Age is just a number
I was both enchanted and disturbed by viewing Léon again today. Luc Besson’s film has undoubted charm, and the performances, especially by the precocious Natalie Portman, are thrilling, but as Roger Ebert noted at the time, there is something odd about watching a film about the relationship between a twelve-year-old girl, a grown man, and violence. The Bollywood remake, Bichhoo, avoided the problem by making Portman’s character twenty and allowing her therefore a full relationship with the killer of the title. But Besson in my view meant very deliberately to make his heroine a child, to exploit our reactions and make us think anew about the whole concept of childhood and what it means to be a child and what it means to be an adult.
For let us admit that despite our unease, there is nothing unchildlike about Mathilda. She watches cartoons, she channel hops, and on some of her hops has seen some rather adult films but has interpreted them in a childish way (Thelma and Louise and Bonny and Clyde are in her opinion the best killers ever — an interestingly literal and immature approach to material that demands maturity of its audience). She fervently desires to be an adult — she smokes, imitates Léon’s style of dressing, wants to be initiated sexually. She says she loves Léon but in reality she hero-worships, has a crush on, him. Mathilda is typical, despite her weird upbringing, of those on the verge of adolescence — without understanding her growing feelings, she wants to grow up; without knowing what it means, she aspires to adulthood. Mistaking the exterior, the guns and mini-skirts, exercise videos and movies, for the interior of mature judgement, she is surely typical of 12-year-olds the world over: her signifiers of adulthood may be distorted by her upbringing but her desire to attain adulthood and her failure to distinguish between the signs of maturity and maturity itself are typically adolescent.
Rather than Mathilda, it is Léon who emerges from the film as the most atypical character. Grief-stricken Léon longs to attain childhood and leave behind the puzzling world of adulthood. He lost his beloved in his native country, and traumatized by that moment wants to escape everything. He wants to be like his plant, his “best friend” who succours him by giving him the possibility of living an impassive life. Unlike Mathilda, who wants to feel and to thrive, Léon wants to wall himself off from the world, to (as Mathilda works out quickly) deny he has any feelings at all for anything. But just as she is unable to suppress the fact that whilst she is as provocative and pugnacious as an adult, she is in fact a child, so Léon fails to suppress his adulthood. The real story of the film is the emergence of the adult Léon, despite his impassive mask.
Crucial to this is the way he responds to Mathilda. Various critics like the Austin Chronicle‘s Mark Savlov believe that the relationship between the two “borders on pedophilia,” but that is to misunderstand Léon’s response to Mathilda. He is indulgent with her — even when she persuades him to lie in bed with her, forces him to put his arm round her, Léon’s posture is very much anti-sexual, his body pointing away from her, his embrace fatherly. When at the end of the film Léon declares that he loves Mathilda — a declaration that, significantly, she can’t hear — and sacrifices his life for her, he does so with fatherly calmness and clearly without sexual intentions. What critics are right about, though, is what the relationship does to Léon: if never a consummation of his sexual desires, it is a consummation of his personality. Because of Mathilda, Léon rediscovers adulthood and responsibility.
For suddenly after she arrives, Léon starts to want to take control of his own life in order to protect her. Crucially, he arranges that his money be transferred on her after his death. He takes over her quarrels as well. He snatches away a pistol from her head after she, in a typically childish fit of pique, threatens herself in order to get his sexual attention. Léon constantly refuses to satisfy her crush, but also constantly protects her — from local youths, from her own desires, from her enemies and ultimately beyond the grave by persuading her to go back to school. Léon’s life in crucial ways stopped when his beloved was murdered; he stopped feeling responsible and merely became an automated killer, an assassin who cared neither for morality nor his victims. By meeting Mathilda he rediscovers both responsibility and moral agency; he becomes an adult again.
Besson here is, I think, trying to make some points about adulthood that are worth remembering and that critics may have missed in seeking to reinforce the pedophilic point. Mathilda’s raging desires for revenge or sex or cigarettes are the raging, uncontrolled desires of a child. The villain, played expertly by Gary Oldman, is also childlike, but unlike Léon, he does touch Mathilda sexually, stroking her face as he threatens her. Oldman is also a man of unrestrained desires: he takes drugs and spends most of the movie in a psychotic game with death. Unlike Léon, his desire to kill is unrestrained. Mathilda’s father is another adult child, with a succession of young and beautiful wives and an unwillingness to properly look after his daughter, preferring to have sex against the bathroom mirror with his latest spouse to refereeing his daughters’ competing desires for the television.
The ability to make responsible choices, not age, defines adulthood. Léon in the beginning has the possibility of growth — he is willing to make and keep rules — but without the emotional capacity to commit to someone else because of the scars of his beloved’s death, he cannot be an adult. Mathilda’s presence in his life makes him mature because she becomes someone he feels responsible for. In a curious way, she also demonstrates that she is becoming more grown up toward the end of the film. She acknowledges her debt to Léon by planting the flower that was his best friend and promising to care for it in the future. She also returns to school, returning to the process of growing up in a normal way, which represents an accepted limit on her actions. That, more than her precocious sexuality or her desire to be an assassin, demonstrates her nascent adulthood.
Léon is meant to disturb and challenge our definition of adulthood, but not quite perhaps in the way that critics thought. It reminds us that adulthood means accepting constraints, both physical and emotional; and that humanity is empathy. It is fitting that at the end of the film Léon dies — he has grown to his full extent. It is equally fitting that Mathilda survives; she still has part of her journey ahead. Her return to school and care for Léon’s plant and memory demonstrate that the audience may have legitimate hopes for her success in becoming the adult that she so devoutly wished to be: though as for all of us the process will take her in directions she can scarcely have anticipated. Adulthood isn’t sex and guns, she learns, but rather responsibility, empathy, and caring.