Not unlike the stereotypical “whore with a heart of gold,” the title character of Leon (1994) is a kind-hearted, Italian-American hit man with an ennobling ethical code. Leon Montana (Jean Reno) refuses to kill women and children, refrains from alcohol because he believes assassins have “no right” to drink, and he has a soft spot for Gene Kelly musicals. In fact, despite showing him to be an effective, and nigh-unstoppable assassin, the film shows that Leon is, at heart, an innocent who should have never become a hired killer in the first place. For much of the film, the wholesome imagery surrounding Leon is incongruous, but the camera insistently shows a supposedly cold-blooded murderer lovingly tending to a potted plant, constantly drinking Farmland brand milk, and sitting beneath a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary prominently displayed in his apartment. However, towards the end of the film, the audience discovers who Leon really is, and what his life might have been like had his youth not been stolen from him.
Years ago, when Leon was nineteen and living in Italy, he fell in love with a young woman from a wealthy and respectable family. Her father opposed the relationship because Leon’s family was “not respectable,” but she continued to see Leon in secret. When her father discovered her disobedience, he murdered his own daughter and bought off the authorities, ensuring that her shooting would be declared “accidental.” Enraged, the young Leon felt that it was up to him to pursue justice outside of the law and killed the rich man himself. He then fled to New York and began his career as a “cleaner” for a gangster named Tony (Danny Aiello), who was a friend of his father’s. The film suggests that Leon was not a criminal when he first fell in love, and that he never took a life before avenging his lover’s murder. The fact that he remained faithful to her memory and never pursued another romantic relationship offers further testament to his romantic nature.
For years following, Leon chooses a rootless existence, forsaking love and choosing death over life. However, things change for Leon when he begins a tentative friendship with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), the young daughter of a drug dealer who lives in a neighboring apartment. Thanks to her appalling home life, Mathilda has grown up too fast. She smokes, curses, and wears alluring clothing, but Leon’s sympathy for her is first aroused when he notices that she is black-and-blue from being beaten by her father. In addition to being guilty of domestic violence, Mathilda’s father has been withholding drugs from his business partners, a rogue group of D.E.A. officers led by the maniacal Agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman). When her father fails to come clean and return the drugs, Stansfield storms their apartment and murders Mathilda’s entire family. Mathilda is out buying groceries while her family is slaughtered, and she returns to the apartment building as the D.E.A. agents are scrambling to recover the drugs. Fearful of being discovered, she knocks insistently on Leon’s door, praying that he will let her in and protect her from discovery and execution. He does.
The rest of the film involves Leon dealing with the consequences of his decision, as he finds himself suddenly responsible for the life of a vulnerable young girl when he had done all he could to sever all ties to humanity. The situation is complicated by the fact that Mathilda believes the best thing for her to do in the wake of her family’s murder is to learn how to be an assassin so that she can defend herself from harm and avenge her family. She also begins to rapidly fall in love with her savior, and has hopes of playing Bonnie to Leon’s Clyde.
Leon’s emotions are more complex and conflicted. He initially wants to wash his hands of her, and is briefly tempted to shoot her in her sleep to spare her pain. He then agrees to train her to be an assassin, but does not allow her to take any lives yet. Since she is young, there is still a chance that she can grow up somewhat normally, go to school, and not become an assassin herself, or a gangster’s moll. Even as Leon begins to feel arguably inappropriate romantic feelings for her, and uses her as bait to drag his prey out into the open on missions, he seems determined to preserve her innocence as best as he can. He believes that, should she ever kill in revenge, she would never know peace, or sleep well again. He also tries to teach her to behave more respectably and demands that she stop smoking and cursing. For Mathilda, these attempts to preserve her innocence and turn her into a respectable lady make little sense, as she cannot ever forget her passionate feelings for Leon or the sight of her brother’s body in chalk outline on the floor of her home.
As she explains to Leon, “I’ve finished growing up. I just get older.”
“For me it is the opposite. I need time to grow up,” Leon replies.
Mathilda does help Leon grow up during the course of their relationship. She teaches him how to read and write using the works of Plato, and she reawakens his heart by teaching him to love again, both as a father figure, friend, and potential love interest. The blurring of these categories in the film – father, friend, lover – often make it an uncomfortable, and sometimes exploitative viewing experience. I’m of two minds about the relationship. On the one hand, the film is morally reprehensible on many levels, most especially the way in which it could be seen to promote pedophilia and statutory rape. On the other hand, the complexity of the emotions depicted ring true, as real life is often messy and emotions are painfully difficult to categorize and control. In addition, the extent to which viewers are offended by this relationship depends partly on how old they believe Mathilda is supposed to be. She claims she is eighteen in an effort to trick Leon into sleeping with her, but an eleven-year-old Natalie Portman plays the character in the film, and Tony from Little Italy guesses her age at twelve. However, Besson himself maintains that their relationship is ultimately innocent and that both characters are “both twelve-years-old in their minds, and they’re both lost and they love each other. The rest is your problem.”
For most of the film, Leon refuses to touch Mathilda, sleeps in an armchair alone, and behaves in a shy and innocent manner around her, especially when she becomes flirtatious. Mathilda consistently tries to seduce him, either by dressing seductively as Madonna and singing “Like a Virgin,” or by directly asking to be kissed, or made love to for the first time. When she makes these passes, Leon chokes on the milk he is drinking and demands that she change the subject, but she never does for long. In one, symbolically significant moment, she lays down on his bed, her arms spread out mimicking Christ on the cross as she announces, “Leon, I think I’m falling in love with you.” It is, at once, a confession, an expression of innocence and naïveté, an invitation to sex, and a foreshadowing that she will ultimately be Leon’s salvation. Indeed, by the end of their time together, Leon chooses to embrace life, and hopes to find roots and happiness. When Agent Stansfield tracks them down, and it seems as if Leon will be killed, he reveals to Mathilda that she has finally taught him how to live. “I love you, Mathilda,” he says, before sending her off to safety so he can face Stansfield alone.
After Leon and Stansfield kill one another, Mathilda is orphaned for the second time. She attempts to get a job working for Tony, but Tony insists that she return to the private school her father paid for her to attend. At this moment, Tony gives Mathilda the chance at a normal life he should have given Leon when Leon first came to him for help many years ago. In the final scene, as Mathilda is accepted back into the Spencer School, the audience is symbolically reassured that she is safe, and will now grow up to have a normal life when she plants Leon’s prize possession, his potted plant, on the lush school grounds. “I think we’ll be happy here, Leon,” she says to the formerly “rootless” plant that symbolically represents Leon himself.
Far from being a traditionally religious person, Besson’s worldview celebrates the importance of seeing things are they are, instead of through the distorted lens of ideology, which invariably leads to lies, self-deception, oppression, and violence. Arguably, Besson’s use of the symbol of the divine female figure muddies “the truth” in its own way, by romanticizing and deifying women instead of presenting them more realistically. And secular allegory is potentially as truth-distorting as religious symbolism. However, for Besson, these “supernatural” women represent the possibility of transcending self-doubt, hatred, and efforts that the forces of the establishment make to brainwash the populace and numb human emotions. Besson’s films tell us that the most effective way we can fight back against a corrupt society is for us to rediscover the best versions of ourselves in the act of falling in love. For Besson, the greatest relationships are loving, self-sacrificing ones in which two people mirror all that is good and beautiful in one another, forgive one another for their mutual flaws, and stand side-by-side against the establishment forces who would try to rob them of their love, their peace, and their lives.