In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1994 and six from 1984. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Americans tend to prefer their pop-culture sexuality segregated from violence like peas from potatoes on cafeteria plates. Swirl them together, and folks tend to get the vapors. Add a side of pubescent lust and you might as well bring in crash carts.
Thus Columbia Pictures’ stateside neutering of Léon, French action filmmaker Luc Besson’s 1994 film, into The Professional. The film is fine when domestically distilled: Léon, a milk-swigging French hitman in New York, helps Mathilda, a 12-year-old orphan, avenge her family’s death at the hands of corrupt DEA agents. But Besson’s intended version — released everywhere else and only available in America years later — dares to go deeper, darker and more dangerous.
The American version kept its distance, thank you very much, from almost any confused sexuality or complicit violence that complicates the connection between these characters. Columbia probably further appreciated hilarious junket-whore quotes stating that The Professional made Speed look like “a slow ride to Grandma’s house.” That they’re R-rated 1994 movies with guns and explosions is where their similarities end; in neither cut are the action sequences wound for Swiss-watch thrills.
What the studio scrubbed clean from Léon is a 25-minute act almost exclusively concerned with a brash, fearless and très European psychological conflation of sexuality and violence. It’s not just that Mathilda enlists Léon as her own soldier of retribution. She demands to learn his trade and becomes an accomplice in a parade of homicides. More nervously, the 12-year-old also aggressively pursues Léon as her first lover. It’s obviously disquieting, but not because it’s tawdrily suggestive or because Léon grapples with whether he’ll go through with it. (Léon is far too simple-minded and emotionally repressed to seriously entertain a Nabokovian no-no.) It’s because of the persistence with which Mathilda pantomimes emotions she can’t possibly understand, let alone process, and the permanent damage it threatens to both her and Léon; a brief sketch of her oily family situation is instructive about the unhealthy images of womanhood that have shaped her by the time we meet her.
As a result, Léon conjures a more melancholy tale about love, pain and the whole damn thing — one that’s got an anxious hitch in its lungs and a desperate catch in its throat to match the force of its grip. And it also dramatically heightens the already exceptional work of Jean Reno (as Léon) and Natalie Portman (as Mathilda), whom The Professional introduced to American audiences.
Portman was just 11 years old when cast in this, her first feature film. It seems easy now, with years of hindsight, to claim her stardom was never in doubt. But then and now, her performance feels no less revelatory than Jodie Foster’s in Taxi Driver — perhaps even more so. And Reno, his eyes expressive of both horror he’d rather withhold or joy he’s eager to share, has made a career of monastic, reticent rumblers in such films as Mission: Impossible and Ronin. He also played a similarly employed character in La Femme Nikita, Besson’s 1991 film about a street urchin turned professional killer. The director wondered what a movie about Reno’s “cleaner” character might look like and used it as the basis for this. What began as Besson’s way to fill a schedule hole before The Fifth Element wound up scurrying its way into the 90th percentile on the IMDb’s Top 250 films.
Léon dresses like a cross between Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and Marcel Marceau — comically short pants, suspenders and a horizontally striped shirt. His only sartorial badass choice is his sunglasses, which he wears even when he … well, “sleeps” isn’t exactly the right word. Léon just temporally recedes at night inside his squalid apartment. (Kudos to location scouts for choosing a building that feels alive but just barely so, its aesthetic akin to armpit stains on a white T-shirt.)
Léon wastes little time introducing its title character’s nigh-supernatural skills in a thunderous opening sequence where he wastes lackeys serving a rival to his boss, Tony (Danny Aiello). We sense they’re all goners even before we see them clumsily cramming cocaine into their gums. That’s because cinematographer Thierry Arbogast’s bullet-train camerawork visually pens them, and the kingpin they work for, into increasingly small, inexorably inescapable spaces. Besson also gets an amusing throwaway from their supposition this siege comes from assassins, plural.
Do Léon’s methods defy reasonable laws of physics? Sure. Besson has never been one to pretend his action films exist in the rational world. Everything is heart-on-sleeve romanticized, right down to the way in which Léon escapes his rancid work into retrospective screenings of musical fantasias like Singin’ in the Rain. He’s also illiterate, but learning, and haunted by a moment of misguided rage that hemmed him into a life of homicide (the specifics also unwisely trimmed in the U.S. version). In its own way, Léon is a redemptive fable for him and the girl who enters his life.
Léon is odd enough to catch the eye of Mathilda, who lives down the hall. As she talks to him, she play-acts at a grown woman’s demeanor, posture and timbre. Mathilda’s sultry poses and precocious flirting mean to somehow accelerate her flight from an abusive home, no matter the dangers with which that might be fraught. She’s truant from school, her drug-dealing dad (Michael Badalucco, part of the Coen Brothers’ supporting-actor stable) freely throws fists, she’s a stitched-in afterthought to family photos, and her sweet younger brother is her life’s only bright spot.
