The Fifth Element, Luc Besson’s futurist sci-fi offering, is Marmite. That’s to say, you either like it or you don’t, it’s not a film that encourages sit-on-the-fence neutrality. Early on, it’s obvious that the film dispenses with plot to focus on outlandish visuals that take the audience on a wild ride through time and space with each conceit more fantastic than the last. The presence of a host of Hollywood stars – including Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman – obviously helped Besson secure a budget of more than $90million; and it shows in the visuals. As Roger Ebert rightly observes, The Fifth Element feels long at 127 minutes: the director obviously resisted temptations to cut his set pieces. That said, if you’re willing to overlook the clunky plot and think of it as a visual spectacle, you won’t be disappointed.
Comparisons with Blade Runner are not unfounded, but only in the sense that both have a distinctive look, and draw inspiration from similar sources: namely Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The Fifth Element was released in 1997, almost 15 years after Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, and whilst there was contention about Besson’s inspiration (French cartoonist Moebius unsuccessfully sued Besson for stealing ideas from one his fantasy comics) it’s a film that had absorbed the director since he was a teenager. By subverting almost every known sci-fi cliché and introducing a sense of fun into the genre, Besson created a cult classic that’s often imitated much referenced.
An exercise in creativity, The Fifth Element refuses to acquiesce to visual tropes. Too often science fiction overlooks costume in favour of set, scenery and special effects, but Besson allowed costume designer Jean Paul Gaultier unleash his imagination in a series of hyper ostentatious garments that took inspiration from the designer’s haute couture collections. Whilst comic artist Jean-Claude Mézières conceived the film’s visual aesthetic, Gaultier’s designs tie all the elements together. According to the designer: “I spoke with Luc about what is futuristic, and we decided that there could be elements of today… Everything is possible”. In the DVD extras, Besson notes the designers’ extraordinary attention to detail – Gaultier oversaw all the large crowd shots, adjusting the costumes of up to 300 extras before they went on set. Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Gaultier retrospective observed that:
“Gaultier did more than a thousand costumes… So a thousand costumes is like 10 collections but all for one movie. It’s an incredible amount of work people don’t even know about. For a thousand costumes, he may have even done 5,000 sketches before narrowing it down”
Gaultier’s most iconic costume is Leeloo’s (Milla Jovovich) white bandage-style bodysuit, which takes direct inspiration from his underwear as outerwear looks. Leeloo is introduced completely naked, her ‘healing bandages’ somehow morph into the skimpiest (yet strategically placed) of outfits, designed to show off her physical perfection and desirability. She’s unaware of her sexuality, getting undressed on a whim; regardless of who’s watching. Rather than an eye-rolling, for-the-sake-of-it nudity, it seeks to reinforce her childlike naïveté, traits reinforced by her wide-eyed stare and choppy orange bob.
Despite it’s undeniable impact, the bandage bodysuit lacks practicality, so Leeloo adopts more functional attire that could have come straight from a 90s girl band dress-up box. The cropped white T-shirt, Day-Glo orange rubber braces, gold leggings and combat boots show she’s ready for business: but only after she’s assimilated knowledge about the world. Despite the strength that Leeloo shows – and her costume projects – The Fifth Element is ultimately a love story; she’s only able to complete her task after Korben Dallas tells her he loves her. It’s a shame that, at its heart, this film is a romance, despite the futuristic landscape and the experimental characters; it perpetuates the patriarchal idea that a woman needs a man to be complete.
Korben Dallas, a former Special Forces soldier turned cab driver whose vehicle Leeloo ‘falls’ into, is the man earmarked for the job. There’s a lovely visual symmetry between Leeloo’s vibrant shock of hair and his orange vest (itself a tongue-in-cheek nod to his Die Hard persona). Although the vest is made from rubber and features bondage-style straps across the back, most of Dallas’ costumes are much more subtle and hardwearing, paying homage to his military background. When the duo go to the airport to catch a flight to Fhloston Paradise he wears a short-sleeved round neck bomber-style jacket finished with multiple utility pockets – it’s almost as if he knew saving the world would fall to him. Later, during Diva Plavalaguna’s performance on board Paradise, he wears a traditional tuxedo (complete with bow tie and braces) that is systematically destroyed as he fights ‘the bad guys’. This too, is reminiscent of Bruce’s Hollywood persona, by the end of the scene he’s wearing little more than a ‘tailored’ white vest.
