V i s u a l C u l t u r e
|Reading: Explore the ways in which meta-narratives are suggested
by the selected extract from 'Leon'
An A level Study by Emma Davies
In this close reading from 'Leon', a Luc Besson film, meta-narratives will
be uncovered within the storyline, showing that these stories-within-stories give a depth
of meaning to the text. 'Leon' is a film about an Italian hitman of the same name and a
young girl, Matilda, who is suddenly orphaned when her parents are brutally murdered. Leon
is grudgingly thrown into parenthood as he is persuaded into taking Matilda in.
The extract chosen has five sections and mainly focuses on the development of Leon and Matilda's relationship and their feelings for each other. They are about to move into an apartment together and Matilda coerces Leon, against his better judgement, into letting her into his world and teaching her the basic techniques of becoming an assassin. She, in turn, promises to teach him how to read and write as a trade off. These two characters then come to represent polarities; hers of learning and knowledge and his of primal instinct.
In the first section this polarity is clearly demonstrated. The first frame of this scene is a close up of Leon's hand opening the door to their new apartment. The viewer sees the apartment for the first time through his eyes as he scans past Matilda, who is sitting at a table writing. The camera then draws away from this view and follows Leon as he paces the apartment like an animal searching its new territory for dangers. The non-diegetic music has a regular military like beat adding to the atmosphere and tension. This music which seems 'attached' to Leon then stops when his search is over and he slumps into an armchair. Through all this Matilda is dealing with practical matters, filling out the registration form for the apartment. She takes very little notice of Leon's activities, which seem to occur on a more animalistic level to her train of thought.
The next part of this scene resembles a domestic melodrama as Matilda and Leon act out a parody of a married couple jostling to assert their individual needs and finding levels. Their positioning in the frame shows him sitting in a chair and her kneeling at his feet. In this submissive pose she starts negotiating the terms of their relationship. The strangeness is, that the subject matter of these negotiations is unconventional, as Matilda is asking Leon to teach her his trade. He listens with a dominant air and seems mildly irritated at her requests. He leaves her and the viewer hanging for his answer while he suggests that he needs a drink. This reaction reinforces the analogy to 'coupledom' as he gives a cliched male response to problems with women; seeking answers at the bottom of a glass. Matilda follows his lead, pandering to his request, as she tells him to sit right there while she fetches the drink.
The editing to the next scene uses a thematic link as the viewer is shown a close up of two glasses raised in salute, thus transporting the drink theme into this next section. The scene has changed and Tony, Leon's employer and his 'bank', comes into the shot. The frame is dominated by Tony's face and shot from over Leon's shoulder, creating the feeling that Tony is in authority and control. As they are sitting in Tony's restaurant, a case is brought to the table, which we find out carries a rifle. Tony indirectly answers Matilda's request from the last scene, as he says to Leon 'I said to myself, Leon's a pro., nobody uses that but beginners'. The way this answer is delivered makes the viewer feel they have worked the answer out for themselves. Leon defends his request for this 'beginners' rifle, but gives nothing away about its true purpose.
Tony's dominance in the frames and dialogue of this scene create a feeling of his control over Leon. Tony lectures Leon about the drawbacks of change. Leon takes on a submissive and immature role as he eagerly listens and agrees with Tony, trying to please but interestingly also trying to keep the truth from him. It seems that a father/son relationship has developed here and that Freud's theories on childhood development, particularly the Oedipal roles, could be used as a psychoanalytical framework for their behaviour. Tony represents the Oedipal father figure, all be it a questionable one, and Leon the son. Tony wants to control Leon and to take advantage of his simple disposition and emotional immaturity. It suits him to keep Leon this way as he knows that he will be more effective and focused in his work. Leon in turn has had no reason to cut these ties with his father, thus keeping him in a state of immaturity, unable to break free of his paternal bonds and move forward. However, it is established that Matilda's influence in Leon's life has started to effect, even erode this Oedipal father/son bond, as Leon lies to keep her existence in his life from Tony.
The fourth section again uses a thematic link as it cuts from Leon opening the gun case in the restaurant, to it being opened in front of Matilda during her first 'lesson'. The first frames of this scene are dominated by close ups of Matilda and Leon's faces, the gun, and a brick wall they are crouching in front of. This creates a feeling of confinement and makes a stark contrast as, having assembled the rifle, they both stand and walk away from the wall. The scene suddenly opens out as the viewer is treated to a birds eye view of the city skyline and a feeling of open space. The non-diegetic music adds to this sense of new-found freedom as the slightly eastern influenced soundtrack crescendos.
They set up the rifle on the roof top and Leon's voice dominates the action as he carries out a running commentary of instructions. There are several views through the site of the rifle which transport the viewer to Matilda's perspective. She selects her practice victim; a jogger who bears an uncanny resemblance to Clinton, with a entourage of bodyguards. At this point the stories of two American Presidents are being drawn upon; the Kennedy assassination and Clinton's famous jogging excursions.
