Damaged people act differently to the rest of us. They are products of their experiences. Both Léon and Mathilda have experienced trauma and loss but find companionship after Léon opens his door to save her life.
The idea of ‘growing up’ applies to both characters. M needs to literally grow up in age in order to be able to have the sort of relationship she discusses with L, and yet at the same time needs to have a childhood and an education. M doesn’t relate to children of her age group- we see this when she pays off the boys from the courtyard with a $100 bill. For L to be ‘grown up’ he needs to be able to do more than kill people, care for a plant and drink milk, but he cannot after leading an emotionally stunted life for years, following the events that led him to flee Italy. He became a hardened, brutal killing machine, and that’s all he’s known in New York. M’s family life is chaotic- she lives with her step mother, step sister, low life criminal father, she smokes and has missed the last two months of school. She comes across as ‘wise beyond her years’, formed by her life experience, things she’s seen on TV and what she’s read in magazines. She often takes the role of the adult in conversations with L- at one point a POV shows her standing dominant over L, who is sat with a glass of milk. This role-reversal between ‘adult’ and ‘child’ is also shown when M teaches L how to read. The only adult who phases M is Stansfield (Gary Oldman’s bent Drug Enforcement officer). Only with him we see who she really is- a scared 12 year old. He shot her younger brother, and is responsible for the killing of M’s family, so naturally she’s scared, but it’s also because she is without L. With L she is confident, assured and composed- we see this when they carry out their first joint ‘hit’. In being with M, L begins to feel emotions again, recalls his past, and is aware of his destiny- he goes to talk to Tony about the money he’s earnt. L is also able to relax enough to sleep on a bed, for the first time in years, with M beside him. So both characters become complete when they are together, but this cannot continue.
M’s age is the major barrier, as shown by the constant Hotel evictions, L’s reaction to M telling him that she loves him and L’s unwillingness to kiss her in the restaurant. He can’t love M, it’s impossible on all fronts. When he does reciprocate in some way he gets it wrong- the dress he buys her looks like a doll’s dress (in the original script M even says: You’d better directly buy the doll to fit in it, that would be clearer!) L has no idea what a girl, or young woman would like, he is not experienced enough to know better. M tries to provoke L (as she does the Hotel Receptionist when she tells him that L is not her father, but her…lover) and tests L’s resolve yet she knows he is a moral person- ‘no women, no children’ is his only stipulation when accepting a job. M is safe with this ‘Professional Cleaner’. If we look at her role models at home: her sister exercising in front of the TV, her tartily-dressed step mother- whom she catches in the middle of sexual activity with her father in the bathroom, and add the neglect and the criminal activity of her father we can begin to understand her behaviour. What she talks to L about losing her virginity (a topic already invoked when she dresses up as Madonna and sings ‘Like A Virgin’), it’s what she’s read in magazines, heard from older girls, maybe even overheard from her step-sister, but L knows these are not really her words and does not react. At no point does L do anything that suggests he could take advantage of her, and do what she asks him to. Just after leaving to go to kill one of Stansfield’s men, alone for a final time, L slumps against the wall, wracked by inner turmoil. M has just told him she loves him and he doesn’t know how to process it. In the original script things between them do get physical, and this would have been impossible to justify, let alone get past the censors. Some of the cuts were apparently made on Natalie Portman’s instruction, and we are lucky she was listened to. M’s character’s sexuality makes this an uncomfortable watch, at times, and it would most likely not get made today, nor for that matter would Lolita- including the 1997 remake featuring a 17 year old Dominique Swain.
Luc Besson just about manages to stay on the right side of the line, and this means the film is still watchable today. Besson is on top form, making the film pacey and visually arresting, allowing moments of humour, setting up a fantastic final shoot-out action sequence at the end, and allows the two central performances to really hold your attention- amazing to think this was Portman’s first film.
In the end L has to die, as loving M is impossible. M returns to school and plants L’s houseplant in the school grounds. She has been given a second chance after ‘confessing’ the truth to her Head teacher, and is thus seemingly ‘pardoned’. M’s old-life has died, along with her family, Stansfield and L. She will be able to sleep with both eyes shut.
Footnote: Jean Réno’s last line: This is from Mathilda, as he hands Stansfield the grenade pin ring, is the chorus to Alt-J’s song Mathilda.