The contrast between Dallas’ smart and everyday dress represents the difference between the metropolis and the Paradise spaceship – the city is dominated by a dark colour palette that emphasises a lack of hope whilst the latter is shot in bright hues and rings with wealth and optimism. At the trash-filed airport the colour comes from the airline staff costumes – after all, they facilitate travel to this ‘new’ world. These tempting, blonde-bobbed females wear outfits inspired by traditional air hostesses uniforms, given a Gaultier twist with cutouts and short hemlines. Keeping with the futuristic theme, the outfits are rendered in neoprene. The women who work at the McDonald’s drive through are similarly clad, with waitress hat emblazoned with a yellow logo and bustier tops. By emphasizing their sexuality and deliberately framing fragments of their body, Besson reinforces these characters’ status as passive objects. Their presence is simply to serve the male gaze.
The villain is Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), a sinister, compassionless madman who works for the Ultimate Evil. Deliberately ambiguous, his multicultural heritage (as befits a future utopia) sits somewhere between Asian drug lord and Mafia gangster with a deep Southern drawl thrown in for good measure. His wardrobe, whilst limited to two outfits, is wonderfully eclectic. Besson described Zorg as a ‘dandy, nouveau riche, Hitler’; his costume immediately marks him out as a villain – albeit a comic one. Zorg’s first outfit is a classic play on villain attire – a long pinstripe jacket over a matching waistcoat and trousers that are tucked into calf-length boots. The waistcoat is worn over an iridescent green shirt with a high curved collar that accentuates the transparent plastic head plate (its function is never explained). In a nod to futurism, the suit is made from rubber and the jacket has a vibrant red lining, highlighting his barely-concealed manic persona.
For Zorg’s second look, Gaultier replaced the pinstripe waistcoat with an orange and green ombre version – the fabric looks very hi-tech but is less intimidating that the classic stripes. In fact, it’s whilst wearing this outfit that the audience is made aware of his weaknesses, which invariably affects his ‘villain’ status. This shiny outfit set Zorg apart from all the other characters, he is literally fighting for a different ending, and his style serves as a constant visual reminder. Zorg’s colour palette is picked up by other ‘bad’ characters – see the perspex mini skirt that one of the shape-shifting Mangalores wears at the airport.
One final character deserves a costume mention: Rudy Rhod, the flamboyant DJ host, played to OTT perfection by Chris Tucker (apparently Prince was originally considered for the role but declined the invitation). Dazzling and fast talking, Rhod has an elaborate wardrobe to match his personality. He’s first introduced in a skintight leopard print bodysuit with a wide open neckline. If Zorg is multicultural, Rhod is his sexually ambiguous counterpart, by turns hysterical and effemiate. He too needs ‘hero’ Korben to save him, reinforcing the traditional perception that homosexuals (like women) cannot survive without a masculine figure.
Ultimately the success of The Fifth Element lies in its visual spectacle and the creative vision of Besson, Mézières and Gaultier. Whilst the characters broke the typical associations of the sci-fi genre the plotline is rooted in convention and that’s disappointing. But perhaps that’s expecting too much from a movie that was released in 1997; if you’re willing to overlook the gaping plot holes (and there are many!) this is a enjoyable, nostalgic movie that’s a riot of colour – and in a genre that’s been dominated by a Matrix-inspired green and blue-grey tint for too long, rewatching this was something of a relief.
20 thoughts on “Gaultier and The Fifth Element”
I absolutely LOVE this film for a few reasons. It’s an expensive save the world sci-fi spectacle that’s a counterpoint to the jingoistic bombast of Independence Day (released a year earlier, I believe), it’s a film with action for the guys and a a love story for the ladies (and vice versa, of course!) that’s not afraid to go places other genre films didn’t and yep, those costumes were and are amazing stuff, adding to the outstanding production design. I may be the only person who feels direct Blade Runner comparisons are awkward at best, as other than the crush of traffic and the griminess of some sets, the tone is completely different. Br is a denser pay attention flick, while TFE is just a blast of cool air blowing you back in your seat every few minutes with something for your eyes and ears to flip out over.
