25 Years Later: Natalie Portman’s Marilyn Moment in ‘Léon’

Natalie Portman shot to stardom in Luc Besson’s thriller Léon, filmed when she was just twelve years old, as Mathilda, who is taken in by a professional hitman (Jean Reno) after her family is murdered by a corrupt DEA agent. 25 years after its release, Lois Burke looks back at the film, and a controversial scene in which Mathilda impersonates Marilyn and other stars, in an article for The Conversation. (Although these ‘tributes’ do feel uncomfortably sexualised, Mathilda then goes on to impersonate male stars Charlie Chaplin and Gene Kelly, before demanding Léon join in the game.)

“Though Besson’s film was critically acclaimed and in many ways has stood the test of time, its representation of girlhood has long been seen as problematic – and still jars.

Mathilda tells Léon that she is 18, though she is clearly prepubescent. Due to her traumatic formative experiences, she believes that she has ‘finished growing up’ and ‘just getting older’. Over time the two become close as Mathilda becomes Léon’s protégé. Eventually, Mathilda tells Léon that she loves him … In a scene that reinforces her precociousness, Mathilda dresses up as a series of celebrities, impersonating Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin for Léon. The scene wasn’t rehearsed, so that Reno’s response would be one of genuine surprise when Portman croons ‘Like a Virgin’ and ‘Happy Birthday (Mr President)’ while clad in make-up and costumes.

Although the scene invites controversy and is uncomfortable to watch, what it actually demonstrates is undeniably girls’ play, showing typical girlhood amusements: dressing-up and impersonation.

My research into the history of children’s cultures demonstrates that girls have long experimented with appropriation and imitation. Before mimicking celebrities from film and popular music, 19th-century girls would imitate the magazines they read, and write homages to, or critiques of, notable authors. They drew on the media they were immersed in at the time, much like Mathilda. Her impression of Marilyn Monroe is part of her cultural arsenal, despite never having seen Monroe’s films.

It is undeniable that latent sexual potential has defined girlhood for many writers and creators, whether they have realised it or not. The depiction of overtly sexualised girlhood is tiresome at best, and dangerous at worst. Natalie Portman has spoken out about the ‘sexual terrorism’ she experienced as a result of appearing in Léon, leading her to say in 2019 that ‘no one would make Léon today’.

In recent years, even before the #MeToo movement, female writers and directors have been emerging to take the subject of girlhood into their own hands, which has resulted in more authentic representations of girls’ experiences … Whether we consider a film made 25 years ago – or a novel written 125 years ago – we see that girlhood is often framed by the wilful misunderstanding of young women’s experiences … Writers and directors can and must do justice to their girl subjects. They need to look to the real experiences, interests and creative lives of young women, instead of pandering to tropes of sexual precociousness favoured by the male gaze for far too long.”