Luc Besson, Leon the professional and moral ambiguity

Twenty years after Luc Besson made it, Leon the Professional still makes wonderful viewing and it is the moral ambiguity of the story that holds the greatest fascination. The greatest ambiguity circulates around Natalie Portman’s character, Mathilda, who has all the latent sexuality of Sue Lyon or Dominique Swain in Lolita.

Sue Lyon as the original Lolita
Sue Lyon as the original Lolita

Nabokov described Lolita thus: “Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets.'”
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Part One, Ch. 5.

Dominique Swain reprises the role
Dominique Swain reprises the role

Besson’s Mathilda is a nymphet in a long tradition

Natalie Portman as Mathilde in Leon the Professional
Natalie Portman as Mathilde in Leon the Professional

This tradition includes Mena Suvari as Angela in American Beauty, Jodie Foster as Iris in Taxi, Jane March, as the Young Girl in The Lover and as Rose/Richie/Bonnie in as Colour of Night, Brooke Shields as Violet in Pretty Baby and Ariel Besse as Marion in Beau Pere and portrays the relationship between an older man and a much younger woman.

Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jane March in The Lover. Mena Suvari n American Beauty, Ariel Besse in Beau Pere, Jane March Colour of Night and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver
Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jane March in The Lover. Mena Suvari n American Beauty, Ariel Besse in Beau Pere, Jane March Colour of Night and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver

This is always dangerous territory for a filmmaker particularly when the older man has sex with a young woman/girl. Leon does not have sex with Mathilda, which would have been cinematically disastrous because Mathilda, who claims that she is 18, really only looks 12. But we do have is a love affair but it is one that was always going to end badly, which it does, with all the inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Mathilda is an enigmatic character, wise, and streetwise, beyond her years as she says ” I am already grown up, I just get older”. She is also adept at handling the emotionally retarded Leon. It is this maturity, that sits so oddly with her child/woman-like appearance, that is part of the ambiguous moral core of this film.

Another element of the ambiguity of the film is our reaction to both Mathilda and Leon. We sympathise with Mathilda because her family has been brutally slaughtered and we sympathise with Leon because he is an innocent adrifted in evil world, unable to understand his part in that evil. Yet both of them are cold-blooded killers.

Initially, Mathilda is motivated by a desire for revenge for her brother’s death but she is a willing participant in a number of Leon’s contract killings. Perhaps this is the price she feels she has to pay to maintain Leon’s affection. It proves to be a tragic bargain. The ending of the film is simultaneously ambiguous and satisfying. Stansfield the  corrupt DEA agent, played with brilliant manic energy by Gary Oldman, meets a fiery end. And when the dying Leon hands him the firing pin from a grenade and says, “This is for Matilda”, we feel the part of the ledger has been balanced.

We are left to surmise what the developing relationship between Tony, Leon’s handler, and Mathilda will be. It is hard to imagine that the street-smart Mathilda will not work out that Tony is still holding a lot of Leon’s money. It is also clear that she wants to continue her life as a “cleaner” and that she is likely only to be able to do that through Tony. So this strand of the plot remains unresolved. It is also difficult to imagine her surviving long at the School for Wayward Girls that she appears to have enrolled in.

The imagery and symbolism of the final scene is in keeping with the ambiguous moral tone of the rest of the film. Mathilda takes Leon’s pot-plant into the park and digs a hole for it. But it is hard to know whether the plant, that been carefully tended by Leon for many years, will survive in the open.

Mathilde and the pot plant
Mathilde and the pot plant

A similar question mark hangs over Mathilda. Other film related blogs

3 thoughts on “Luc Besson, Leon the professional and moral ambiguity

  1. Pay no attention to the spelling and grammar police above. While you make great points, this is simply classical myth on film. There will always be re incantations of them. A good set though.

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