Natalie Portman and transgressing boundaries between childhood and adulthood in Luc Besson’s Léon




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This proposed chapter examines the representation of childhood in Luc Besson’s 1994 film Léon and the Director’s Cut released in 2009, and the performance of its 12-year old star, Natalie Portman. It considers the notion of innocence, traditionally embodied in children, and issues around gender in the context of the relationship between the central male character Léon (Jean Réno) and Mathilda. It also examines: the sexualisation of children; the film’s challenge to accepted notions, not only about childhood and its supposed embodiment of innocence, but about gender roles too and the relationship portrayed between children and adults.

The controversy generated on Léon’s initial release and the film’s development and subsequent history, reveals a series of issues around the representation of childhood and gender, and how both intersect around the sexualisation of children. Léon: Director’s Cut was released at a moment when a debate about the sexualisation of children and of young girls in particular was emerging in Britain, though I would suggest that this was in fact the a re-emergence of a debate which had taken place in the USA in the late 1980s and 1990s. Here, as in the USA, the debate was conducted largely around the notion of the “loss of childhood”, and the part played by popular culture, in the form of textual representations. At the time she auditioned for the role of Mathilda, Natalie Portman was eleven years old. Besson observed that it was very difficult part to cast, especially as girls of this age changed so much in the space of a year, whilst the only professional actor tested proved to be ‘too professional’.



childhood, representation, Natalie Portman, innocence, sexualisation, film, gender, Jean Réno


Hanson, S. (2017) Natalie Portman and transgressing boundaries between childhood and adulthood in Luc Besson’s Léon. In: Jane O’Connor and John Mercer (eds) Childhood and Celebrity, London; Routledge


Research Institute

Cinema and Television History Institute (CATHI)