It’s hard not to fall in love with Mathilda, the most mature 12-year old to ever grace the silver screen. Stealing the show in Luc Besson’s Leon (1994), and played to perfection by Natalie Portman, Mathilda is wistful and pretty, wise beyond her years, thanks to a more complicated than average home life. When her entire family is murdered by corrupt cop Gary Stan field (Gary Oldman), she turns up at her neighbour’s door. This is the start of a touching, if uneasy relationship between Mathilda and Leon (Jean Reno), with the latter fulfilling the role of a surrogate father.
Although sure of opinion and filled with an all-encompassing desire for revenge, Mathilda is very much a child, and costume designer Magali Guidasci effectively utilises style to emphaise Mathilda’s age. Mixing 90’s derived grunge with androgynous styling and a Sassoon-worthy bob, Mathilda exudes an air of artless cool. Everything feels natural, from her black velvet choker, classic green bomber (complete with vivid orange lining), lace crochet cardigan and cut-off denim shorts, styled with tough black boots and a stripy crop top. Showing off her creative side she dons a series of costumes in a game of charade with Leon – in a wildly inventive re-imagination of Marilyn and Madonna. Not to be outdone, Leon dons a bandana and a swagger in homage to John Wayne.
To prove his affection towards Mathilda, Leon buys her a lace dress, complete with a floral corsage. In a pretty shade of dusty pink with a scoop neck and long sleeves, it’s the most feminine item Mathilda wears during the course of the film; unsurprisingly she only wears it for a brief (albeit significant) scene. After Leon presents her with the gift she professes her love for him, a love he rejects because of her age. Leon’s natural suppression leaves Mathilda emotionally in charge, and although he refutes her advances, awkwardness remains, with lingering implications for their developing relationship.
Set against the backdrop of New York’ Spanish Harlem, Mathilda is coolness personified – but her messy and unkempt appearance is testament to her transient existence because after all, all her worldly possessions fit into a tapestry backpack. She’s cool, but by accident, it’s unconscious and natural. As her relationship with Leon develops she borrows from his quirky style, wearing a red crochet skull cap and round John Lennon-esque sunglasses – an ode to his adopted assassin uniform. This is anti-fashion of the highest order, an iconic and enduring aesthetic that has in part, cemented the enduring reputation of Leon.