There have been many movies made about con men/gangsters/assasins who come into sudden contact with a helpless kid, get attached to it and finally lay down their lives protecting the young ‘un. Most of these films are quite good for a one-time watch. ‘Leon’ however, is an aberration and despite watching it for the third time yesterday, I still can’t figure out why. Released in 1994, directed by Luc Besson, hovering around 34th position in IMDB’s list of 250 all time great films, the French film ‘Leon’ is about the dull looking, silent and ruthlessly efficient contract killer Leon who is forced to adopt the 12-year old street smart Mathilde after the latter’s family is wiped out by corrupt DEA official Stansfiled (played with over the top psychotic glee by gary oldman.) The pleasure about watching films like ‘Leon’ today is not simply because you inadvertently watch for traces of oldman as we know him today in films like ‘Black Knight’. As different as chalk & cheese and both so splendid.
Anyway, to come back to ‘Leon’ and why it is a great film despite not really being one. The improbabilities strike you early on and if that isn’t enough, Jean Reno’s Leon is not really an easily accessible character. You never know what is going on in his mind and apart from his habit of guzzling milk and his extreme attachment for a plant he carries around whenever he shifts from one shabby lodging to another, there isn’t much to him. He isn’t really the romantic prototype of the silent, strong, brooding hero. If it wasn’t for the striking Mathilde, Leon wouldn’t arouse our interest at all. He’s unattractively dressed, mumbles and is clearly bad at communicating, & doesn’t seem particularly spirited. Mathilde (Natalie portman) on the other hand is a delight. You can see she is growing up to be the kind of chick men will die for – hauntingly beautiful, tough as a burnt cookie, soft and vulnerable inside as a cheesecake; street smart and defensive and hungry to avenge the death of her little brother.
One of the things which I must’ve completely missed out during my previous viewing is the tentative, never fully explored, so barely etched that you think you’re mistaken, hint of sexuality between the two. While she is obviously hungry for affection and seeks a surrogate father in him, the Freudian overtones of father-fixation persist. She even openly confesses her love for him and sends him chocking on his milk. None of this is sleazy and it is Reno and Besson’s peculiar genius that so much introversion is achieved that you are forever doubting if you’ve read the human interactions correctly. Reno obviously comes to love her in a perfectly selfless manner but is there something, you wonder? Another time, a different place, a slightly older girl, a slightly less bruised Reno..... endless possibilties, none of which take away anything from what is offered to us.
Though it has been done many times, what touches me the most about this film is the understated manner in which the interaction between the 2 plays out – no scenes of close bonding, no flashbacks of fond fathers (her dad was a drug dealer), no mushy moments. She attaches herself to him like a leech, he rebuffs but she doesn’t let go, he accepts her, and then discovers how precious life is. Worms her way in is a more apt way of putting this. In the film’s penultimate scene that’s what he tells her, “You have taught me to love life.” I think you can deal in the business of death super efficiently only when you stop fearing death (Hurt Locker). That’s what Leon is when the film begins – unafraid of death, hence a cold, callous, flawless, mercenary. It is as if he can survive in the world only by deliberately killing all those emotions that make us feel alive. The moment those emotions are awakened, there is no place for him anymore. That is the beauty of this film. That cold, detached realization dawns that you have to embrace death before you can truly learn to love life.
As I watched Leon perish, I had a sudden picture of interrupted conversations. Whether we realize it or not, our lives are replete with instances of such interrupted conversations – phone calls abruptly cut short because of pending work, sms texting suddenly abandoned because you can’t keep substituting feelings for words over airwaves, heated discussions over politics never resolved because you promised to meet later but clouds came in the way, and lastly, words left unsaid because you thought they weren’t important enough.
Tere khusboo me basey khat, mein jalata kaise
Pyar mein doobe hue khat, mein jalata kaise
Tere haaton ke likhey khat, mein jalata kaise
Tere khat aaj mein ganga mein, baha aaya hu
Aag behte hue paani mein, laga aaya hu