Exploring censorship, alternate versions of crime classics and the reasons behind creative changes. This edition: LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL
The issue of censorship is one that is pretty contentious at the best of times. As the official spokesman on censorship for Criminal Complex, I wholeheartedly say that censorship is archaic, and, in general, completely fucked, having no place in an informed and adult society where people should be read, hear and see what they want a rather sexy occurrence that has in no way hindered the enjoyment of any viewer/reader/listener/sentient human morsel in the processing mill of multi-media in all of history, because these decisions are made for us by censors who are essentially sexual-Tyrannosauruses.
Crime media has always been a contentious category, often affected by censorship due to its violent and lurid subject matter. The Hays Code is a famous example of this in the film industry, as is the Comics Code for… well, comics (a reaction to the U.S. Senate enquiry caused by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent), both Codes seriously neutered the content of their respective crime narratives, and it was years before the teeth got put back in.
Some have argued over the years of the benefit, particularly during the classic film noir period, of censorship, as it pushed much of what would have been the text into the subtext, giving much richer and subtle narratives. However, while we can argue that, in the end, it’s just that we’re being told what we can’t handle consuming.
It’s easy to blame censorship when art fails, and also easy to praise it for subtlety, more often than not, a final product, regardless of medium, is the results of several contributing factors and people. Say what you will for the auteur theory, for every uncompromising, pristine vision, there are others that wouldn’t’ve gotten there without their team.
Léon: The Professional (1994) [Extended version 1996]
Léon: The Professional is, in my opinion at least, writer/director Luc Besson’s finest work. This was a time before he was known for his derivative schlock work as a writer (Lockout, Wasabi, etc.) and while some of this stuff is more enjoyable than others (Taken, for example, was a fun, stupid film, elevated by Liam Neeson being awesome), it just doesn’t hit the heights he seemed capable of in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, where he was on a roll of wonderful films like Nikita, The Final Combat and Léon: The Professional.
I first saw this movie back when I was around ten years old (that’s some good supervision – thanks, Dad!), and aside from instantly getting a huge crush on Natalie Portman, and developing funny feelings that I didn’t want to talk about, I was pretty much floored – movies could be this awesome? For those who haven’t seen it, it’s probably best to watch the movie before reading the rest of this article, as we’ll get into some SPOILER territory.
Léon follows Portman’s character, Mathilda (which I still feel is her best performance), whose family is slain by corrupt DEA agents (the big-wig of which is played by a hilariously over-the-top Gary Oldman). Mathilda then takes up with Jean Reno’s Léon, a “cleaner” (that’s a euphemism for “fucking people’s lives out of them with bullets” – rolls off the tongue much more easily) to try and extract revenge.
Even at a young age, I could see there was something not quite right with the relationship between Léon and Mathilda – there was a weird sexual vibe between the twelve-year-old Portman, and Reno’s perpetual old man (seriously, I’m pretty sure he was born old – his poor mother). Particularly with Mathilda continually telling Léon that she’s in love with him. Their relationship skates an awkward line between paternal and paedo. Add into this that Portman’s teeny tiny little babby of a character has convinced Léon to train her how to kill so that she can murder the DEA agents who killed her family, and it’s kind of full-on, but disguised as a fun action vehicle.
The original cut of Léon is superb, and a tight action vehicle that hits all the right beats. However, Besson released a longer version that restored roughly 25 minutes of footage. And it’s the tits. The interesting thing about this cut is that Besson says that he considers the original theatrical version to be his director’s cut, but the cuts he made were dictated by poor test screenings. It’s easy to see why, but it’s also not necessarily going to make the movie better by listening to these suggestions – just more palatable.
Now, the movie is pretty high on the violence anyhow, but the “International Cut” (as it’s referred to) just throws the gauntlet down, and really gets dirty. Much of the footage that was cut involves Mathilda being trained as an assassin by Léon, which really makes the film less sweet, and repositions the cutesy scenes between her and Léon as something a few shades darker. Notably, there are scenes where Mathilda goes door to door for Léon, convincing his marks to open the door after making up some bullshit stories about being lost, so that Léon can kill them once they do.
One scene in the extended cut has Léon instruct Mathilda on the proper way to shoot someone, while holding a mark at bay. Mathilda shoots the guy with a paintball gun, which Léon then evaluates like a teacher, before shooting the mark in front of her. It’s dark, but also oddly playful. The contrast in presentation between story elements and tone really makes this something pretty special, and scenes that felt more incongruous in the theatrical cut work better in the longer cut. For example, the scene where Mathilda and Léon play dress up and impersonate celebrities, before attacking each other with squirt guns felt only slightly uncomfortable in the theatrical cut – and more than a little goofy – but with the extra context of their relationship and having allowed us to see Mathilda’s darker side, it can make you feel downright queasy when you’re reminded that she’s just a kid. On top of that, her line where she tells Léon to water her so that she’ll grow is just one of many icky parts that feels ten-times so in the extended cut.
Anyone who’s seen the regular cut will know the distinct Lolita-esque vibe this film has buzzing beneath it, and while there is definitely an argument for leaving that in the subtext, I would have to say, that I’m firmly on the side of the extended cut for this yet again. The extended cut certainly makes the creepy relationship much more prevalent, but it adds a lot of power to the film. In the theatrical cut, the inappropriate relationship feels like a weird window dressing that never goes anywhere, and is almost out of place in the by-the-numbers action plot. It’s still a great movie, no doubt, but it felt more like a young girl’s crush and a near-retarded man-child’s inability to understand that. It’s much less easily digestible in Léon’s extended cut, which becomes more about obsession and muddies the moral boundaries a great deal. It gives you a lot more to chew over, and gives the film a lot more longevity.
There’s a scene that involves Mathilda straight up asking Léon to deflower her, and rather than decline because “ew,” he simply tells her he wouldn’t be a very good lover. Sure, she’s told him that she’s 18, and he does seem slow enough to buy that, but it very nearly transgresses the delicate balance it has. The film feels more dangerous, and more vital. The sacrifice Léon makes in the film, and how their relationship ultimately ends up has a completely different feel, and is much less schmaltzy. Hell, this cut is the one that has the disturbing scene of Mathilda playing Russian Roulette to prove her love and devotion to Léon, which is probably the most fucked up version of “he loves me, he loves me not” to ever grace the screen.
Léon: The Professional’s extended cut just feels like a more authentic film – I really felt that this was a young girl who’s been damaged by being exposed to extreme violence right as she is sexually awakening, and that’s what this cut reveals the film to be ultimately about, rather than the (still good) paternal revenge fantasy of the shorter cut.
I suppose they made the right choice with the cuts in terms of making the film commercially viable, but in terms of making a better film, everything that was cut was certainly required. Léon: The Professional’s extended cut is widely available on DVD, and if you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend tracking it down, particularly if you’ve only seen the original cut. Besson has said that he considers the theatrical cut to be his director’s cut, which makes sense, as he has shown himself in the last decade to be a filmmaker concerned with creating only the most easily digestible, formulaic action fluff pieces. However, the cuts robbed people of a masterpiece that came from the same guy who was making risky work like dialogue-free action films a decade earlier. Not to get too wanky, but commerce gave us a very good action film, but denied us a vital piece of art.