obvious. Like, for example. in Nikita, Paris was obvious. With Le’on, the story is not possible in Paris because you can’t be anonymous in Paris. When you have a building in Paris, the concierge knows everything on the six fioors, who is who, where the children are. in New York, you can cross the street naked at noon and nobody would see you or care. You can be anonymous because the city is so large, so impersonal.’

Besson’s attitude was that New York was to be considered strictly as a location only, and that he wouldn’t sacrifice any of his ‘French identity’ for the project. The setting and story demanded that it would be shot in English, which he had used before in sections of The Big Blue, and so a full French crew set out for 42 days of filming in America, which was followed by 48 days of interior shots in France. American producers might have had reservations about Besson’s vision, and he was relieved that the film ended up financed entirely by Paris-based company Gaumont to the tune of$15 million. Such a sum is way in excess of even the biggest French epics. but a couple of internationally bankable stars came into the fray in the shape of Gary Oldman and Danny Aiello.

‘lt always depends on the people, what they have in their minds. For me, it’s very clear nothing is sexual. It’s pure love between these two kids who are twelve years old.’

Oldman plays Stansfield, the psychotic pill- popping cop whose desire for dirty money doesn’t stop him killing children point blank in cold blood. It’s not exactly a. ahem, restrained performance, as the Londoner tries to out-do Dennis Hopper in the drug-fuelled frenzy department. Aiello is a nice contrast, bringing his natural street-wise authority to the restaurant owner who looks after Leon (and his money) and organises his jobs. ‘1 met Gary by chance,’ Besson relates. ‘We went to a restaurant and we fell in love. i told the story to him, and he started to play it in the middle of the restaurant. We slapped hands at the end of the dinner, and his agent called me the day after and said, “So, i heard that Gary is going to make your movie. Who are you?”’

By shooting in English, Besson has ensured a much wider audience for Léon (known in the States as The Professional), and even those who don’t realise that they’re watching a French movie will notice that it’s sharper, stronger and more damn stylish than what’s usually on offer. ‘I don’t think it is a good thing that movies are punished because they are in French or in English,’ he says on the subject of language. ‘When we talk about literature - the French who read Shakespeare read it in French. And the same for the Americans if they read Jean de la Fontaine, they read it in English. So why is it that cinema will be punished just because of the language? Language is just part of the expression in the film; but you don’t have just the language, you have the image, the costumes, the music, the acting. Whether it’s translated in subtitles in English or if it’s dubbed, I don’t mind because, for me, the most important of the expressions in a movie is the movie itself.’

Besson’s best known film, Nikita, certainly suffered on its first video release on account of atrocious dubbing, but he wasn’t tempted to fill the director’s chair when Hollywood decided to remake it in English as The Assassin. ‘You’re a

Gary Oldman and toe Besson on the set of léon

painter in a room. and you have an apple. and another painter arrives and says. "Do you mind if I paint your apple‘.”’.’ he says by way of analogy. ‘l don’t mind. Please. it‘sjust an apple. But if in the room you have Picasso and Modigliani. you will have two great paintings. You can make a hundred remakes. so l’m not responsible if the painter doesn‘t make it look like the apple of the other painter.‘

Some viewers biting into the apple called Le’on might not find its taste to their liking. Yes. there is graphic murder. and watching a child learn to load. clean and point a gun is disturbing. but this movie isn't as amoral as it appears on the surface. There’s no Lolita syndrome here: when Léon lets his jaw hang slackly open. revealing

an innocent. buck—toothed smile that lights up when he’s watching Gene Kelly dance across the cinema screen. it’s clear that he’s a child at heart with not an ounce of sexual desire in him.

‘lt always depends on the people, what they

have in their minds.’ reckons Besson as to audience reactions. ‘For me, it‘s very clear nothing is sexual. It’s pure love between these two kids who are twelve years old. It was very interesting to show how we forget. As soon as you have a man and a woman, young and old. we’re tempted to say this is wrong. i was more concerned about the morality of the story. what is the message, where does it want to go? My message at the end is that only a little love can save the girl. because if you leave a child alone. if you don't pay attention to her. like the parents and the police who just want to kill her. what's going to happen? She‘s going to take drugs, she doesn‘t care if she takes a gun. she doesn‘t care about dying. She’s alone. she is lost. she needs love. Love doesn’t mean sex. Love means love. And he’s alone. and he needs love also. They find each other and they love each other. l’m not scared about the word “love” it‘s a good word.’ Leon opens in Scotland on Friday 10 February. The sotmdtrack, by longtime Besson collaborator Eric Serra, is available on (‘ohmzbia Records. All photographs © Gaumont. All Rights Reserved

Natalie Portman as the young protege

The List 10-23 Feb 199513