Léon: The Professional
Every film by Luc Besson (including Nikita  and The Big Blue ) is like a violent, hyperreal fairy tale, full of love and death, angels and devils, and extravagant dreams of escaping this world. There’s something off-the-ground about Besson’s work – a feeling that we’re watching a postmodern comic strip, located somewhere between parody and hysteria.
Léon: The Professional is Besson’s brave attempt at making a French film for the American market – and , unlikely as it seems, its pervasive air of trans-national oddness actually enhances its power. I have always admired Sergio Leone’s work – the so-called spaghetti Westerns from the 1960s. Leone’s project was decidedly odd - to make dubbed Westerns for the American market, often shot in vaguely desert landscapes wherever on the globe that they could be found. The director’s genius was to turn this pervasive oddness into a style, his style – founded on gravelly voices close to the microphone, astonishing visual abstractions of place and space, and the remarkably bold music of Ennio Morricone (the subject of a good joke in Nanni Moretti’s Caro diario ). Léon: The Professional adopts and adapts Leone’s style.
Léon (Jean Reno) – he loses the accent in his name when the film plays in English-speaking regions – is a supposedly Italian “cleaner” (hit man) working for a Mafia boss (Danny Aiello) in New York. Léon is a little like the lone, steely, ever-vigilant hero of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) – keeping himself fit, maintaining ordered rituals, sleeping upright in a chair “with one eye open”. I guess I would, too, if I were Léon.
His life is disturbed when, one ugly day, a gang of crooked cops led by the psychotic Norman (Gary Oldman) wipes out the family in a neighbouring flat. Leon reluctantly saves the life of punky young Mathilda (Natalie Portman) and then, even more reluctantly, has to look after her. Cinephiles will recognise, in their strange, platonic relationship, Besson’s extended tribute to John Cassavetes’ masterpiece, Gloria (1980).
I am fascinated at the ways critics and viewers describe this relationship between Léon and Mathilda. Some accuse the film of being a disgusting paedophile, Lolita fantasy – even though there is no sex and, indeed, very few erotic references of any kind in its story. Others see it as a tender, familial thing: Leon learning to become a father for the first time in his life. Both of these black-and-white interpretations were already mulched and spat out by Gloria. Cassavetes’ film, which also starts with the annihilation of a family mixed up with the underworld, is about the relationship between an adult, loner woman, and a small, irritating boy.
The whole point of Cassavetes’ fable is that these two characters reach a kind of love which is neither sexual nor familial. It is a free, unique kind of love beyond such social definitions, one formed in the crucible of shared, life-threatening experiences. Léon: The Professional isn’t anywhere as touching as Gloria, but it’s certainly got the same intention.
In some ways, there is not much to Léon: The Professional. The characters are broadly sketched, and the pathos of their destinies crudely dramatised. As in the films of Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, 1991), the narrative lurches forward fitfully, sometimes in a disconcertingly hallucinatory and improbable way. That bumpiness can be justified as part and parcel of the whole comic strip mode of the project. But it’s harder to take Besson’s attempts at heartwarming, Chaplinesque comic interludes; they’re just awful.
On the sheer level of cinematic craft, Léon: The Professional unquestionably shows Besson at the top of his game. Its visual style can only be appreciated on a big, wide screen: extreme close-ups of faces set in vast, minimalist expanses, punctuated by sudden, disorienting camera moves. Beyond Melville and Cassavetes, Besson has clearly been studying the movies of action maestro John Woo (Hard Boiled, 1992). The violent set-pieces here are tense, intricate and explosive.
As pure spectacle, Léon: The Professional is riveting. Eric Serra’s captivating score alternates between clanking, industrial rhythms and lush, Morricone-style strings, with a few warblings from Björk and Sting thrown in for good measure. And Oldman – whether raving about Beethoven or popping brightly coloured pills before each savage act he commits – is outlandishly mesmerising.
Update: Note that, beyond the proliferation of alternative titles for this film, there are also two separate cuts available: the original, which Besson refers to the “director’s cut” and is the the one reviewed here, and a “long version” containing a further 25 minutes of material. When Besson was blocked by Gaumont from realising his scripted sequel Mathilda, to star a grown-up Portman, he reportedly adapted it with director Olivier Megaton into the rousing Colombiana (2011) featuring Zoe Saldana, which I also recommend.
© Adrian Martin May 1995