Léon: The Professional (1994)

Luc Besson | 1hr 50min

What does it take for a man who surrounds him with death to develop a taste for life? For hitman Léon, it is an image of innocence tainted by the world’s depravity, trying to become an adult at age 12 without realising how much of a childhood she is missing out on. Mathilda has never particularly cared for her abusive, drug dealing parents, but when her little brother is tossed aside as collateral damage in a bust by corrupt DEA agents, she becomes fixated on a mission of revenge, particularly directed towards the sinister, deranged Norman Stansfield. 

Léon may be the perfect man to help her manifest these goals, but Luc Besson does not condescend to his audience with such straightforward characterisations in Léon: The Professional. The dramatic interactions he delivers are instead equal parts thrilling, heartfelt, and thorny, unfolding a complex relationship between a hitman and orphan that ultimately offers them both steppingstones towards greater self-realisations. 

The cinematic high that Besson captures in his opening set piece may not be reached again, but the dexterity with which he directs Léon’s invisible takedown of an entire gang is nevertheless a captivating introduction for a man who lives life on the fringes of society. Rather than placing us in his point of view, Besson looks through the eyes of the thugs being taken out one by one in a grand hotel. The whole scene may as well be a short horror film with Léonas the shark from Jaws, going completely unseen and leaving merely the handiwork of his murders behind as the only evidence he was ever there. Eventually as he approaches the last one still alive, he emerges from the darkness like a bogeyman, striking an intimidating figure in his circular sunglasses and short, black beanie. 

It is a sudden shift in perspective that takes place immediately after this. The fear and tension built around the Léon we met at the hotel dissipates the moment we see him in broad daylight from his own viewpoint – a man living on his own, going to the grocery store like anyone else, and leading a meagre life.

It shouldn’t speak to the quality of Jean Reno’s involving performance that he comes off third best in this superb cast. There is something both tragic and magnetic about 12-year-old Natalie Portman when she first comes onscreen as Mathilda, holding onto a cynical wisdom that far transcends her years. Beneath the young girl’s talk of sex and murder is a mournful bitterness about her own lost childhood, activating a survival mechanism that forces her to live in a world of adults. 

It is evident though when she does come face to face with Gary Oldman’s chilling DEA agent that it is not something she is ready to handle at all. She may see herself as ruined, but Stansfield is a truly insidious and unpredictable force. He will pleasantly speak of his love for Beethoven as he murders a family in cold blood, before flying off the handle in uncontrollable fits of anger. Every so often, Oldman will pause to crack his neck mid-scene without explanation, and the effect is unsettling. Our two protagonists may be corrupted to some extent, and yet in placing them next to a villain as unredeemable as Stansfield, Besson thoughtfully lights up their individual paths to redemption. 

Even beyond the thrillingly staged action set pieces, Besson proves himself to be a skilled director of quieter dramatic beats, crafting a healthy balance of drama and dark comedy in montages that see Leon and Mathilda break into strangers’ houses to harmlessly practice assassination techniques. As the two social outcasts walk the streets of New York City, Besson’s telephoto lens compresses them against a blurred urban environment that barely pays them a scrap of attention, insulating them inside a bubble of both sharp pain and tender support. 

The pot plant metaphor which Besson closely identifies with Mathilda may be a little over-explained, but it nevertheless builds to a gratifying pay-off by the time she recognises her need to grow roots in an environment that can properly nourish her. It similarly holds symbolic significance for Léon as he grows to understand the value of tiny, delicate things which possess neither brute force nor indomitable will-power, but which hold great potential in their youth and malleability. A heavy aura of death may hang heavily over Léon: The Professional, though it is in Besson’s quiet celebrations of life where he lands his greatest emotional punches.

Léon: The Professional is currently streaming on Stan and SBS On Demand, is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 39min

The final part of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy would also be the final film of his career. He announced his retirement after Red’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, and then two years later he passed away, leaving behind a confounding masterpiece that pays off on stylistic fascinations and fatalistic meditations threaded all through his work. The set of circumstances which bring young model Valentine to the door of Joseph, an elderly retired judge, are about as arbitrary as those which keep her separated from Auguste, the law student whose life is locked in a tangential criss-cross pattern with hers. Formal parallels abound between characters, and Kieslowski lays heavily into the dramatic irony of their hidden interconnections. Fraternity is his focus here, the third part of France’s national motto, and it is undoubtedly a powerful force within this small ensemble, pulling individuals together into an invisible club they don’t even realise they are part of.

