Léon (1994, Luc Besson)

!! CAUTION !!

People are always asking me, “Nathan, what would happen if some kid really hated her family then they were all killed by a gang led by homicidal classical music fan Gary Oldman, so the girl started living with a hitman and tried to have a happy domesticated life with him even though she was twelve while also begging him to help her seek revenge on the assassins who killed her beloved baby brother?” And I’ve always said I didn’t know and would rather not know. Now I know, because now I’ve seen Léon, sometimes called The Professional, sometimes called Léon: The Professional, always a wildly unpleasant and disturbing film — and available in two different cuts! Whatever it’s called, it fuses ultraviolence that it frequently mistakes for vengeful moralism with pure token schmaltz — a very ’90s combination — and is thus doubly hard to tolerate, forcing awful metaphors about music and plants that director Luc Besson thinks are pure poetry into what amounts to a very standard action picture.

The reliably bland Jean Reno is Léon, a heart-of-gold bounty hunter who lives a safely anonymous life in NYC; when he’s not killing people for local pizzeria owner Sal, he goes and sees old musicals at the revival theater and takes good care of plants, so of course he’s a good man. That doesn’t stop him later from seriously considering the cold-blooded murder of his new ward or from, you know, making a living from some pretty grisly work, but it’s clearly earmarked for us to consider than he’s a complex, lonely person. Unfortunately neither the script nor Reno’s one-note work justifies this perception. It isn’t just an unbelievable performance, it’s a boring one. A young Natalie Portman does a really good job in the role of the resourceful young smoker Mathilda, even holding her own through a pointless retread of Gloria Swanson’s costume session in Sunset Blvd. In sharp contrast to her costars, you can already see a great talent in bloom here.

But this is an action movie, and a fairly simplistic one at that; it’s hard to really comprehend the reasons for its pedestal. On top of its familiarity and its adoration of pop thriller conventions, it’s got plenty of things in it that are not just mediocre but terrible: Gary Oldman’s overacting and “coolness” are a prime example of a disgustingly misguided “cartoon” perception of human monsters, though at least Oldman doesn’t seem to think this film is some slice of high art. The story, frankly, makes far less sense than Besson thinks it does. (Topping this off, he has absolutely no understanding of American life, as shown by his incompetent rendering of integration between Manhattan thugs and the NYPD.)

Great as Portman is, she is a pawn, like a little girl acting in a McDonald’s ad. Besson wants the shock of the troubled youth/adult world juxtaposition — much like the lazy juxtapositions of music with violence, or moralism with killing — without actually having to go to the trouble of doing something with it. And what a fucking copout to let Portman tote a gun, to muck around in the implications of that action and the parental instinct to object, but never allow her to actually kill anyone — to actually do anything with that instinct. What, indeed, a copout it is that violence as a solution to violence is the only great philosophy the film has to offer. What emptiness it all amounts to, just a bubble scurrying to the surface only to explode — bombastically — into nothing.

The fans of Léon are nearly as rabid as those of another initially dismissed, later celebrated 1994 film, The Shawshank Remdeption, but more irrational; a commenter at IMDB says: “This stark portrayal of humanity and inhumanity is produced with style and finesse […]; the combined talents of Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman provide not only an unmatched on-screen chemistry, but also three perfectly created characterisations, the like of which are rarely seen in today’s cinema. This film has my personal recommendation of being the best piece of cinema that I know of. I have not seen anything that matches it in terms of intensity or emotion – and believe me, I’ve looked. I found myself caring for the characters involved, [a] unique experience in itself. This is not the type of film for a night in with your mates, but nevertheless, it is an unforgettable piece of cinematic history.” Someone else calls it “a symphony in film.”

Someone else still offers a variation on what is stated many other times: “This movie has a message: without love we are dead, even if we don’t see it. Only true love give[s] meaning to our lives: ‘everything else reminds me a big yogurt: warm and rancid’ as Mathilda says. […] Is this true in ‘real life’? I don’t know but this movie can make you wonder. Then of course there’s the sensuality. It’s hypocritical to deny it, the camera interacts with Mathilda in a mesmerising fashion. It’s not sick and it’s not degrading: it’s art, subtle and beautiful.” This particular person is correct in one sense: even disregarding the dialogue that shows a constant preoccupation with sexualizing Portman, Besson photographs her with a discomfortingly leery lens from beginning to end. Over and over again in these remarks, one notices a denial of how little the film truly devotes itself to this central relationship, its only unique element; the whizzing banging action that eats up three fourths of the running time merits very little mention from the most ecstatic commenters, from film scholars who compare it to John Cassavetes’ Gloria to a younger viewer who touchingly notes how s/he loves to think about the movie before falling asleep at night.

This calls to mind an accusation that Pauline Kael once leveled at John Ford’s The Searchers — which, interestingly, is directly referenced in this film: the movie is vague enough that you can read pretty much anything you like into it. (Me, I read it as a crass trivialization of life itself, but that’s my contempt for action films talking.) But in this case, what that truly means is that, when you take the movie apart, there isn’t really much there to see (or think about); the majority of its virtues seem to be in the heads of its viewers. It says whatever you, the audience, want it to say, because it has nothing interesting to offer in itself. The only moment when I remotely buy the idea that Léon is a great and epic meditation on love is near the climax, when Mathilda and Léon say goodbye. There is a connection there, a real and desperate clinging, more familial than romantic but extremely adult and emotionally driven all the same. Something does exist between them… but this is the only time we truly witness it, the only time in the entire picture that Jean Reno does anything resembling acting.

And as in The Searchers, though I hesitate to keep bringing that wonderful movie up in this context, there are moments of potentially earth-shaking metaphor, as in the gorgeous scene of Portman begging Reno to open the door; when he finally does, she is bathed in light. It’s a lovely scene for Portman and Besson both. But what is in the film, taking its scattered ideas of note into account, adds up to very little, and its virtues are far outweighed by its slavish devotion to cliché and in particular to cartoonish violence, performances, aesthetics, to the antithesis of reality, heightened reality, movie reality, any reality. To quote another internet user, a movie that portrays a hitman as “a compassionate pedophilic aging man who loves milk and plays with a pig ovenmit” is as much an out-and-out lie as pretentious bourgeois bores like Raging Bull and Pulp Fiction.

There exists a director’s cut of Léon which restores half an hour to the running time; having now seen both versions, I can verify that the longer version is worse than the domestic print. It throws in a few more action setpieces but also a scene in which Mathilda asks Leon to have sex with her (and plays Russian Roulette), thus making explicit the suggestion of sexuality lying just under the surface, negating one of the few untouched subtleties the movie had going for it. In this variation, the film takes Mathilda’s relationship wth Léon far beyond the already inappropriate paternal-instinct discovery of a man the film does not hesitate to show us is a cold-blooded maniac and into the realm of how-far-can-we-go-with-this dirty old man stuff. Some of the fans at the IMDB say that you might as well not bother with movies at all if you can’t appreciate this one (ignoring the universal pans this received in the U.S. upon initial release). I intend to defy this idea, and defy it repeatedly.

[Somewhat expanded from a review posted in 2007.]

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