Speaking of tone, you forgot to mention the film’s great opening sequence that for almost all its running time makes one feel as if this is a more SERIOUS sci-fi flick. I love it because it’s Besson drawing you in slowly before whipping the cloth off the bright neon and glitter world he REALLY wants you to experience. Despite the slightly silly-looking aliens (in GREAT costumes, by the way!) It certainly fooled people at the screening I went to including some who brought kids along thinking it would be a more Star Wars like experience (only to make a dash for the exits when Leeloo popped up almost naked as a a jaybird!).
Over the years since its release, I’ve recommended this to and had discussions with some people who hated the film because they saw it at too “gay” (idiots!), but they ended up liking the action bits, most of the humor and Milla running around in her not underwear. Besson knew what he was doing and did it his way, so to me the film is a modern classic no matter what anyone else thinks.
So happy you enjoyed the post & thank you for your comments. There was so much to mention (a lot more than I first thought!) so I couldn’t fit it all in (perhaps chance for a second post?) but I loved reading your thoughts about the opening sequence and I couldn’t agree more. I remember the first time I watched it, I expected a totally different film, but now I couldn’t love it any other way! It’s just a shame Besson’s more recent endeavours haven’t lived up to the hype (Transporter 4, 5, and 6 just announced, according to IMBD)
Love love love this film. Great write-up on a great film. In fact, I love this film so much that it is not only my favourite film of 1967 (the year I was born) but one of my all-time favourite films. I first saw this film when I was seventeen, in a high school film class. This was one of the first films I saw that got my still budding cinephile mind thinking that perhaps there’s a bit more to this film thing than mere entertainment. Yup. See ya ’round the web.
My, my. Look at Chris Tucker. You could have also mentioned that most black men (or women, for that matter) continually to be personified as an exotic, effeminate character. I mean, look at that leopard ensemble! The fact that the other person who was cast for Rudy was Prince is enough evidence to support that, no?
I was maybe six or seven when I watched The Fifth Element, too young to remember, and hadn’t bothered to doing it again. So in that sense, the only Besson film I’ve watched was Léon, to which JPG also served as costume designer. It is, however, disappointing to know that “This film is a romance, despite the futuristic landscape and the experimental characters; it perpetuates the patriarchal idea that a woman needs a man to be complete.” It was a totally different case for Mathilda, though it doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t fall into the patriarchal idea.
RE: Tucker’s effeminate character. I couldn’t agree more. I actually wanted to write a lot more about this, it felt too important to be shoe-horned in as a footnote. There’s a great clip of JPG talking about how Prince rejected the costumes for Rudy, which gives some indication of how far they were pushing it.
Mathilda is one of my favourite Besson characters as she has a realness that many in The Fifth Element don’t. I love the charade scene where she dresses up and plays with her identity, and I kinda wish that side of Rudy had been explored too.
Supergreen! Even as a kid, I thought the ending was pretty lame (no one needed the LeeLoo/Bruce romance), but I really love the visual excess of this film and the fact that it takes silly fun seriously, if that makes sense.
Regarding Ruby Rhod, I think it’s a fantastic performance from Chris Tucker, but I do see what you mean about needing a masculine figure to save him (UGH at the convention that the white hero needs to save the day for everyone).
The commenter above wrote “You could have also mentioned that most black men […] continually to be personified as an exotic, effeminate character”, and I was interested to read this, because the stereotype seems quite opposite to me … aren’t Black American men much more likely to be typecast as criminals/thugs, hyper (hetero) sexual, athletes, etc? I am not American, but that is what I have picked up through American films and media. Not saying that the character of Ruby Rhod doesn’t play with stereotypes, but I think it’s more to do with clichés about flamboyant gay men, etc – Ruby is quite heavily coded that way even though he seems to like the ladies. Anyway, interesting food for thought!
Hi! The list of stereotypes you’ve mentioned have existed for longer and if not more strongly than the effeminate character. So yes, they are definitely more likely to be typecast as those roles. But the latter resounds more to me, hence making a note of it, because I feel like it is (or will be) more relevant in today’s entertainment industry. I am not American myself so perhaps I’m not the most qualified to analyse this. But! Consider the shows Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (just started this year! Therefore supporting my point :d) and True Blood ( Lafayette Reynolds) who have exotic, effeminate, gay, black characters as best friends of the show’s protagonist, and consider how much they make up for the punchlines and funniest moments of the series. Definitely, gay clichés play their role, but I think you can observe closely enough to see the recurring exoticism that’s only possible because of their African identity. Their fashion (Lafayette and Titus both wear a lot of leopard, Lafayette a turban, makeup and earrings), figure of speech and accents, interests, personality… It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, because I find them to be the most developed characters — far more memorable than the protagonist and complex. I would like to see more of them. They are, after all, very entertaining.