Out of all Red’s characters, it is perhaps Joseph who possesses the clearest understanding of this fraternity. From his living room he taps the phone calls of all his neighbours so that he may spy on their private affairs, and as such it is reasonable to consider him the closest thing to an omniscient God figure, bridging gaps between strangers. At the same time though, Joseph is decidedly flawed, and just as prone to the whims of chance as anyone else. The story he tells Valentine of how he passed his studies after his dropped textbook opened to the page that would be relevant in his final exam directly mirrors what we witness happen to Auguste earlier in the film. In fact, the similarities that emerge between both men might as well make them the same person separated by a few decades, so that Valentine’s friendly relationship with Joseph essentially becomes a stand in for her potential relationship with his younger counterpart.

Irene Jacobs returns from The Double Life of Veronique to collaborate with Kieslowski once again. She plays kind and compassionate wonderfully without ever being dull to watch.
Two men associated with telephones, spending time inside these dark red offices – a superb formal connection between Joseph and Auguste.

In Kieslowski’s fluid tracking shots, he traces the gaps between both Valentine and Auguste’s paths, elegantly craning and panning his camera to observe their unwitting entwinement through the streets and shops of Paris. Virtually everything that he is formally setting up here points them in the direction of a fated relationship, and while we eagerly anticipate their eventual collision, such gratification does not come easily. In fact, it is arguable whether it comes at all. There is no logic in assuming that just because the two share similar qualities and frequently rub shoulders that they should eventually fall in love, just as there is no logic in Valentine and Joseph being born several decades apart. Perhaps if he was younger their relationship would blossom into something romantic, as it might with Auguste if she knew of his existence. Such is the nature of life’s fickle obstacles keeping us apart from our potential futures that they go entirely ignored until the right paths happen to line up, and we wonder “Where would I be if that one small thing never happened?”

A breath-taking dedication to a colour scheme – red lighting and decor dominate this film.

Despite all these missed connections between individuals, Kieslowski still delights in imbuing his film with an abundant warmth. Shades of red saturate his mise-en-scène with a deep passion, uniting each character inside the cosy embrace of his décor and lighting. In the very first shot as we speed along red telephone wires running through the ocean and ground to connect complete strangers, the colour is immediately associated with the hidden interrelations ridden all throughout the film, and it doesn’t end there. In brake lights, slot machines, wallpaper, and theatres, scarlet hues continue to dominate Kieslowski’s gorgeous compositions, and in the most striking visual display of colour in the film, it becomes the visual foundation of Valentine’s bubble gum ad, plastering her face up on billboards around the city. In returning to this image several times she becomes more than just the protagonist in our story, but also in her surroundings, unconsciously touching the lives of virtually everyone who passes by.

People passing Valentine’s poster every day on the streets, including Auguste. Fate and chance are threaded all through Kieslowski’s direction and screenplay.

Slowly, the scope of consciousness for these characters begin to expand, and as they do we find Kieslowski returning to the motif of glass, often intact when barriers remain up, and broken when individuals reach out to lives beyond their own. Specifically, it links Joseph and Auguste via smashed windows, fractured beer glasses, and broken ornaments, often being given specific focus in Kieslowski’s symbolic diversions from the main narrative. Rather than his usual cutaways though, instead he will often drift his camera away from his characters to linger on these thoughtful representations of broken boundaries.

Still, it is almost impossible for anyone living inside Kieslowski’s world to fully understand the complex connections that link them to each other, spanning beyond the peripheries of the film to glimpse characters from the rest of the Three Colours trilogy, united in the final minutes by a freak accident. Whether it is chance or fate, seeing the full structure of this interconnected fraternity might take the perspective of an all-seeing God – or at least a philosophical filmmaker with a pensive, wandering camera.

Kieslowski’s camera often dollies away from Valentine to other characters and tiny symbols – the broken glass here at the bowling alley, for example.

Three Colours: Red is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi, and available to rent on iTunes.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 32min

At Karol’s lowest, white is the colour of bleak desolation, encasing him in a snowy garbage dump flooded with seagulls. What changes in Three Colours: White is not Krzysztof Kieslowski’s stylistic palette, but rather our perception of it. As Karol claws his way back up the ranks of society that his ex-wife, Dominique, banished him from, an alabaster bust bearing a likeness to her becomes a reminder of his end goal, a pale hotel room becomes an image of privilege, and when the two make love, Kieslowski fades to white right over her orgasm. The middle colour of the French flag, as it stands in the second instalment of Three Colours, is equality – a neutral mix of hues that restores balance where justice cannot be found, and which lends itself perfectly to the softer tone of this relatively light-hearted narrative.

