Luc Besson's 1994 cult classic Léon: The Professional stars a young Natalie Portman as Mathilda Lando, a 12-year-old girl who seeks hitman Léon Montana's companionship after her family is slain. Featuring Portman's first film role, the movie garnered critical acclaim before eventually becoming a beloved assassin film. In the years since, however, allegations have emerged about the film production's on-set drama - some rumors concern Besson's direction of 12-year-old Portman. What makes things more disturbing about the classic film is that some claim the story was inspired by Besson's relationship with a 15-year-old girl.
When you rewatch the movie with this context in mind, Léon: The Professional behind-the-scenes stories appear less shocking than the film's subject matter. As Luc Besson movies go, Léon is arguably his most beloved - but the flick's popularity does not negate its problematic aspects. Let's break down exactly what makes Léon: The Professional so messed up.
Renowned film director Luc Besson has caught some heat over the years for reportedly predatory behavior. According to rumors, Léon: The Professional was supposedly inspired by Besson's relationship with a 15-year-old actress named Maïwenn Le Besco - who makes a brief appearance in Léon.
The Washington Post reports that the two met when Besson was 29 and Le Besco was 12; they didn't start dating until the girl turned 15. In an interview, Le Besco acknowledged art imitating life: "When Luc Besson did Léon, the story of a 13-year-old girl in love with an older man, it was very inspired by us since it was written while our story started. But no media made the link."
Director Luc Besson employed a rather extreme method to get Portman to cry on camera: he sprayed menthol in her eyes. "It was the early weeks of shooting and it was really hard for me to cry there," Portman said in an interview. "That was the first time that I ever had menthol blown in my eyes."
She added, "They did it once and I was like, 'Okay, I can cry' - it was so painful. Every take after that, I was able to focus and cry because I didn't want anymore mint in my eye."
One of the most tense scenes involves Mathilda putting on a dress in front of Léon. He tells her that he likes the dress - at her insistence - and she whispers something to him about being physically intimate for the first time. Though certainly one of the film's most uncomfortable and intense scenes, the actors weren't allowed to rehearse it.
In the DVD commentary, actor Jean Reno - who plays Léon - said director Luc Besson wouldn't allow them to read or rehearse the scene. Supposedly, Besson wanted the awkward encounter between Léon and Mathilda to appear genuine on screen. "[Léon and Mathilda's] relationship was very connected and very strange," Reno said.
The film initially included a problematic scene in which Mathilda asks Léon to be her first lover - it was omitted from the final version of the movie after American test audiences were reportedly uncomfortable with the subject matter. The relationship was not consummated, but Mathilda does convince Léon to sleep innocently with her in the same bed.
Director Luc Besson released an exclusive cut of Léon after its wide release - the director's cut included the sensitive scene.
The original script also featured a scene where Léon walks in on Mathilda taking a shower. Thanks to Portman's parents demanding the filmmakers minimize innuendo, the scene was ultimately scrapped.