younger but psychologically more mature. There’s an undoubted queasiness to the paedophile connotations (more so in the longer cut, admittedly) but it’s all prompted by Mathilde, herself a girl damaged by proximity to toxic parental upbringing. For his part, Leon doesn’t reciprocate; indeed, it’s enough to make him spit his milk out.
But the film’s charm is that Mathilde brings Leon into the light. The signs are there from the start – this is remarkably airy for such an apparently claustrophobic set-up, as Leon has a habit of choosing apartments with enviable light. But the plot offers a classic redemptive arc, as Mathilde helps Leon to grow up (learning to read, learning to take responsibility) even as Leon provides a more traditional protector role.
Natalie Portman grasps the contradiction, and the possibilities, giving one of the most nuanced of all pre-teen performances: cockily precocious and flirtatious but still blessed with the childlike delight when Leon fools around with his pig-themed oven gloves. And the pig is apt, because who else is Mathilde being protected from a huffing, puffing wolf – for that’s exactly how Gary Oldman plays his scene-stealing role as the villain, howling along to his inner Beethoven. Like I said, it’s a fairytale – and one that shows no signs of giving audiences a happy ending.