Léon: The Controversial Original Script
By Joshua Cornelius
Note to Readers: Some of the content featured in this article may offend readers. If you consider yourself a fan of Léon or it’s director and writer, Luc Besson, I do not wish to ruin your enjoyment of this and other films through this article. I readily suggest you read any of the host of other articles featured on the site.
While the translation from script to screen is often a tumultuous journey for any film, Léon is one that may have seen a drastically different reception in cinemas without some adjusting. In a previous article, I discussed the differences between the domestic and international versions of Léon; Primarily the addition of twenty minutes of footage in which Mathilda accompanies Léon to a number of hits, gets drunk, threatens suicide and attempts to seduce him. If you’ve never seen the extended version of the film, this hunk of footage sits neatly and squarely in the center of the film. It’s a decidedly harried and demanding few minutes of film for the young Natalie Portman in her first performance.
After the film was cast, the script went through a series of revisions, reportedly at the request of Portman’s parents. As Besson was seemingly desperate to cast the young actress, he attended to their requests and revised the script to accomodate a younger Mathilda (in the original script, she is thought to be 13 or 14). Though at the time the parents were painted in a somewhat unflattering light for their demands, were they presented with the original version of the script, it’s hard to understand how they could not make such requests.
Again kids, this is some pretty hardcore stuff. If you want to back out now, no one would blame you. If you have not seen the film at all, what follows won’t make you want to.
In the original scripted version of the film, events proceed as normal until roughly the time that Mathilda learns how to fire a weapon. In the film, Mathilda uses a sniper rifle to blast two paintballs right into the gut of a politician jogging in Central Park. She was just practicing. In the scripted version she actually shoots (and kills? The script is ambiguous) two people… without much concern at all. That’s just getting started.
From there, imagine every scenario in the film cranked just one notch more. Mathilda doesn’t just accompany Léon on his missions, she actually does her own fair share of the killing. Mission to mission, she’s firing guns and escalating the sexual tension between herself and Léon. What happens next is a bit shocking.
This bit of dialogue may be somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen the extended version of the film. Mathilda says that she is in love with Léon and would like him to be her “first lover”. In the extended version, they sleep, separate but together in the same bed. In the scripted version, they make love.
Obviously morals vary from culture to culture. I’m sure there are many people around the world who live in a culture where the age of consent is low or unstated. For the record, age of consent in France is 15. Even in cultures where Mathilda and Léon might be allowed to be together lawfully, it may still be considered a morally ambiguous act.
Roughly in and around the same time, writer/director Luc Besson was involved in a romantic relationship with Maïwenn Le Besco. The two had a child together. The young actress appears in Léon as the prostitute at the beginning of the film, and again in The Fifth Element as the blue-horned operatic Diva Plavalaguna. During the filming of The Fifth Element (Besson’s follow up to Léon) Le Besco and Besson were
engaged married (edit: my research was a bit fuzzy on this, but please see Rebecca’s excellent summary on Le Besco and Besson’s relationship in the comments) but having become enamored of his star Milla Jovovich, broke it off. Eventually Jovovich and Besson were married (briefly, less than two years) and Le Besco returned to relative obscurity (on the international scale) to raise their child. Le Besco resurfaced earning international critical acclaim for her 2011 film Polisse, in which she stars and directs.
While it’s not an incredibly tangible correlation, it’s important to note that Besson served as both writer and director on the film and that Maïwenn Le Besco was just 16 years old when she gave birth to their child. Whether Mathilda and Maïwenn mirror each other in other ways outside of their relationships with older men is likely a secret best kept between the former lovers.
From there, the screenplay continues much the same with one notable difference. In the film, Léon is executed by Stansfield… but Léon gets the last laugh by detonating a host of grenades strapped to his body. Mathilda makes it to safety and eventually returns to school. In the script, Léon is executed by Stansfield just the same, but stands lingering over his body. Mathilda, having witnessed the whole thing, approaches Stansfield as an innocent little girl. She reveals the vest of grenades and detonates, killing herself, Stansfield and obliterating what is left of Léon. This ending is quite a bit more Romeo and Juliet. It’s also quite a bit of a downer.
I can only imagine the reactions of audiences around the world to an ending like that. Certainly not your standard American fare! Before you cast Besson into the pit with Polanski, keep in mind that what made it to the screen is a well crafted film. It is regular practice for writers and directors to “overwrite” a script so that when their demands are not met, they are able to realize a compromised vision that still pushes the envelope. Though I am in no way stating that was Besson’s intention. As the movie going audience, we regularly excuse the hysteria of celebrity so that actors can tell the compelling stories that enrich our lives. In the cases of actors like Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson or Lindsay Lohan, their cult of personality has eclipsed their ability to work effectively on the screen. I hope the revelations in this article have not similarly hampered your enjoyment of Besson’s films.
Should you be interested in reading Besson’s original scripted take on the film, you can do so here.