Remembering Leon: The Professional, just a perfectly-balanced movie

An American movie with European sensiblities

Christopher Hooton
Thursday 12 November 2015 14:21
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There are a lot of films you first see as a kid that still loom large for you years later, but upon a re-watch disappoint. Luc Besson’s Leon (1994) is not one of them.

Uniquely and willfully schizophrenic, it feels either like an eccentric French drama masquerading as a violent action movie or vice versa.

One minute Leon and his assassin protégé Mathilda are sitting at the kitchen table of a crumbling, austere flat that could easily be in Montmartre, drinking a tall glass of milk as a desk fan pants round, the next the most archetypal 90s henchmen are descending on the building in cheap suits, brandishing Uzis and barking into walkie-talkies. Then the action is interrupted again by a curmudgeonly old lady at the other end of the hall wondering what all the noise is about.

“I like the balance,” Besson said. “When it’s too much action it’s a little boring for me, when it's too much pink and sweet it’s boring also, so I like to take both and go boom boom boom [between them].”

Gary Oldman echoed his thoughts: “It has the qualities of a big, hard-punching, fast-moving American movie and yet it has an injection of European cinema which I think gives it a very unique look.”

Natalie Portman gives an amazingly deft performance aged just 12, and Jean Reno gets the combination of ruthless adult pragmatism and vulnerable immaturity just right in the lead role, but it is Oldman who delivers an unforgettable performance, which most fans’ minds will immediately jump to when the film is brought up.

Stansfield is a brilliant film villain because his menace, malice and mania are entirely unexplained. He chews pills with convulsive ritual, conducts massacres as symphonies, and lurches between different accents for no apparent reason.

“I liked working with Luc so much that if I actually never worked with another director again it wouldn't worry me,” he said at the time.

“You share ideas and if you come up with one that he likes you can bet your bottom dollar that it’ll go in the movie. The only thing I worked out before I went in was the way I say ‘bingo’. I think I was just fooling around with it and he liked it so he kept it in."

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Besson’s composition in the movie is perfect, each moment of drama playing out so cinematically, a particular favourite being when Leon opens his door to Mathilda and light floods the hallway. Salvation.

“It was an unusual experience because [Besson] operates the camera,” Oldman explained. “He really was fulfilling what was in his mind, because he was setting up the frame and shooting it as well.”

“He’s able to talk to you inside the scene exactly where you are,” Reno added, “always only one mirror between you and him.”

The relationship between Leon and Mathilda is simultaneously one of father and daughter, teacher and apprentice and outcast and outcast, but there are also undertones of sexuality, Leon choking on his milk as the 12-year-old dresses up as Marilyn Monroe for him, moments before Bjork sings ‘His wicked sense of humour suggests exciting sex’ in the score, a Lolita-esque frisson crucial to the movie that would have resulted in a hundred angry BuzzFeed, Jezebel, Salon etc articles before it even hit cinemas had it been released in 2015.

Leon: The Professional’s influence can be felt in a number of action films that have followed it, but none have replicated its atmosphere of terror and play, melodrama and mundanity quite so well.

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