It turns out that in skimming the top of the wrong cocaine shipment, her dad has run afoul of a dirty DEA crew. To exact revenge, their leader orchestrates a wholesale slaughter of the entire family, which they can then chalk up to operational procedure gone south. And it’s murder most definitely conducted with the flamboyance of an orchestra maestro in Gary Oldman’s amped-up performance as Stansfield.
With a rat’s nest of hair styled by however he turned in his sleep, greasy bangs and a rumpled suit affixed to his skin by perspiration and grime, Stansfield leaves a trail on everyone he touches — a scent, a mark, a target. You feel the fetid funk wafting off him, a mix of stale sweat and cologne that’s losing the battle in shielding it.
Oldman is always at his most amplified under Besson’s direction (see his Southern-fried Zorg in The Fifth Element). The chameleon emeritus improvised the moment when he sniffs Badalucco, drawing out what appears to be genuine discomfort, as well as his career’s most eminently GIF-able moment — a bloodthirsty clarification of what he means by “Bring me everyone.”
But Oldman has to go gloriously over-the-top here so as to sustain a second act from which he’s almost entirely absent — even tormenting helpless old ladies. And it’s not without sadistic subtlety. Stansfield is also a pill-popper. Note the way Oldman shakes the pillbox to confirm his fix is readily at hand. The high is always nearby, and Stansfield knows it; this is merely another mask of normal human behavior to slip on. Plus, if anyone ever really comes close to defiling Mathilda, it’s him, once she goes in for the kill on his big, bad wolf.
Mathilda’s keen observation of Léon’s frequent milk runs is all that saves her; Stansfield’s raid takes place while she’s out at the store buying him a quart. But she returns to the bloody aftermath, stealing fleeting glances as she strides straight to Léon’s door. There, her veneer crumbles in an emotionally potent and narratively suspenseful moment representing the apex, and death, of her childhood. Only at the last minute does Léon relent and, by opening his door, spare her life.
Léon has grown so acclimated to isolation that he initially forgets Mathilda is there — interpreting a nearby “other” as a threat and nearly shooting her in the head. He knows no good can come of keeping Mathilda, and that’s before she insists he teach her how to kill people and consider her as a lover.
After drawing nervous titters from American preview audiences, that scene was unsurprisingly cut.All that truly remains of either storyline in the American version, are a pair of scenes — one in which Mathilda snipes a target with a paint pellet and another in which she chooses sexual icons like Madonna and Marilyn Monroe in a dress-up game of Guess Who.
Besson’s original vision is unafraid to dance around taboo tripwires that are understandably and justifiably sensitive. But he and his actors elevate the material to engaging character work that never feels exploitative. Mathilda lives exclusively at extremes of infant and ingénue — lying to a bellhop about Léon’s relationship to her in one moment to retrieving a stuffed bunny from a crime scene in the next. Her clothes come in two sizes: absurdly large or inappropriately formfitting. Whatever sexual pursuit there is feels decidedly one-sided — hers and hers alone. In one instance, her advances cause Léon to dyspeptically spit out milk — not because he’s unexpectedly aroused but because he couldn’t possibly anticipate such forthrightness.
Even the film’s soundtrack feels sourced from Mathilda’s fantasies. Björk’s spritely and ethereally seductive “Venus as a Boy” accompanies a montage of her earliest days in Léon’s care, the singer’s orgasmic growl of the word “arousal” timed as she handles a gun and makes fluttery eyes at him.
Mathilda’s utter confusion in the matter leads the movie toward an idea that love and manipulation are not always mutually exclusive or decidedly destructive. “I want love or death. That’s it,” Mathilda asserts during a Russian Roulette scene in which she’s prepared to end her life over an ill-founded either-or and further goads Léon into picking off Stansfield’s team.
Neither able to disabuse Mathilda of her domestic-bliss misconceptions nor abandon her, Léon instead envelops her in the routine he knows. Although Mathilda never actually kills anyone, she accompanies him on numerous hits (in a montage and several scenes not even hinted at in the U.S.). In these training sessions, Besson and Arbogast render New York as a savannah dotted by skyscrapers — emphasizing a hugeness that threatens to swallow Léon and Mathilda and the inescapable destiny that their encounter will be merely ephemeral.
Léon concludes when Stansfield — now an immovable object to the hitman’s irresistible force — rains SWAT-team hell down on the hotel where Léon and Mathilda are hiding out. It’s a hard-hitting humdinger, with expert stuntwork and two of the decade’s most indelibly filmed explosion. But it’s also shot through with the same fatalism as the finale of Carlito’s Way.
A final, mutual declaration of love survives both cuts, but it’s not hard to guess in which one it feels like perfunctory dialogue. Given the proper challenging context, it feels more like a cherished moment of clear affection and appreciation that finally emerges from the clouded minds of a confused girl and a distant man. Importantly, this version feels more like a journey than just a joy-buzzer jolt of action, and the braver story Besson set out to tell — a fractured and fractious fairy tale.
When someone raves about The Professional, they mean Léon.