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Kirsten and Natalie #1: Léon: The Professional (1994) and Interview with the Vampire (1994)

WOULDN'T IT BE INTERESTING IF A TINY GIRL CHILD WAS MORE MATURE IN SOME WAYS THAN HER MALE GUARDAN???

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Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 22 2021

13 mins read

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(Kirsten and Natalie is a series tracing American womanhood as portrayed through the films of Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman. Read the introductory post here.)

Near the end of the second act of Léon: The Professional, Mathilda, played by Natalie Portman in her feature film debut, tells the titular hitman that she's in love with him. The film's script treats this as a schoolgirl crush, more or less, and the movie itself goes out of its way to assure you Léon (Jean Reno) sees the girl in a paternal way. In a vacuum, this whole sequence feels like a girl trying out a first crush on someone she knows won't hurt her. (The irony, of course, is that Léon is a hitman.)

But director Luc Besson makes a really telling choice in how he presents this scene. Mathilda dresses throughout the film in clothes that are slightly more provocative than you'd expect a 12-year-old girl to be wearing (especially in a movie), and in the scene in question, she's wearing a midriff-baring top. When Mathilda says that she feels her love for Léon in her stomach, she moves her hands down to cup her belly button, and Besson's camera goes in for a close-up of Portman's hands forming a loose heart around her navel. For lack of a better word, it lingers there.

It's gross, but the film seems at least vaguely aware that it's gross. A big part of the appeal of The Professional (as it was originally known in the U.S.) is that the relationship between Léon and Mathilda never quite settles in a comfortable box. They're father and daughter, or they're best friends, or they're mentor and mentee, or they're teacher and student. And occasionally, the film hints that their codependency might have a romantic or even sexual component to it if other, less scrupulous men were involved. But those men aren't here. Instead, we have Léon, who's a good dude. In the international cut, he repeatedly turns down more explicit advances from Mathilda. Other guys might have crumbled, but not Léon!

Mathilda sprawls out on her bed to talk about love. (Credit: Gaumont)

I don't love The Professional in the way so many do, and I didn't even when I first saw it as a teenager. Certainly watching it in 2021, the film is tainted by the allegations of sexual assault that nine women made against Besson, as well as the fact that Besson had a child with a teenager when he was in his 30s. (He first met her when she was 12, the same age as Mathilda in the film.) In the wake of the film's release, a 13-year-old Portman received her first piece of fan mail, only to find it was a rape fantasy about her, and the film so cemented the idea of Portman being "wise beyond her years" that "Natalie Portman is a child, but she seems like she's got the mind of an adult, so maybe it's OK for adult men to crush on her?" was basically a subgenre of movie there for a second. (We're going to cover another example of this subgenre in this series' next installment.)

The Professional lives in a charged space where it's aware Mathilda is a kid, but it also isn't really aware she is, wink wink, nudge nudge. It's a better movie than the one I'm about to write about, if only because Gary Oldman's performance in it is astonishingly wild, but it's also much schmaltzier than I remembered it being. And yet throughout, the camera lingers on Portman. There's an implicit eroticism to the movie that stems from its exploitation roots. Everything else in it is so lurid and over the top that while the movi never once overtly sexualizes Mathilda, it takes nine of the 10 steps on the way there, then invites you to take the last one, before tsk-tsking you for doing so.

The Professional stands in fascinating contrast to Interview with the Vampire, in which Kirsten Dunst plays Claudia, a child vampire who lives so long that she would, technically, qualify as an adult, even if her body never ages past the pre-teen years. Interview with the Vampire is an intensely erotic movie, but all of its sexual tension exists within the homoerotic longing between first Lestat (Tom Cruise) and Louis (Brad Pitt), then between Armand (Antonio Banderas) and Louis. Claudia and Louis share a chaste kiss in one scene — something contemporary entertainment journalists couldn't stop asking Dunst about, even though she was clear she got no great thrill out of kissing Brad Pitt, because she was 11 — but all of the sexual frisson in Neil Jordan's film comes from the idea that if you were a hot dude, it would rule to bang other hot dudes.

