Cinema is magical. It’s a medium larger than life and offers enormous potential. Yet, ever year studios produce mundane movies rehashing the same tired franchises and characters. The potential of cinema is often squandered. So when a great film comes along, it tends to stand out, maybe not with the mass audience, but certainly with film fans. It’s not unusual for a standout to become a classic over time. A good example of this is Léon: The Professional. It’s over 20 years old now, but The Professional still overs viewers something compelling.
The Professional’s (1994) plot is simplistic: a professional assassin, Léon, is obliged to look after his 12-year-old neighbour, Mathilda, after her family is gunned down by a group of murderous, dirty cops. She offers to do Léon’s housework if he teaches her how to ‘clean’, a euphemism for murder. Mathilda is set on revenge and she needs Léon to teach her his deadly art. The two develop a complex relationship, which ultimately leads to Léon’s destruction. As the film comes to a close, Mathilda summarizes her situation quite succinctly saying: “My family got shot down by DEA officers because of a drug problem. I lived with the greatest guy on earth. He was a hitman, the best in town, but he died this morning and if you don’t help me, I’ll be dead by tonight.”
Although plot of The Professional (1994) is straightforward and easy to understand, the film also contains layers of complexity, especially pertaining to the relationship that develops between the Mathilda and her new guardian Léon. Certainly, the character Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman, is an important factor in advancing the plot, but this film is not about plot; it’s about characters. The complexity emerging from the interactions between Léon and Mathilda, as well as their development in the course of the film, is represented in the symbolic meanings of prominent objects. Objects take on meaning when the context of the characters’ motivations and relationship to each other is considered.
Case in point: the houseplant. Early in the film, Léon is shown paying great attention to his houseplant. He carefully cleans each leaf, misting them one-by-one with a spray bottle and then wiping them down with a soft cloth. He attentively positions the plant near the window in his apartment each day so it can absorb life-giving rays from the sun. At one point, Mathilda notices Léon’s horticultural diligence. She asks, “You love your plant, don’t you?” Léon replies, “It’s my best friend. Always happy. No questions. It’s like me, you see? No roots.” In this bit of dialogue, the symbolic meaning of the houseplant is partly uncovered. The houseplant is a kind of surrogate. It’s a friend, a child and a mirror of Léon, all at the same time. The houseplant represents Léon’s desire to have a companion and someone to take care of. But Mathilda says Léon should put the plant in a park so it can grow roots. She says he should be watering her if he wants her to grow. Here, Léon is being asked to give up his lone wolf status by bringing Mathilda more fully into his life.
This is the domestication of the predator. As the film progresses, we see the effects of Léon’s domestication. He goes out of his way to protect Mathilda, which leaves him vulnerable both emotionally and physically. When he rescues Mathilda at the DEA offices and when he asks his boss to give his money to her if he should die are good examples of this process. In some ways, he is compromised as a professional; however, Léon never fully turns his back on his way of life. Again we see the symbolic importance of the houseplant when, near the end of the film, surrounded by DEA and police who are hell-bent on killing him and Mathilda, he knocks a hole in the wall as an escape route. He then wraps his plant in a cloth and drops it down the space between the walls before putting Mathilda in. His continued dedication to the houseplant evinces strong remnants of his ruthless assassin identity. Therefore, Léon is not giving up the connection to his old life. He is still the wolf.
Beyond the symbolism of objects are the notable interactions between Mathilda and Léon. In my estimation, the contrast between the two characters and how they interact with each other is the most significant feature of the film and the reason why it is so compelling. In many ways, Léon is childlike. For example, he is seen drinking copious amounts of milk and eating cereal, typical of children. Furthermore, he is unable to read. He also seems to have a kind of ignorance of the world around him. A scene in the film that brings this to light is when Mathilda decides they should play charades. She dresses up like Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, but Léon has no idea whom these people are. All he knows is how to kill effectively; popular culture is alien to him.
In contrast to Léon’s childlike characteristics, Mathilda exhibits some very mature mannerisms. For example, she smokes cigarettes, wears slinky cloths and speaks provocatively. Indeed, Léon berates Mathilda for her language more than once in the film. When they are staying in the hotel, she tells the superintendent that she is Léon’s lover. Would it be cynical to wonder then, if the film’s director Luc Besson is flirting with pedophilic undercurrents? The argument can be made that whenever an unrelated man spends time with a very young girl, it must be very clearly explained that the relationship is on the up and up, or certain assumptions might be made.
Yet, Léon and Mathilda’s contrasting reactions to violence are telling. Those reactions reveal the core of each character, which is grounded in the normative view of a child and an assassin respectively. Because of this, the audience is able to see and feel the effects of violence through the eyes of these two protagonists. For example, in the opening sequence of the film, violence is seen as clinical and almost humourous. Bad guys are getting killed right and left, but the audience feels little or no sympathy. It is assumed the bumbling idiots deserve no respect. This treatment of violence reflects the unflinching, unfeeling ethos of the assassin. In marked contrast, Mathilda is devastated by the violence to her family. In particular, the audience is meant to feel sympathy for the young brother who was cute, innocent and totally defenseless. Mathilda’s reaction sets up the motive, as well as the audience’s endorsement, for the revenge violence that is to follow.
In her New York Times movie review, Janet Maslin (1994) makes note of the “extravagant violence” of the film (para. 9). According to Maslin (1994), the oversentimentality of the film overshadows the violence. She sees the cataclysmic explosion at the end – Léon’s suicidal coup de grâce – as “maudlin.” I agree with her assessment. The movie does wander into sappy territory at times. For example, when Léon saves Mathilda by opening up a hole in the wall, the two hold hands while Mathilda sobs and begs Léon not to make her go down the shaft alone. A saccharine sound score adds to the effect.
Maslin’s (1994) review suggests Léon “has a true sweetness” and that “he and Mathilda can redeem each other with the purity of their platonic love” (para. 9). Although there are no obvious indications that the relationship between the Mathilda and Léon was anything other than plutonic, I still can’t help but wonder if Besson wanted the audience to consider the appropriateness of the friendship.
The final criticisms in Maslin’s (1994) review are the problematic and “condescending American stereotypes,” such as the mob boss in the Italian restaurant, and the limited acting skills of Natalie Portman (para. 10). I can see her point about the stereotypes: do we really need another Italian-American mobster figure working out of his restaurant? However, if Besson were an American director, would this even be an issue? I think not. And let’s cut Portman a break! She did a fine acting job, emoting everything from playfulness to cunning to despair.
The Professional (1994) has become somewhat of a cult classic and for good reason. It’s a film that’s both entertaining and surprisingly nuanced. Yes, there is plenty of violence, but the multidimensional relationship between the solitary assassin and the resilient ingénue is the film’s redeeming quality. It’s a redemption that’s reflected in Leon’s personal development. When Léon agrees to open the door for Mathilda, thereby saving her from Stansfield’s goons, he is also opening his heart. By doing so, he’s letting in sentimentality. Consequently, his fate is sealed. He will die to protect Mathilda, but in doing so, he avenges the death of her family.
If you’ve not yet seen the film, I suggest you pour yourself a tall glass of milk and allow yourself to be sentimental. You’ll not be disappointed.