However, these are very big and complicated roles, given the amount of material these actors have to deliver, and it’s easy for a show to gain some substance just by including these characters. I think that’s the danger. Just throw a gay, black, effeminate male into the mix. The other day my friend made the remark that the shows can easily sustain itself just by having these characters as lead, which I didn’t really agree with now because of the likeliness and the dynamics that come into play. That is to say, Chris Tucker did a marvellous job with Ruby Rhod but it’s obviously super unlikely the producers would create a spin-off for him than they would a sequel for The Fifth Element. This is quite the discussion and I’m curious about your take on this!
Thanks for your comment! I am not much familiar with either of these shows, although I see your point about exoticism and the intersection of minority identities. After posting, I also thought of the 80s NY ball culture à la Paris is Burning – another possible reference point for these kind of characters.
I don’t have a strong answer for you, since I’m not Black it’s the kind of thing where I would prefer to listen/read rather than myself debate (I know, I opened the discussion, but I’m not sure I can go beyond the basics). Exoticism, visibility, appropriation, depth of characterisation – there’s a lot of issues in the mix!
Ruby is ambiguously gay only… he, quite demonstrably, has (verging on dub-con) sex with an over-awed stewardess during the take-off for Fhloston Paradise. Unless, of course, you’ve only seen the television version of the movie, which edits out the sex.
You could say he’s bi, but I suspect that for Ruby, it’s similar to what Dean Pelton says on “Community”: “Gay is only 1/7th of what I am!”
This is a great post on one of my all time favorite movies. This is, to me, similar to The Wizard of Oz in its scope. Think about how hard it had to have been to work out every detail, and then have it all made, built, manufactured, in order to completely create another world. The beautiful art and set direction frames Gautier’s costumes so perfectly it’s as if his costumes are characters themselves. Imagine this movie without Gautier’s involvement; it wouldn’t have been as good. I think the reason die hard SciFi fans hate it is because the costuming and art/set direction create an overall optimistic tone, but it isn’t a SciFi movie and was never meant to be. It’s a comic book movie. Yet so many frames in this movie look like editorial fashion layouts in Vogue. The balance of comic book, high fashion and science fiction is amazing. Movies are not made like this anymore.
One point: “Besson reinforces these characters’ status as passive objects. Their presence is simply to serve the male gaze.”
What gets lost now, 20 years on, is Beeson’s brilliant casting of supermodels of their time. Milla was only know before this movie as a model, having been one of the youngest people ever photographed for a major Revlon campaign at 12-years-old. But several other very prominent models of the early 90s – Sibyl Buck, who played Zorg’s secretary, Vladimir McCrary, who played the human Aknot, Ève Salvail, who played the edgy girl in the green plastic skirt, Stacey McKenzie, the stewardess who greats Korben on the plane and then photo bombs him with Ruby, Sophia Goth as the stewardess at check in, Laura De Palma as the Fhloston Hostess, Zeta Graff as Princess Achen, as well as Genevieve Maylam, Rachel Willis, Nicole Merry, and even Maiwenn as the Diva – added to the “high fashion” subtext of the movie when it came out. As I said, their impact can be lost to younger viewers who could probably now see these women as only ornamentation when, at the time, their strategic presence in the movie was powerfully impactful in focusing Gautier’s comic book chic glamour.
One more thing about racial undertones. Keep in mind that Tom Lister, who was known at the time as a character actor specializing in gangsta thugs, plays the President. Of Earth. Regardless of who is saving who, everyone in this movie ultimately reported to a black man. It’s handled with subtlety, but it’s a strong statement.
Great post. I hope he makes a sequel. He’s hinting that he might.
