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.