‘Does life always suck this bad, or just when you’re a child?’ Always. I’d go as far as saying that Leon: The Professional (1994) is one of my favorite films of all time. A Hollywood blockbuster with the continental charm of a fully-fledged French arthouse film, Luc Besson’s 1994 feature is a defining moment for all involved. Besson packs the elaborate plot with striking visuals and award winning sound edits which clinch its commercial success but it’s a focus on character substance which makes it a real, sophisticated treat. Besson is vigilant to channel an emotive core through each plot point, delivering compelling personality attributes to every role. It is, however, a deeply perceptive focus on the relations between these characters which affects the fundamental direction of the narrative, as it centers primarily on their affiliations and flaws, whilst the action takes an understated back-seat, for the most part.
With every screening of Leon, you unearth new traits of the chain-smoking, comic reading Mathilda. Small notions of her attitude, style and ambition are embedded in every corner of the mise-en-scene, developing a complex bid for a 12-year-old girl. In a manner that is dissimilar to Sue Lyons’ ‘Lolita’ and unlike Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Iris, the 12-year old prostitute in the Scorsese classic ‘Taxi Driver’ (which I endlessly adore, by the way), Portman’s character retains her child-like mannerisms and charm and rather, imitates female maturity than embodies it.
Natalie Portman was 11-years-old when she took on the role of Mathilda in 'Leon' (1994)
Her insight into adulthood is shaped by her first-hand experience of her neglectful family and the criminal, New York syndicates but this understanding is also tinted by an adolescent interest in popular culture and the contemporary, American media – which is beautifully illustrated in the iconic ‘like a virgin’ scene. It tactfully transpires, that her unsuccessful pursuits to discover her sexuality and femininity are awfully misdirected and her initial ambition to shed her youth is equally premature.
In Mathilda, Luc Besson has succeeded in building a character that has depth, heart and sincerity. But as a 12-year-old girl amongst a bold cast, I believe that it’s her feisty determination and passion which make her so influential – her frustrations are supported by strong morals and a crippling curiosity to achieve her own offbeat aspirations.
Natalie Portmans parents had some creative input when it came to the portrayal of some controversial themes throughout production. Above: Natalie Portman as Mathilda in Leon (1994)
Despite countless screenings, Portman’s portrayal of Mathilda continues to strike a chord with me. I feel that her character is equally as strong as it is vulnerable and it’s this precarious imbalance in character traits and qualities, shifting throughout the discourse of the film, which make her so remarkably unique, unrefined and super-cool.