As if fortysomethings need any further memento mori that they’ll become dust sooner than they think, Natalie Portman joined their ranks earlier this month. Indeed, it has been more than a quarter-century since Portman’s on-screen debut. And what a stunning journey it’s been from ingenue to in-demand — from Jane Foster to Jackie Kennedy, Star Wars to stoner comedies, Malick to Mr. Magorium, precise impersonations of Madonna to piercing interrogations of the Madonna-whore complex, Beautiful Girls to Black Swan. It seems easy now, with years of hindsight, to feel like Portman’s stardom was never in doubt. But no talent like her should be taken for granted. If you believe her legendary Lonely Island-assisted freestyle, she could even kill your dog for fun, so don’t push her. What you want, Natalie? A career of might. What you need, Natalie? To always find new heights. This is Natalie’s Rap.
One of humanity’s greatest strengths is empathy. At our lowest, most vulnerable times, the people most able to give us support are the ones who can hear our hurts because they echo their own. The outsider isn’t trying to fix what is within us. They lend us their strength to heal ourselves, much as sunflowers planted in irradiated soil cleanse the earth.
Léon (Jean Reno) and Mathilda (Natalie Portman) share more than echoing hurts in 1994’s Léon: The Professional. Léon’s career as a hitman begins out of a revenge killing, cutting down the father, and murderer, of his would-be bride. Mathilda’s motivation grows from similar harm. Her family was slaughtered by a corrupt DEA agent named Stansfield (Gary Oldman). Both the father and Stansfield are untouchable because of their status and resources, and both Léon and Mathilda are moved to action in order to work out some sort of justice.
This trauma irrevocably binds them together, but the timing means they share a similar emotional outlook on life as well. Léon was 19 when he committed his first kill and fled to the United States. He still drinks milk as his drink of choice. He has no meaningful social life. He sleeps sitting up in a chair in the dark by the front door of wherever he stays. He exists in this gray area of adult and child. He is a natural-born killer, so adept that he is but a shadow to his prey. He is also still an awkward youth, nearly unable to carry a conversation with a child until he is able to play pretend with a puppet.
Mathilda, who’s 12, inversely occupies that overlapping adult-child zone as well. As much as Léon is mostly a child in an adult’s body, Mathilda has been forced to grow up because of the various violence happening around and to her. She is mistreated by her siblings and ignored by her parents, and her trauma culminates in seeing them all, and her beloved younger brother, murdered. She is a child who has had childhood ripped away, forcing her to play-act what she believes an adult should be like. After all, if she is not a child because she did not have a childhood, what else can she be to herself?
This is Portman’s debut role, and her command of the phrase “acting is reacting” makes her one of the pillars of success in the film; Reno’s turn is superb, but Oldman’s “best overacting” is a lesson in and of itself. A hypothesis for why child actors often fizzle out — in addition to the fact that Hollywood is a terrible place — could be that casting looks for a person to match a role instead of an actor to create it.
Portman creates Mathilda.
She melts into this role. One of my favorite scenes is when she tries to convince Léon to teach her to be a cleaner. Léon rejects her idea, and she looks so perfectly indignant.
However, no matter that skill — and no matter the movie’s critical acclaim that launched Portman’s subsequently stellar career — the most nefarious part of the role comes in the cultural response and controversy surrounding Léon and Mathilda’s relationship. Taking the dual adult-child / child-adult reading above, or Léon as caretaker, or Portman’s personal recognition of Mathilda discovering what growing up means to her all seek to remove a sexualized reading of Léon and Mathilda’s relationship. In a clear world, we would only see a traumatized child seeking comfort and understanding and an adult rendering or enabling it in the best way he knows how.
But this is not a clear world, and the reading still happens. It is read that way by people who want to see vulnerability as an invitation. Portman has spoken out about the wildly inappropriate “fan” mail she received and how it affected her artistic choices early in her career. And it is read that way by those who know others want to see vulnerability as an invitation and want to guard themselves against it. It grows more impossible not to be wary when the writer-director, Luc Besson, was credibly accused of sexual assault and met his first wife when she was 12 and started dating her at 15.
The functional aspects of how we culturally treat women — particularly young women without resources who have experienced trauma — necessarily shades and stains a naturalistic tour de force performance by Portman and an otherwise moving film about what it means to have someone in your life who understands you and your experiences.
“Is life always this hard or only when you’re a kid?” Mathilda asks, nursing a bloody nose given to her by her father.
“Always like this,” Léon replies.
Oh, to live in a world where it is not …