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A Description of Cinematography in Leon

In: Film and Music

Submitted By DavidB
Words 2783
Pages 12
Critical evaluation of “Leon”

I have decided to do my critical evaluation on “Leon”. Leon is directed by Luc Besson and stars Jean Reno and a very young Natalie Portman. Leon is a hit man or “Cleaner” as her refers to himself and lives a solitary life where his only love is for a plant that he carries with him. One day his neighbours, a dysfunctional family, are attacked by a DEA agent named “Stansfield” played by Gary Oldman, and his gang, due to the father stealing drugs from Stansfield. The only survivor of the attack is Matilda who happens upon the scene as she returns from shopping. Her only option is to knock on the door of the stranger she talks to in passing, Leon. After saving her life Leon teaches Matilda to “Clean” and begins to track down her family’s killers at the cost of her teaching him to read and washing his place. As the film unfolds a relationship blossoms between the two characters as they learn to depend on each other. I wish to evaluate the showdown scene near the end of the movie. After Leon has killed nearly every member of Stansfield’s team, Stansfield decides to hunt down this hit man as well as the girl. Bringing all his might with the police he storms the building where Leon and Matilda live with hundreds of SWAT and police members. Matilda yet again, is returning from shopping, a mirror scene of when her family is killed.
As Matilda returns the initial framing is a tight long shot of the hallway where she enters. This gives the audience a restrictive view point of Matilda’s perspective, the colours being very bleak, and no colour is particularly vibrant, even the green of the walls is greyish, this style is apparent throughout the places Leon and Matilda go and shows how bleak and almost hopeless their situation is. Though the hallway is evenly lit as to allow the audience to establish that it is clear. This is used to then surprise the audience when Matilda is grabbed as she passes an adjoining hallway. The scene then cuts to a mid-shot of Matilda being held by a SWAT member, the composition is of Matilda in the centre of the shot while she is surrounded by the a dozen SWAT members. This I believe is to show how surrounded her and Leon are, though the audience isn’t shown it yet the building is full of SWAT members and the main characters are completely surrounded. The tight telephoto lens used makes the hall way seem completely full of SWAT even though there are only a small amount, as well as this effect a shallow depth of field is used to bring the focus on Matilda and the rest of the hall way merely filled with dark figures out of focus giving them a more mysterious and threatening presence in the shot. The shots then become more animated, for a start it crosses the line of action as the lead SWAT member gives his team orders to assault the room. Then the camera begins to cut between mid-shots of the different SWAT members, panning and moving with them. This is to reflect the movement of the characters and give the audience a feel of being one of the SWAT members.
Once a SWAT member makes it to the door to give the secret knock they think is correct, the camera cuts to a close up on him. The composition of the shot being that its nearly cut in half, on the left, the SWAT member and the rest the door and wall. This is to highlight the barrier that the SWAT team face now that the shots are following the restrictive narrative viewpoint of the SWAT team going after Leon. This is a very unconventional way of filming. A conventional way would be to focus purely on the main characters, seeing Matilda’s reactions and what Leon is doing as he reacts or doesn’t react to the actions outside the apartment. However up until this point the audience has absolutely no idea on what Leon is doing. This creates tension for the audience because they know what the character is capable of but also it is not shown if Leon has any idea on what is happening outside his door.