Thank you for this comment! Many people ignore the many models used as actors in this film. I think Fifth Element is a hilarious comic-book style action film that also serves as a fashion wackiness explosion. It’s great eye-candy that has a good, though narrow, lesson; love is good, greed is bad. Something both kids and adults can enjoy, and for enjoyment it has been made. Thank you also for pointing out Tom Lister! Maybe because of Obama Americans forget how big of a deal a black president OF THE EARTH was back then on film, and still unfortunately is apparently in some circles. Strong statement indeed. Also the presidents “right-hand-man”, is a woman. Is there still despite of this a lot of racial stereotyping in the film? Unfortunately yes, and Ruby is the “damsel in distress”, but even though he’s portrayed as flaming, he’s clearly not gay, and women are all over this _feminine_ guy. Reading him as gay, despite him going down on women, just because he’s fabulous is trying to make him into a stereotype he clearly isn’t. So yes, definitely not flawless, but we should give credit for where credit is due.
As a kid when I saw this the deeper aspects truly did move me, they still ring true, but ofcourse now seem too bluntly phrased and well, too obvious. Though there’s a strong romance story over the course of the film, I didn’t see it as a story about a girl needing a guy to be complete. As a kid I thought about Pippi Långstrom when I first saw LeeLoo, so people diminishing her strength just because she falls in love with a dude seem to me like putting the character down. Yes, the way Leeloo’s power is activated is through love, the opposite force to evil, and in this case she needs to feel her feelings returned by Korben. BUT, what people seem way too happy to ignore is that Leeloo is the perfect being, she’s a weapon/soldier against darkness, she is the mother to the whole universe and she kicks butt too. In the film to me this was always way more important; everyone in the beginning assumes the perfect being would be a guy and they’re amazed when it’s actually a girl (though, duh!). To me this a huge feminist statement, and I personally like how it ties in with women being the ones able to bring life into this world, and how they’re truly life’s protectors. Not men, as in the film, even the good men can only protect others by hurting and destroying their surroundings.
Personally, I love the fact that Leeloo is a complex character; funny, curious, smart, empathetic and strong(not just physically), but for some it seems to be a problem that she’s also vulnerable. To me this is what makes her truly strong, she’s not a cold machine, she’s perfect, but also very much a human being (or a _humane_ being).
I think the problem with some feminists is that they don’t understand how wrapped up in heteronormativity and patriarchy they themselves are, so much so that they cannot see how it affects their thinking. It’s a patriarchal view that strength is only something you show by putting others down and fighting your way through your enemies, and that needing help is weak. BS to that my friends. The weakest character in this film is Zorg; he is alone. He has no friends, he’s a slave to his own greediness to the point of stupidity, he’s hostile, cold and violent. Leeloo makes friends, she helps others and accepts help from others (note how Zorg reacts to having his life saved by the priest!), she’s an eager learner and resorts to violence (never takes a life though!) only to protect others and it is in the end _her courage to be vulnerable_ in front of Korben, to be emotionally undressed and ask him to do the same for her, that saves the universe. The bravest thing Korben does in the film is not all the shooting and fighting, it’s admitting his feelings towards Leeloo. We know he has been hurt by his ex-wife in the past, so it takes a lot of strength to be that vulnerable again in front of another. Fighting would not have saved anyone in the film, as it’s clearly pointed out the only thing that could stop the evil was Leeloo (and the elemental stones), and essentially her love for all things living (how do people miss this god-reference??). And this to me is the true message of the film, and it’s a truly feminist message if anything ever was.
But maybe that’s just me. I’m just so sick and tired of how people think that only characters who kill and fight are badasses and all other forms of strength are categorised as “being weak”. Like pfft, can we get over this already?
In reference to Rudy needing a strong male to save him: The whole idea wasn’t about him being gay, it was that he was an overly pampered and soft celebrity. And do you NOT remember the takeoff scene of him servicing a FEMALE flight attendant? And Korbin saved a LOT of people. Females, males, old, young…. The idea was that Korbin was so badass, everyone needed his help. Which brings me to Leeloo needing him to save her…
First off, there are five elements, right? Wind, water, fire, and earth. And she is the fifth. What would be the 5th? Soul? She is the embodiment of, the pure personification of love. Like a child, she is strong out of innocence, until her world comes crashing down when she is devastated to find out how ugly and cruel humanity can be. She needs to know that the world can be worth saving. There is beauty and strength in the love between two people. Now, Korbin can’t stop this evil himself. Who really stops it? Leeloo! A WOMAN. Who saves who? They save each other.
I’m so tired of people seeing things in just black or white. In this film, both male and female, weak and strong, ugly and beautiful play important roles, and have a hand in saving the earth.