*. Introducing Natalie Portman. A star is born.
*. I think she was 12, the same age as her character. But already she has no trouble stealing the show.
*. Or maybe “stealing” isn’t the right word. She was the only character Luc Besson was interested in. The film was imagined as a sequel to Nikita, with Jean Reno basically reprising his role as Victor the cleaner. (Besson even described Léon as Victor’s “American cousin,” though Léon is, I believe, supposed to be Italian.) It doesn’t take long, however, before Léon gets pushed aside and Mathilda takes over.
*. So Besson, who has always preferred strong female leads, looks past a character who was being played by Reno anyway as “a little mentally slow.”
*. The only other claim on our attention is Gary Oldman’s Stanfield, in a performance considered by some to be a classic and by others as ridiculously over-the-top. Whatever one thinks of it, it seems to have been mostly improvised. The Beethoven speech, for example, and his bellowing to bring in “Everyone!” (a line that has since gone on to become a meme). So as with Léon, Besson was standing back. But when it came to Portman . . .
*. A lot of your response to this movie is going to boil down to how creepy you think the relationship between Léon and Mathilda is. This is not something that is merely hinted at. In the original script Mathilda and Léon do become lovers, and her age is specified as 13 or 14. And though there were cuts made to the American release version, there’s still no pussyfooting around what’s clearly going on. Mathilda says she feels physical love for Léon and tells the concierge that she’s Léon’s lover. She dresses up in lingerie and dances for him (to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” even). She is jealous of the attention he gives to his plant, and tells him sullenly at one point that he “should be watering me if you want me to grow.”
*. Roger Ebert thought the movie seemed “to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it.” I see where this is coming from, but I’m not sure what more Besson could have done. As I say, it’s all out in the open. This isn’t really innuendo. In one of the scenes that was cut Mathilda even wears the dress Léon buys for her and tells him she wants to lose her virginity to him. That’s a scene that was in the movie Besson made, and as I understand it he wasn’t the one who took it out.
*. Making matters more complicated is the fact that Besson himself was having an affair with a younger girl around the same time he was making Léon. So this wasn’t a subject he was approaching in a totally abstract way, but as, in part, a fantasy.
*. In theory, I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of a movie presenting this kind of a love affair. And it even makes a kind of sense given what we’re shown of Mathilda’s abusive home. However, I’m not sure it really fits in a movie of this kind. Is their relationship what this movie is about? This is where I think Ebert has a point. I’m also not sure I buy a bright spark like Mathilda falling for a sad sack like Léon.
*. The action sequences here are still well done, but the best one is right at the start. None of the shoot-ups in the rest of the movie is as interesting (and the invasion of the justice building is preposterous). Again, one senses Besson’s attention is drifting back to Mathilda and he’s just content to let Reno go on autopilot and leave Oldman to do his crazy pill-popping shtick. The results are definitely a mixed bag. I’m still not sure I’ve made my mind up about it. I don’t think it’s as good a movie as Nikita, but it’s also something that strays into being more than a generic action film. For better or worse, it was a labour of love.