(Sidebar on Neil Jordan: He's a director who has made a handful of movies I love, many movies I've found baffling, and The Crying Game, which is honestly pretty okay as '90s trans representation goes but also reduced its main trans character to a "twist." The resolution of the film is more pro-trans rights than you probably realize, particularly for 1992, but all anybody remembers is the twist and Stephen Rea throwing up once he realizes he's slept with a trans woman. Jordan loves big, important themes, he abhors subtext, he has the politics of a comfortable white man who insists he's progressive, and he slathers weirdo camp aesthetics all over everything. Sometimes, it's brilliant, and sometimes, it's horrible, but it's always at least watchable. Anyway, what I'm saying is Neil Jordan is the ostensibly straight 1990s version of Ryan Murphy.)

Vampire is grand, Gothic camp. It's not very good, but it's pretty fun to watch. Dunst got awards attention for it, even receiving a Golden Globe nomination, and she offers probably the best performance in the film. Claudia enters the movie as a scared little girl, and she exits it as a scared tiny vampire. But in between those two points, she brings a burst of bloodthirsty rage in nearly every scene she's in. She kills Tom Cruise, for goodness sake. Dunst alone seems to know exactly how campy the movie she's in is, and she somehow manages to realistically ground scenes that treat, say, "Claudia has been keeping a corpse in her bed" as sitcom plots.

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It's easy to forget now that she's a beloved screen star, but Dunst spent most of her career pre-Spider-man playing characters who were just incredibly weird and often semi-feral. Interview with the Vampire mostly avoids sexualizing Claudia because it's really interested in the latent homoeroticism inherent in Anne Rice's vampire books, but even if it tried, Dunst plays her as such a murderous misanthrope that it cuts against any attempts to portray her as an adult in other ways. Yeah, she's been alive for decades, but she has the casual sociopathy of a child who wants things exactly the way she wants them. Claudia is neither child nor adult, and Dunst's performance navigates this tricky Venn diagram intersection perfectly.

Portman and Dunst both broke through in 1994, in these films, and the roles are interesting mirror images of each other. Mathilda is a child the audience is invited to see the adult in, and Claudia is an adult the audience is invited to see the child in. Both films feature adult men tasked with caring for girls who are nearly teenagers, but The Professional contorts itself to create a situation where having the ultimate power over a wise-beyond-her-years tween would be kinda sexy, while Interview with the Vampire argues that having to hang out with a wise-beyond-her-years tween for centuries would be so annoying.

These are fundamentally both dad movies, and they're fundamentally both about how when you're the father of a girl who's about to be a teenager, the amount of power she holds over you is at once intoxicating and absolutely terrifying. The reason Dunst's performance sings is because the movie she's in lives adjacent to horror. You're supposed to be a little scared of her, of the way that her eyes can shift from childlike to knowing a little too much. There's not a lot Interview with the Vampire gets unequivocally right, but it does seem to understand that Claudia is an object of pity, that being a tween is the worst, that being the dad of a daughter should mean wanting her to grow up into her own woman. Claudia can't grow up, and Dunst, at least, plays this as a kind of child abuse parable. Monsters trapped her at the age she's at, and because they did so, she has turned monstrous, too.

That sense of unease at how Hollywood treats young girls' coming of age simply isn't present in The Professional. Instead, the movie is all too fine with perpetuating these cycles. Portman is really, really good in the film. You can see why Hollywood was so sure she would be a major star. But there's just no way to avoid that the movie wants you to find her sexy. It chides you for doing so, but Besson's camera still lingers over her. Portman and Reno are so in command of their crafts that the movie gets away with it but only just. The Professional is so allured by and terrified of Mathilda's soon-to-exist sexuality that it might as well greet audiences at the door to the theater holding a shotgun and holding up a list of rules one must comply to in order to date its daughter.

