Mathilda

Last week, for my Women Who Wow Wednesday series, I wrote about The Bride, Quentin Tarantino’s blitzkrieg. This week, I’m concentrating on Mathilda, Luc Besson’s hitgirl—raw steal for nerves and a tummy made of iron.

Natalie Portman as Mathilda
Natalie Portman as Mathilda

When Natalie Hershlag auditioned for the part of Mathilda in the movie Léon: The Professional, everyone had fallen off their chair for her jarring performance. She would make the perfect compliment to Jean Reno’s hitman character, Léon. Little did anyone know this wonderful actress would grow up to become the celebrated Natalie Portman, who also starred as Evey in 2005’s V for Vendetta.

A child to a father who made a bad deal with drug dealers, Mathilda found herself orphaned by the very people who ought to have protected her—the cops. She turns to her neighbor down the hall at the bloody scene of the murder for protection: Léon, a professional hitman working for the outfit—the organization the very same cops hire to remove the competition.

Léon and Mathilda
Léon and Mathilda

Well, at least that’s the gist of the movie’s plot. What makes Mathilda unique is her age; she’s twelve years old, and her determination proves her capable of becoming a hitgirl, good enough to exact revenge one day on the scum who murdered her family.

At the time, 1994, the movie proved quite controversial for a number of reasons

  • Because of Mathilda’s young age, some critics found her use of firearms unnerving
  • Again, because of her young age, those same critics found portions of her performance bordered on the sensual
  • Lastly, the violence and language depicted in the film may suggest the filmmakers condoned such behavior in society

Any movie critic wondering about violence, sex, gunplay and kids have yet to watch Sergio Leone’s 1964 film Fistful of Dollars. Produced thirty years before, it remains a classic among film buffs. Guaranteed, a more conservative audience viewed this film back then.

Anyway, back to Mathilda. Under Léon’s tutelage, she learns how to handle a gun, the art of stealth, and proper marking of a target. She learns the professional code of ethics. Mathilda also learns to stop smoking, stop swearing and stop hanging around weird dudes. Critics tend to forget those things when they review the movie for the first time.

Léon: The Professional
Léon: The Professional

She transforms from a lost child to a tough, goal-oriented young girl. However, director Luc Besson never intended her to become a crazed juvenile killer. He wanted her to remain innocent.

What do you think about children portraying roles typically suited for adults? Have you ever seen Léon: The Professional? Would you recommend your friends to see it? What did you think of Natalie Portman’s performance?

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27 thoughts on “Mathilda

  1. Leon the professionell and “its” music its one of my best movies over all!

    The roleplay about the girl is no problem, for me (us). (we are two 🙂 )

    This movie I HAVE to watch every year… ohhh..

    First time I saw the movie as I was … mhmm fourteen? (14) I Think so…

  2. I have never seen this film, but I will definitely download it now. I have, however, seen the movie Kickass, and I guess it was making a reference to this film. While I don’t condone violence for children, Mathilda was also a character, and the first thing we should teach our children is to differentiate fantasy from reality anyhow. I think the film should be viewed by people of any age, but in case of teachers and parents, they would need to provide a context for it, kind of like a character analysis.

  3. I’m a Natalie fan! She’s very gorgeous and naturally so. The kind of face (like Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables”) that grabs your attention, causes you to stare, to sit up & think “wow…who is that?”
    I normally , or probably 99% of the time, do NOT agree with those kind of roles for children. However, in the case of “The Professional” Natalie Portman was a rare discovery. A one in a million (or more!) …. that pulled that role off to perfection.

  4. There are interesting differences between the US version of the film, & the French/European version. If you’ve only seen the US released version try & see the other – it makes more sense through less editing.

  5. The Professional is a terrific film and (for me) hits all the right notes! Gary Oldman is an absolute blast to watch chew up the screen (as is usually the case), and the child/parental dynamic between Portman and Reno is both sweet and heartbreaking.

    BTW, great site. Any time movie talk is going on, I’m instantly interested.

  6. I once calculated that I’d spent about a week of my life watching this movie, though my obsession died off at the same time my teenage angst did 😉 Back then, the “International Cut” was only something I could read about in script-form online, but finally seeing that original version on DVD added so much more to a movie I already thought was beautiful. I wholeheartedly recommend this movie to folks, but I’m sure to clarify which version, or they may lose out on some wonderful scenes. I’ve never wanted to see a sequel with Mathilda as a killer, though, because it would be a very sad disservice to the ending… Leon would have failed in saving her, if she went down that path of death and loneliness.