The scene then cuts to Stansfield as he is waiting outside the building while more men pour in to it. Even though its full day light Stansfield is cast in shadow and again the grey colours surround the scene, this obviously is explained by the buildings shadow but it shows that even outside this character is cast in darkness, a clear symbol of his villainous and evil nature. It then cuts back to the SWAT breaching the apartment. The composition of this shot is as the door opens there are three SWAT members dominating ¾ of the frame while the door is in the 4th quarter. This has clear connotations on how outnumbers Leon is. And brings to light that even three against one has a very low level of success let alone the other SWAT members filling the building. As the door opens, the colour temperature in the apartment is warmer than that of the hall with natural and more orange lighting. This may leave a feeling of a warmer home which is what Leon and Matilda have made it, and just by giving it the natural lighting that homely feel comes across even though it still isn’t that vibrant of a contrast with the grey of the hallway. However as this natural light’s source is the window on the far side of the setting, this casts darker shadows throughout and give the apartment a more mysterious feeling. This again is reflecting the mood of the scene as well as the feelings that the SWAT are experiencing, such as fear, apprehensions, the unknown etc. This is intensified by the camera again crossing the line of action so the SWAT member is walking towards the camera inside the apartment, framing a close up of his face, showing the fear the character has of Leon, the camera then pans left and pulls the focus to follow the line of sight of the character as he rounds a corner. This restrictive camera technique leaves the audience sharing his fear. Mainly because conventionally the thing the character is looking for will always turn up round a corner, either to surprise or scare the character and the audience. The audience then expects for something to happen to the SWAT member at the hands of Leon. But as the room comes into focus the room appears empty except for a few pieces of furniture and the room appears well lit as to negate and visual trick the audience might expect of Leon hiding in the shadows.
The Scene then reverts back to the visual structure when the film starts. Leon is introduced to the audience as he’s receiving a mission. The film went on to show a man held up in a penthouse suite with a large entourage of armed men. These men continue to die in quick succession as Leon takes them out, but you never see Leon throughout the scene, only catching the occasional glimpse of him moving. The first time you see him is when the man Leon is told to kill is backing up away from camera as a knife comes round to his neck and Leon comes into the light and there Leon is introduced as this vicious and efficient killer. As the Swat team enter his apartment the same feel of Leon’s efficiency at killing comes back. While the SWAT enters the camera tracks to the top of the door where you see a hand coming from the ceiling close the door behind them. Shooting sounds following and bullet holes appear through the closed door but the action is hidden, as the door opens it reveals the dead men and no sign of Leon. So still the narrative is restricted to the SWAT teams view and you’re seeing the cold blooded killer from the start and not the more sensitive, vulnerable Leon that the rest of the film had revealed through his relationship with Matilda.
After the men are revealed to be dead and Stansfield is told, it cuts to a close up of him telling one of his men to bring everyone. When his man asks what he means. The shot gets even closer as he screams “Everyone”. This is to show the madness of his expression, as throughout the film Stansfield seems crazy as well as ruthless and clever, with no empathy for anyone, hence why he was able to slaughter the family at the start. This is then followed by the classic exterior shot of dozens of police and SWAT cars rushing to the building and power sliding dramatically. This type of shot happens in many films including Die Hard, Lethal Weapon etc. and is the start of the film reverting back to a more conventional method of cinematography in regards to the narrative.
As the camera cuts to a lone SWAT member again enters the apartment the camera tilts up and the focus pulls to reveal Leon braced on the ceiling aiming his gun at the SWAT member. This again has revealed Leon and once he is revealed he becomes humanised. The lack of visual presence when the others are getting killed makes him more of a phantom and achievable of anything however now that the audience see him, you see that he is just one man. This is then reinforced as he swings down to shoot at the SWAT in the hall way. While he manages to kill all of them one manages to shoot him in the shoulder causing him to drop one of his pistols. Now that he’s been shown he appears vulnerable and you see perhaps for the first time that Leon might not make it out of the building alive. Also the convention the audience was expecting earlier in the scene as the SWAT member looks round a corner is repeated. Again have a tight close up shot of the SWAT member looking around a corner however this time he’s met with what the audience would expect. Leon places a gun to the persons head gets Matilda back. However the fact that this convention was ignored earlier puts the audience in a false sense of security and may not expect it so the DOP is always keeping the audience guessing by keeping the visual narrative restricted.