The "tween or teen girl who's secretly more mature than the adult male lead of the movie" is a sadly time-honored character type, and it makes sense that both Portman and Dunst would have their breakthrough roles playing variations on that type. After all, they were both preternaturally talented, charming in interviews, and capable of holding their own opposite big-name actors. But it's telling that one of these movies keeps confusing love with fear and vice versa. And it's even more telling that the movie that's confused isn't the horror movie.

But, yeah, Jean Reno and Natalie Portman have amazing chemistry. (Credit: Gaumont)

Next time on Kirsten and Natalie: Kirsten Dunst wraps up a pretty great 1994 with Little Women, and Natalie Portman plays "a Natalie Portman type" in just her third feature film, 1996's Beautiful Girls. (We're skipping over Heat. Sorry, Heat fans. Natalie Portman's just not that interesting in that.)


Talk back to me: Did you know The Professional is the 31st greatest film of all time according to IMDB voters? I like the movie okay, and that seems egregious to me. Convince me there are more good scenes in it than Jean Reno impersonating John Wayne and Gary Oldman yelling, "EVERYBODY!"


What I've been up to: You, uh, can't read the thing I published at Vox this past week, unless you're an Apple News+ subscriber. But if you are, check it out! It's really great. And if you're not, it'll be live on the site on Tuesday. In it, I explore how ideas of family are shifting and changing in these crazy mixed-up times that we live in.


What you missed if you're not a subscriber to Episodes: We had an off week last week, so we could get a couple pieces in top-notch shape. But because of that, you have two pieces to look forward to this week. On Wednesday, we'll be looking at a great food show, just in time for American Thanksgiving. And on Friday, we'll have a look at the anime The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. (Also, I finally have all of my stitches out, so I'm really, really hoping to start Cowboy Bebop recaps somewhere in December.)


Read me: This piece on which U.S. presidents could parallel park is important journalism.

Eisenhower spearheaded the Interstate Highway System, in part because he was on a disastrous 1919 cross-country automobile trip that kept getting stuck in the mud. But we actually have some evidence here. In Penn professor “Camp” David Eisenhower’s Going Home To Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961–1969 he shares this anecdote: “Though newly licensed by the state of Pennsylvania to drive a car, Eisenhower had not been dextrous enough to parallel-park the huge Chrysler Imperial.” Receipts! NO.


Watch me: I've recently gotten into the YouTube channel Wait in the Wings, mostly due to Hadestown content, but I adore this look at Starlight Express, one of those shows where I'm always, like, "Should I fly to Germany and see this thing??" Tell me if I should, Germans!


And another thing... I have been listening to a lot of old Casey Kasem videos on YouTube because shut up that's why, and I love this extremely weird story of a DJ in Louisville baiting Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond into recording a duet.


Opening credits sequence of the week: I share one of these every week, as you know, but they rarely make me laugh out loud as much as a certain reveal in this one did. You'll know it when you see it. Hot Potato!


A thing I had to look up: Honestly, I researched almost all of this newsletter, but it was really interesting to go back and look at contemporaneous coverage of Interview with the Vampire and realize just how much Kirsten Dunst was introduced to the world as "the girl who got to kiss Brad Pitt!" I couldn't work this into the piece, but both Dunst and Portman swore off doing movies with onscreen kisses for a while after these films, Dunst because she found the whole "kissing Brad Pitt" thing so gross and Portman because the horrible men who harassed her made her want to play characters where sexuality was never in question. Will "a woman's relationship to her own sexuality and society's inability to deal with that freedom" become a recurring theme in this series? We'll just have to see!!!


This week's reading music: "Sympathy for the Devil," Guns N' Roses (I had never heard this version until it played over the Interview end credits, and it's awful.)


Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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kirsten and natalie
leon: the professional
interview vampire