As Matilda prepares for the shot, Leon's voice continues to instruct. The camera closes in on Leon and Matilda's faces, with the site of the rifle between them like a third eye they both share. The shots alternate from this, to the jogger, running in slow motion. The effects of this and the camera panning in closer and closer on their faces with the music building again, heightens the tension to a pitch. Suddenly, Leon breaks the spell, says 'now' the music stops, the shot is fired successfully and the jogger is hit in the chest by a paint pellet. Matilda has accomplished the task with surprising competence and seems to have found a sense of control that has been previously missing in her life. She then shockingly but coldly asks if they can 'try with real bullets now'.
This time the music is used to link one scene to another. Bjork's hit, 'Venus as a Boy', which is faded in as they walk away from the scene of the crime, carries into the fifth scene. This scene reintroduces the domestic melodrama genre and is split into two sections.
The first is almost entirely without dialogue and is dominated by Bjork's hit, the theme and words of which would seem to indicate a subconscious feeling Leon has for Matilda. It is a montage of domestically motivated action shots, through which their developing relationship is communicated. It captures the western culture of 'coupledom' showing her cleaning, washing, shopping and him looking after his guns, and his plant (which perhaps symbolises gardening) and exercising. The montage format gives the impression of the passing of time as well as the development of their closeness. Proof of this closeness comes during the portrayal of their exercise regime. Matilda starts off following Leon's example and copying him, but after some difficulty in keeping up makes a silent bid for independence. She is next shown following an aerobics workout on TV while Leon picks up his regular regime. This meets with a resigned raising of the eyebrows from Leon. This disapproval emphasises a distance between them that can only been borne out of their new-found closeness.
During this part most shots of Leon are partial, as the camera focuses primarily on Matilda. However, Leon's dominance and his 'provider's status is felt as he instructs her in her non-conventional (assembling and cleaning guns) and conventional 'chores'. Suddenly the roles are reversed. Leon is in the forefront of the frame with his head bowed over a desk in a submissive, almost school boy pose. Matilda is only partially in the shot as she paces up and down behind him like a school teacher reading from a book of Socrates. This is an interesting touch as Socrates was the 'father' of Western philosophy which again reinforces Matilda's 'knowledge and learning' representation in the polarity stakes.
In the second part of this fifth section, Matilda, having had enough the 'dutiful wife' act, suggests that they play a game. Leon reluctantly agrees and her suppressed childlike enthusiasm comes to the fore as she bounces into the bedroom to change. The game she chooses involves dressing up which is somewhat symbolic of Matilda's lost childhood. She then carries out Hollywood icon impressions: Madonna, singing 'Like a Virgin'; Marilyn Monroe, singing 'Happy Birthday'; Charlie Chaplain and Gene Kelly. It is difficult to divorce Matilda entirely from these characters at this point, as they could be seen to represent her secret desire to attain some of their attributes. Leon shows ignorance in his inability to recognise any of these famous icons, even though they span the Hollywood era. This exaggerates his narrow existence and 'loner' life style. He then, successfully guesses Matilda's Gene Kelly impersonation and displays a childlike excitement which links a reaction in a scene at the beginning of the film, where he watches 'Singing in the Rain' in a cinema.
Leon then attempts a convincing impression of John Wayne. This is an interesting choice as John Wayne himself portrayed the archetypal 'loner' in most of his films. Matilda then struggles with the answer and Leon retreats defeated and upset. Matilda tries to placate him and displays a longing in her voice as she describes him as 'amazing'. Through this and her flirty impersonations of Madonna and Marilyn, it is obvious that Matilda has deep sexual feelings for Leon. Leon's reaction to this 12 year old girl's advances is one of discomfort and embarrassment. This unconventional love between an older man and a young girl raises many issues linked to paedophilia. However, Leon constantly squashes any advances Matilda makes and keeps this potentially explosive issue in check. Links could be made here to such films as Andrew Lyne's 'Lolita' which more controversially deals with the subject of paedophilia head on.
The scene ends with Matilda placing Leon's beloved plant, which he describes earlier as his friend, out on the windowsill of their apartment for its daily dose of sunlight. She stares at it longingly, for it now becomes her secret representation of Leon to which she can show her true feelings.
This reading has demonstrated how embedding and developing meta-narratives in a text produces a depth and richness to a story line and its characters. During this short extract the domestic melodrama genre has been used, along with Tony and Leon's Oedipal father/son relationship; the stories of two American presidents and the story of Hollywood. Through their use the characters become believable and gain credibility and motives for their actions. The viewer is drawn successfully and convincingly into their world.
Emma Davies. December, 1999.