Once Matilda is with Leon, Leon pulls the SWAT member with him and hides behind him as they retreat back to the apartment. This is show with an over shoulder shot of Leon as he hides. This I believe to a milestone of when the whole visual narrative trades places. At first the whole was from the SWAT and Stansfield’s perspective. Now it has switched and will continue following Leon. This then follows on to show Leon and Matilda back in the apartment and Leon makes a grasp for the plant that is sitting on the window. The colour temperature and lighting highlight as something far more important than just a plant. The over exposure of light from the window brings out the bright green which serves as a stark contrast from the grey, bleak look of the scarcely decorated apartment. The action of Leon diving for it before snipers begin to shoot into the apartment show just what Leon was willing to risk and the fact that he hasn’t forgotten it, like the audience is supposed to from lack of visually showing it halfway onwards of the film. As the snipers shoot into the apartment, destroying all it contains, it’s shown with a wide angle lens on a high angle looking down up the two main characters crouched down hiding from the bullets. This shots purpose is not to take in all the destruction that is going on but also to show how humbled the characters are becoming. Even the hit man is cowering against the might of that Stansfield has brought against them.
As the characters retreat to the kitchen, the light is more exposed and much brighter. This signifies hope and perhaps a chance of escape, as Leon begins to hack away a piece of wall to reveal a shaft leading down. As he swings this however the camera cuts to a close up of Matilda screaming as Leon hacks at the wall. The shallow depth of field and over exposure of light coming from the window shows Leon in an out of focus silhouette. I believe this to show the focus of what the light in the kitchen may mean. That it may be Matilda’s freedom and rescue but not Leon’s who is the only dark presence in the room (Matilda is wearing a white cardigan). Once Matilda gets into the shaft, realistically the shaft would lead down to complete darkness as there is no light source at the bottom; however this shaft leads to a white light. This goes with the classic “light at the end of the tunnel” and clearly connotes freedom for Matilda. However the shaft is too small for Leon and Matilda is forced to leave him, this is shown by close up shots of the characters dialogue as they confess their desire to be free together, then a close up of Leon pushing Matilda’s grasped hand away from his as she goes. This signifies Leon letting go of Matilda in all aspects and the audience realises, despite his words that he’ll make it out, he knows he will not. This is followed by him turning and the camera cuts to an extreme close up as he yells, emphasising his last yell of rebellion against the people trying to kill him. During the interchange between Matilda and Leon, the camera cuts to close up of the SWAT team bringing in a very large gun, as it enter the shot is slowed down and it’s only a close up of the gun. This is to emphasise the threatening nature of the device and its jet black colour connotes evil and sinister nature. This is followed by close ups of it being loaded with an explosive and finally as the camera cuts to a close up of Leon’s face yelling, it’s mirrored by a close of someone pulling the trigger. This increases the tension for the audience because it leads them to believe Leon is about to die. And as the explosion hits and the camera cuts too many wide’s of the destruction of the apartment that is exactly what you do think.
Once the explosion happens the setting is changed completely. All light sources, including the natural ones (even though they shouldn’t be affected) are put out. This creates a darkness surrounding all the characters and clearly changes the theme to the film. It’s gone from struggle and hope, visualised with lights at the ends of tunnels etc. but now they are surrounded in darkness. Plus as Leon descends through the building (pretending to be a SWAT member) it gets darker still, with the only light sources coming from the SWAT members. This is like descending into the body of the beast and with a large amount of POV shots from Leon’s perspective; it begins to reform the tension as the enigma of whether he is going to be caught starts to affect the audience.
The visual themes of this film are that of industry, urban, and desperation. No set in the film holds and colour, everything has a grey scale over it. Luxury and good life style are no represented even though many characters throughout are supposed to be rich. I believe this is to bring focus to the characters and not the lifestyle. Other hit man films are about the lifestyle, the next kill etc. But that’s not the point of this film; it’s about the relationship between a man and a girl. This would also explain the shallow focuses used throughout the scene I have described and indeed the film, because what’s right in front of the audience, which is the characters and not so much the action going around, is the focus. It’s their facial expressions and the delivery of feeling that makes this film. Also the lighting represents the ambition and desires of the characters throughout the scene until it turns to darkness. These techniques make the scene as tense, gripping, leading, and understanding in way most audience members won’t spot but I think it’s superbly done.

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