Bessons women who kick ass – Leon The professional (Film Review)
It is typical of a ill-informed critic audience to miss the primary point of Luc Besson’s breakout bildungsroman that centres around a female protagonist coming of age story, but Leon: The Professional is so exceptionally well cast that fortunately the cast never miss Bessons point – either that or Besson has a talent for choosing an exceptionally courageous, intelligent cast that will understand his perspective and have the courage to produce it faithfully. Unlike Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver, unlike Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Natalie Portman in Leon: the Professional is the star not only of screen time, but of perspective, the bulk of the film dedicated to her point of view. The key to understanding Besson’s brilliant film (so brilliant it is genius) is the passion Matilda feels Leon in her the total appropriation of the phallus. Matilda’s “penis envy” is so complete, and so perfectly manifest at the appropriate age, apportioned to the most flawless of role models, that unlike almost every female in the world, she is given the perfect opportunity to separate from male desire, move toward female guidance and being a life of autonomous power.
The extreme violence of Leon the Professional is the perfect metaphor of the violence that almost always accompanies the youthful females right of passage into her own autonomy. Women are far more likely to be raped by males they know at any time in their life, it is the small insular world of family life – the womb safety young males take for granted – that is where the coming of age girl is most at risk. When she starts to learn that she has no power in the world (just as young boys are starting to learn that if they turn and punch the school yard bully, they will create a foundation they can build on) she attached herself to a father figure, that nine times out of ten in a young girls life, will turn on her in a tragedy of misunderstanding of their role. Every young girl – at least every young girl with spunk, seeking to make something of her life – will turn to a much older man she deems powerful, for guidance, and she will be forced through circumstance, and wild hormones to try to use sexuality to gain his attention. If she is profoundly fortunate, he will neither reject her, nor accommodate her desire. Instead he will see his role as a symbol of her autonomy and allow himself to be a secondary figure in her self actualisation. As far as I can tell, this has only happened for Matilda in Luc Bessons’ created film world, a film to perfectly executed, so profoundly French in its understandings, and yet American in its narrative that it is more than decades ahead of its time. My wish for young women, is a Leon in all their lives, a man who is willing to see the adult bursting in the child, who gives credibility to that blossom, without destroying its tender hopes for understanding. I certainly could have used one myself when I was twelve years old.
The three central performances of Leon: the Professional are exceptional, flawless in execution and perfectly measured. Natalie Portman shows a sophistication far beyond her years (or is it?) that easily sections her among the flawless female performances that should have received far more recognition than it did – though how Besson extracted such a performance from a first timer I can’t begin to imagine. Jean Reno is impossibly perfect, the man I badly wish my twelve-year-old girl knew, completely personifying the power of the phallus and yet human enough to see his role is something he has never played, but has always been preparing for. Matilda gives context to Leon’s life. Everything he has done is sanctified by his refusal to take advantage of her stage of development. She is freedom, his chance at personal salvation that has nothing to do with a force outside of himself. As the closing scenes indicate, it is Leon’s treatment of Matilda that allows her to approach a matriarch and learn from a very wise, understanding female. She only becomes fully functioning in Leon’s refusal (and also acceptance) of her sexuality as real, and yet subsidiary to her personal power.
Gary Oldman might come off as overlayed to some, but as the oppressive male antagonistic force, properly represented by the duel tragedies of law enforcement and substance abuse (two great castrators of masculinity) he is perfect as oppressive masculinity in all its addictive hysteria and “rational” common sense. Matilda bounces between oppressive masculine force as a method of her subjection and oppressive male force as in service of her emancipation, and by siding with Leon and choosing to fight Stansfield, she embarks on a path of courageous self actualisation trusting – even if it is a sublimated trust – that Leon would never accept her advances. This is the unwritten contract that Leon understands better than Matilda. If Leon accepted her “offers”, her turning against him would only be a matter of time. her passionate worship of his power is the gift he receives, and Reno’s Leon, understands he must not, under any circumstances, take advantage of her completely open vulnerability.
Besson, in all his brilliance, constantly locates this extraordinary tale in two places; the very restrictive corridors of the family home, and the stairwell which is the passage out of the family home. Every “family home” depicted is tight, narrow and restricted. Matilda admonishes Leon for his placing his plant, his best friend, near the window so that it can feel free, without the chance to really grow its roots. When Matilda plants the much-loved plant in the field, the only expansive house she has experienced in the background, she loves Leon for what he gave her – not a tawdry sexual response to her passions, but the freedom of the field, the place outside of the home where she can grow roots and blossom. Bresson depicts the family home like a vase in which to place cut flowers – the woman being an adornment to a dream that needs maintaining. Outside, in the field, she is free to grow tall and strong – her blossoms must be visited on her own turf, on her own terms in order to be fully realised. Matilda needs to learn that her sexuality used to appropriate the phallus isn’t her access to power. She must learn this just as she becomes woman, and realises there is power available in a female relationship with the world, just as the plant grows better in the field facing the elements alone.
It will come as no surprise that Leon:The Professional has been underrated by English speaking critics since it first came out. It is typical of female focused films to be misunderstood, even reviled, and Besson has been forced to endure endless misinterpretations because of his courage to take something this difficult to understand to an American (western) audience. Certainly from a continental feminist perspective, the film passes with flying colours and heralds a kind of film making of the future we have yet to mature into.