Anatomy of a film scene – 1:
Léon (The Professional)

“I don’t give a shit about sleep, Léon. I want love… or death.”

France, 1995.

A film won the the César Award(s) for the categories of Best Film, Best Actor (Jean Reno), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Music, and Best Sound. Léon, known as The Professional here in the United States, created some well deserved traction outside of its originating country and notably without any major accolades.

At 15 years old, the film had quite an impact on me emotionally and artistically. It was the film that made me start paying attention to cinema as a medium. One scene in particular features leading little lady, Matilda (Natalie Portman), responding to her life saving hero, Léon (Jean Reno), after he has just told her to go to sleep and negate the heavily emotional discussion they have just had regarding her questionable feelings for her “hitman” savior. The 11 year old, Matilda loves him… truly, madly and deeply. She has fallen in love with him and at this, one of several, apex moments in the film, the idea of his feelings for her is on the tip of the audience’s mind. As disturbing as the notion is, we as the audience are rooting against his unrequited love.

Much to my surprise this scene, along with several others totalling 23 minutes, was removed from the U.S. release of “The Professional” but remained in the International version of “Léon”. Unfortunately, what this does to the U.S. version of the film is accelerate the, already uncomfortable, idea of Léon and Matilda’s relationship. Writer and Director Luc Besson already had some well placed discussion with the parents of underaged Natalie Portman regarding the tone of the story and especially the development of “Léon and Matilda”.

Let’s address something that was on everyone’s mind as the story unfolded and then let’s put it to rest. There is some sexual talk, tone and tension in the film but when you step back and look at the overall relationship between Léon and Matilda and the actual story itself, it has little placement and is dissected and handled very maturely and artistically.

What happens during this two minute scene and what struck me so blatantly during my first viewing of the film and now, is how emotionally charged the scene was throughout the process of it’s presentation. Production wise, it is a simply developed scene with only three points of view for the audience to attend. The perspective from each character is designed to put you in their seats and become part of the unfolding scenario. The timing and delivery of their corresponding lines is decreased slightly to elevate the tension of the moment and to really highlight, specifically, Matilda’s dialogue and the underlying emotion. Natalie Portman’s acting throughout this moment is, what I would describe as, flooring. Her confidence through adversity branches through and her character blooms into focus throughout the volley of their conversation. For the most part, she doesn’t blink more than once or twice while urging her position regarding their relationship which has reached a point of no return as she encourages “love or death”. No blinking, driving discussion, confidence and her heart bleeding all compounds the energy and has the audience inching a little closer to the edge of their seats as she loads a revolver with 4 bullets out of a possible 6. Matilda then proposes staying with Léon for life or he can “go shopping alone, like before” in a win or lose round of Russian Roulette. As a professional hitman, Léon hears a round “click” in the chamber and acknowledges that Matilda will lose. After pleading for Léon’s regret and collapsing from fear of rejection, Matilda professes her love for the, seemingly, stubborn Léon. During these moments of wrought tension, you’re practically sitting across from Léon with tears streaming down your face and a lump in your throat. You can witness, first hand, Natalie Portman’s personification of Matilda and see her breakdown with actual emotion. The flare of her nostrils to inhale more air as her breathing shortens. The nasally sound of her speech as she wells and cries.

After retracting the hammer of the revolver, she declares, “I love you, Léon” and pulls the trigger. The professional slaps the weapon out of her hand at the absolute last second. Matilda, still silently sobbing, grips her teddy bear and as she attempts to collect herself, simply stares at him with tear glittered eyes and says, “I win”.

Fundamentally, this is an important scene when unfolding the story of this film. You can watch, second by second, the once confident Matilda deconstruct her desires and intentions and willingly pit her life against the notion that, perhaps, Léon does in fact, not return her love. We see the maturing Matilda load a revolver, clarify the reasoning for either opposition (love or death), become the young physically and emotionally dependant being that once brought her to Léon in the beginning of the film. From revolver to teddy bear.

These two minutes bridge a gap and drive a blossoming connection in their relationship. A much needed deconstruction of one of the elements of what Matilda and Léon ultimately become. Without which the film can be canvassed with a completely different and potentially unsettling tone.

Watch the scene here:

Copyright: Sony Pictures | Gaumont Buena Vista International