When climbing the stairs of his building, after the usual stop at the grocery store to buy milk, Leon finds a child. The wobbling legs, from one floor to the bottom, are dressed in leggings of cartoons. Short hair hides her face. Disguise the cigarette. This is how Luc Besson introduces us to the character Mathilda in "Léon, O Profissional". This is how Léon knows her, as she climbs the stairs home, after the usual stop at the grocery store to buy two packets of milk.
Léon is a hired killer who works for an Italian mafia lord, based in New York. Mathilda is a 12-year-old child who, shortly after the initial meeting, sees her family being slaughtered by police in the drug department. Léon is Mathilda's only hope for escape. But by the end of this 1994 film, we will see that it is Leon who feels he has been saved by Mathilda.
In an instant approach, Mathilda convinces Léon to teach him his art to avenge the authors of the death of the family. The learning culminates in Mathilda's confession when she tells Léon that she loves him. But Mathilda is 12 years old, as the actress who gave her life and who started her career here. And Léon is a man made.
On the scene are Natalie Portman and Jean Reno. At pre-adolescent age, Portman reveals the opposite of the innocent simplicity of Reno's character. León is an adult who has not matured – and even though he is a murderer, with scenes of declared violence, it is easy to like the character for his childish traits. Léon takes an amiable way, evident in the innocent smile that sees Gene Kelly in "Dancing in the Clouds" (1955), alone in the cinema. Mathilda is a short-lived child, armed with combat boots and committed to growing up – just before Leon is overcome by vulnerability. Aware of this dynamic, and incarnating a strong female character despite the young age, Mathilda disturbs the approach between the two, trying to seduce Leon.
It is important to say that Luc Besson's film was received with controversy. The idea of sexualization of a child actress infected the reception of this French film. It is certain that Natalie Portman capricha in the challenge to the personage of Jean Reno. But the relationship between them is more fraternal and emotional than loving or sexual – even when Mathilda whispers in Leon's ear as she imagines her first time.
Predicting this reading, Natalie Portman's parents will have submitted preconditions to filming, asking for setbacks where they thought the actress would be exposed to scenes that were too mature for her age. Natalie Portman herself has recently told us that the experience of "Léon, O Profissional" has quickly taught her to adopt a position of less media exposure of her personal life and her own body. At the Women's March in January this year in Los Angeles, the actress called for a revolution in which it is not necessary to take this type of behavior as a means of self-protection.
Despite the efforts, social and political criticism was associated with the film. The mark is also due to the fact that Luc Besson found inspiration in his relationship with Maïwenn Le Besco: she was 15 and he was 31.
Still, "Léon the Professional" has become a cult movie. There are the elements that are of interest to the consecration: the singular interpretation of Natalie Portman; Björk's voice on the soundtrack ("Venus as a a Boy"); the choice of the iconic The Chelsea Hotel to film some scenes. Gary Oldman's participation also has to be considered, he who gave Léon one of the best-known speeches ("bring me everyone") and who, in any role, can prove to be one of the best actors of our times.
Yes, this is a cult movie and pop culture has proven it. The Alt-J was inspired by this story for the song "Matilda" and it is necessary to reach the end of Léon to watch the protagonist leave with great drama and intensity, which the British band used: "this is from Mathilda". Later, the Alt-J also honored Jean Reno's character by singing "She loves you, Leon" in a song with the name of the protagonist.
Besson still has to say that his "The Fifth Element" (1997) is on the list. In addition to "Nikita – Dura de Matar" (1990), these will be the three films worth seeing by the French director. Criticism makes this clear and it is enough to look at Besson's post-1990s filmography to believe.
See more in Filipa Moreno's blog.