  7. Very interesting article, Jack!

    I am a particular fan of that movie. Some scenes seems like ‘way too much’ for critics simply because they were displayed on a big screen. And we usually prefer to close our eyes on the things really happening in the society, for if masses don’t get to see them, it’s as if they are not really happening.

    However, in life, young teenagers may go through a real tough array of events and lifestyles.

    To me Mathilda’s character is a psychological product of what comes from being alone against the world, a necessity to adjust to hardships, having forced to protect yourself, and projecting unmet emotional needs with parents onto a stranger adult person.

    The movie is deeply psychological, risky at times, yes, but somehow it makes you sympathize the heroes and feeling happy when they bond.

    Leon and Mathilda are the classic example of soulmates – bitter, hard to explain connection, age incompatible and completely inappropriate… but somehow they needed to be together, and I was very sad when they parted.

  8. An amazing film in the way it explores the relationship between Leon and Mathilda and the different things they expect from it. Leon is in many ways the most human character in the movie, despite his manner of employment.

    Powerful acting by Ms Portman too,

    I’ve never seen anyone ask Mark Millar – but I would be amazed if this film didn’t at least in some part inspire Hit Girl.

  9. Luc had a falling out with the film company and seeing how they hold the rights to it, yeah we’ll never see the light of day of it.

    This film is one of my favorites, it doesn’t give you the old wam bam action films, it goes into a deeper and darker world with corrupt cops, a child lost in this world of chaos, one that’s shaped her into what she is. Jean Reno, don’t know how he never got to take part in other bigger films but this one is a gem.

  10. I remember when I first watched this a couple of years ago, the scene that got to me the most was when Leon was teaching Mathilda to aim down the rifle. It shocked me how casually this was being presented, however it got the last laugh when it was revealed that the gun contained paintballs. Brilliant film, just cannot get over the fact it starred Natalie Portman in this sort of role, when the first film I saw her in was the Phantom Menace!

  11. I did enjoy this movie – even though I felt I shouldn’t. Jean Reno was terrific, of course, but Natalie stole it. I thought her performance was impeccable. I am not in favor of seeing children in more mature types of situations, BUT they ARE in them, in the real world, and I think this movie pointed out that the situation was an aberration under stressful circumstances, not the norm. So it worked for me.

  12. Cool, I’ve never seen this but would like to. I have seen Fistful of Dollars as well as The Good the Bad and the Ugly and yeah it’s funny how they had such a bad reception from the critics because supposedly they were too violent when in fact the violence in those films is practically non-existent by today’s standards. Critics can be so dumb sometimes!

    • If you liked those movies then you might also like A Few Dollars More and Once Upon A Time In The West. They’re two equally amazing Sergio Leone classics. If you ever see them, let me know what you think!

  13. I have put this on my “to watch” list for Netflix. thank you! it seems like a more intense and viable relationship akin to “big daddy” and “hit girl”?

    • Yes, the family dynamic’s the same. You’ll find this film powerful right from the beginning. This is more dramatic, not comic bookish at all. And if you like a stirring score, this film has it. I have to say, whenever I watch the first few scenes, my nerves already start to tingle and my stomach tosses. It’s really that intense!

  14. I love the Professional too. Isn’t Columbiana perceived as an unofficial sequel to The Professional, though? Obviously, it’s nowhere near as good, but I doubt the real sequel would be.

    @dbmoviesblog The Fifth Element mediocre? There aren’t too many films with such a fantastic sci-fi identity out there. Story-wise it’s forgettable, but the French comics’ influences in the visual department make the movie a masterpiece in its own right.

  15. It is a great film, and I think that it is Portman’s best performance to date. I can write a whole book why I think she did not deserve her Academy Award for ‘Black Swan’. I also perceive Gary Oldman to be absolutely brilliant in here, his villain is one of a kind. It is a shame that Luc Besson went on to direct such mediocre films after this masterpiece.

  16. The Professional is my favorite movie. I love that someone else is able to see the positive effect that Leon had on Mathilda’s life. He anchored her, and in many ways became a father figure to her and taught her very specialized skills. Of course, the raw focus and dedication that she employed to learn those skills are transferrable to many others. I still get tears in my eyes at several points when rewatching it.

    • You’ve summarized my thoughts exactly. This is the reason I ended my post the way I did. I left it without a conclusion because Mathilda’s life in the movie was without a conclusion. The best has yet to come.

      I hope one day Luc Besson would make a followup to the film. I’m sure it would prove to be a massive hit for everyone concerned, including the fans.

      • There have been rumors about a sequel called “Mathilda” for years now, but I believe that Luc Besson has gone on the record as saying that he’s not interested in doing one, and Natalie Portman said that although she’d like to appear in a sequel, she won’t do it without him involved.

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