An alabaster bust is the key symbol in White, carrying through a reminder of Karol’s past and future in its resemblance to Dominique.
Bleak snowy landscapes infested with pollution and dirt at Karol’s lowest.

Kieslowski calls back in Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr from Dekalog: Ten as brothers once again, playing to the former’s comedic strengths in scenes that see him resourcefully make use of what little he has to overcome obstacles. To get back to Poland from France, he smuggles himself inside a travel bag, and yet awkwardly finds himself being stolen by a group of thugs looking for money. His plot to finally get back at Dominique pays off on this ingenuity as well, involving a complicated fabrication of his own death that frames her as the murderer.

Given the vaguely comic sensibilities of White, Kieslowski does not indulge so frequently in those symbolic cutaways that he often uses to momentarily remove us from the immediate narrative, and yet when they do appear they leave a mark. Most gratifying of all is the close-up image of Karol and Dominique’s grasped hands, finally making contact again after months of separation, and this time very much as equals. It sets an even playing field for Karol’s final power play, sending her to the pits of society where she once left him to waste away. Even so, there is a sense in the final shot of Karol’s teary face that this exile may only be temporary – vengeance is only so useful in restoring balance before reconciliation organically emerges between both parties.

Kieslowski cutting to this key image of equality – two people finally on an even playing field, shot against white curtains in the background.

As we glimpse in flashbacks to Karol and Dominique’s wedding day shot through a dazzling, bleached filter, there is a pure happiness that once existed between them, as Kieslowski’s point-of-view shots gaze at her smiling face with adoration. It is misty, dreamy, and far removed from the modern day where Kieslowski’s colour scheme emerges in the architecture of train stations and courtrooms, each location carefully selected for its visual impression upon Karol’s journey. In expansive snowy landscapes, even the sun shines a plain white light across the clear sky, mirroring the pale ground in an image of equal counterparts.

Kieslowski carefully selects his locations for their decor and architecture, as they conform to his stunning white palette.

Whether through retribution or through exoneration, Kieslowski seeks a similar balance in Karol and Dominique’s contentious relationship. He deals out justice in his narrative not with emotional passion, but rather with a cool, fair judgement, finding poetic irony in the eventual reversal of fortunes. Wedged in between two more serious films in the Three Colours trilogy, White can easily be overlooked for its lighter thematic material, and yet as the centrepiece it also appropriately offers the same balance that it examines, holding them all together as a comical yet uniformly profound equaliser.

Even the sun and sky is completely white in these wonderful establishing shots.

Three Colours: White is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Sátántangó (1994)

Bela Tarr | 7hr 20min

We open on a farm. The first thing we notice is the bleak, monochrome colour palette filled with shades of greys and blacks, but no whites. The purity of white just doesn’t belong in this film. A barn stands a fair way away, and at first everything is completely still. But then we see a small bit of movement in one of the doors, and a moment later some cows emerge, followed by even more. They trudge out across the churned up field that dominates the frame, and the camera slowly moves with them. This shot lasts about eight minutes. Right from the start Tarr is setting a dreary tone, warning us – if you can’t get through this, then you won’t survive all gruelling seven and a half hours of it.

When human characters do finally enter, Tarr keeps framing his horizon in the upper half of the frame with slightly raised angles. He keeps our focus on the cold, harsh elements of the earth, pulling the characters downwards as they slog along seemingly endless roads. Tarr’s moving camera doesn’t exactly float or glide, but it always appears to be pushing against another force holding it back. It is slow and methodical. It will move in a singular direction for minutes at a time, pausing when it arrives at something of interest, and then changing course along a new path. His camera isn’t a neutral observer, but a character with its own mind, constantly wandering, directing our attention to the lives inside this small, impoverished Hungarian village.

Long tracking shots down these grayscale, muddy roads from slightly high angles – Tarr’s place in the history of moving cameras can’t be understated.

The moving camera is especially suited to this specific kind of non-linear narrative as well, which is invested in following separate perspectives that converge upon common events. Usually there is some sort of failure to communicate or understand that takes place at these meeting points, hitting home the utter futility of any interaction in this village.

The first time we see the girl, Estike, run to the Doctor for help, it is through his drunken, confused perspective. Tarr keeps us distant from the encounter, so we’re not fully sure what is taking place before she runs off. The second time we see this, we follow Estike in a mid-shot. Within the context of her own narrative, it hits differently. This is a girl who has suffered immensely, perhaps even more than any of the adults of the town. While they can drown their misery with dancing and drinking, she is left alone to watch their party from the outside. When we see this through her eyes, it seems like she goes unnoticed. But later when we watch this scene from inside the party, Tarr cuts away from an extra long shot to show her peering in from the outside. If this scene is coming from the adults’ perspective, then maybe they did actually see her at the window, and simply pretended they didn’t. In this case, Estike isn’t invisible to the adults of her town – they just don’t care.

Tarr holds on both these shots for several minutes, heavily underscoring the tragedy and feeble escapism of the village.

Ignorant to her plight, the villagers continue dancing to the accordionist playing the same repetitive phrase over and over for what feels like at least ten minutes. The town drunk keeps stumbling around, one man keeps balancing bread on his forehead, and the innkeeper keeps hitting the bar with a stick. Like the riot scene in Werckmeister Harmonies, nobody is talking, shouting or singing. They just continue moving silently until they pass out from exhaustion. It’s not much, but it’s certainly better than having to take deal with their real problems. Like taking care of that girl looking through the window, for instance.

Though Bela Tarr marks the end of each chapter with a voiceover, its interjections rarely do anything to lighten Sátántangó‘s overwhelming austerity. The one exception here is Estike’s suicide. For the village her death is a tragedy, but for her it is an escape. And ironically enough, it is one of the few respites Tarr allows us.

“She felt at peace inside and around her the trees, the road, the rain and even the night all radiated tranquillity. Whatever happens is good, she thought. Everything was simple, at last, forever. She recalled the events of the day, and smiled, as she understood how everything was connected. She felt that these events weren’t connected by chance, or accident, but by an indescribable beautiful logic bridging them together. And she knew she wasn’t alone, since everything and everyone, her father up above, her mother, her siblings, the doctor, the cat, these acacias, this muddy road, this sky and the night below it, all depended on her, just as she depended on everything else. She had no reason to worry. She knew her guardian angels were already on their way.”

Tarr’s blocking is immaculate all throughout, but especially when he is working with slightly larger ensemble sizes.

Though Tarr has a talent for finding beauty in solemnity, he only uses it sparingly. In this destitute Hungarian village of dilapidated buildings and free-roaming farm animals, a Messiah figure seemingly returns from the dead. Like the Prince in Werckmeister Harmonies, people are suspicious of him, and yet he quickly and easily charms them. Irimias is a false prophet bearing false promises, encouraging the villagers to give up their wealth to start a new, prosperous community which never manifests. Instead they are spread to distant corners of the country, unable to do anything but follow his orders even once their faith in him has been thoroughly destroyed.

Magical realism as Irimias falls to his knees, as if clairvoyantly recognising the site of Estike’s suicide.

The two characters who remain immune are the Innkeeper and the Doctor. The former retains a grip on reality, but is ultimately left alone for being the only one to do so. The latter is simply not around to realise what is going on. He shuts himself inside his house, only ever venturing out to buy more alcohol, and so when he realises the town is deserted he is confused. Regardless, he will just keep doing what he has always done.

The Doctor’s routine is only perturbed by the ringing of bells from a church we have previously learned doesn’t have any. Must the noise then be a sign from God? Upon investigating the source, the Doctor finds a madman clanging a piece of metal in the ruins of the church. “I’ve mistaken a common bell for the Great Bells of Heaven,” the Doctor laments. But Futaki heard the exact same sound at the start – surely this is no coincidence? The Doctor boards up his windows, retreating into a void that cuts him off from the outside world. Though traces of magical realism are sparse in Sátántangó, the instinct to reject the possibility of some mystical essence is widespread. Through these bookends Tarr intertwines this bleak landscape and the town’s lack of faith in spiritual icons, following unreliable worldly figures instead.

There may not be seven and a half hours worth of narrative here, but Tarr has always been adamant about his distaste for plot. Sátántangó is about a progression of tones and images, glacially paced, suffocatingly drab, and completely mesmerising from start to finish.

Using doorways as frames and large patches of negative space in his mise-en-scène – confining, hollow, and endlessly bleak.

Sátántangó is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.