Many years ago I had a novelty calendar. The conceit of it was that every day of the year was a a holiday celebrated somewhere by some group of people. By claiming affinity with those groups you could claim every day of the year as a holiday. All it did was find obscure occasions to fill in the gaps between the established religious, secular, and nationalist holidays. Feeling musical? You’ll be looking forward to Saxophone Day, 6th November. Hungry? Chocolate covered raisins day and waffle day are, conveniently, next to each other; 24th and 25th March, respectively.
Now, over here in RunPee Towers, our chief archivist and crypt keeper, Jilly, has a perpetual calendar with all the major and film based holidays marked on it. Things like Christmas, the Ides of March, Groundhog Day, Star Wars Day, etc. She may not have things like World Giraffe Day (21st June) but, trust me, if people start making films about giraffes and giraffe day she will mark it on! So while there may be a substantial body of work represented on Jill’s calendar, there are still a few blank dates.
Oh, So you Speak English Now
Just like on Boxing Day you tend to feel a bit flat after all the razzamatazz of Christmas Day so you may feel a little flat after Star Wars Day. An Australian broadcaster, SBS, have started a little thing which I would be quite happy to see catch on. On the fifth day of the fifth month they show, from noon until midnight, The Fifth Element! I just scrolled through the RunPee archives to find a link to our of The Fifth Element. I was more than a wee bit surprised to discover that we’ve never done one.
You may be wondering why I’d be surprised. After all, it came out in 1997…way before RunPee was even conceived. But then we’ve reviewed films from as far back as 1901. It’s not part of a long running franchise like Raiders Of The Lost Ark. What surprised me with the lack of inclusion in the archives is that The Fifth Element is a favourite amongst the contributors here at RunPee. It is one of my favourites but I like every film Luc Besson has made; there’s usually a cracking story and, if there isn’t, they’re beautiful to just look at.
Leeloo Dallas Multipass
Time for a quick précis? Back in 1914 an alien group known as Mondoshawans arrive on Earth to collect and protect the only weapon strong enough to defeat a great evil force. Fast forward to 2263 and the evil appears. While the weapon is being returned to Earth the Mondoshawan ship is ambushed by alien Mangalore mercenaries hired by industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman). Only a hand remains but, using DNA construction techniques, the creature is remade. The creature is Leeloominaï Lekatariba Lamina-Tchaï Ekbat De Sebat or Leeloo for short.
Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) escapes from the people holding her and drops in on (literally!) former special forces soldier and soon to be sacked taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Together they escape the authorities and end up at the door of priest Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm). There follows an interplanetary game of cat and mouse involving Korben and Leeloo, Zorg and his men, the military, and the priesthood. I’ll not say how it all ends in case you haven’t seen it but you only need an IQ a shade higher than a crocus to work out how it all finishes.
How Are The Stones?
The story may seem a little whimsical and juvenile at points but that is hardly surprising given that Luc Besson wrote the story outline when he was sixteen. I imagine that he has a wardrobe full of old exercise books with outlines of stories that he started writing while he was in primary school and still keeps adding to. After all he does have over sixty five writing credits for film and television. His stories range from a tales of romantic fantasy with guardian angels to a wildly over the top space opera. Throw in the post-apocalyptic survival story, the film set in the world of competitive free diving, the various assassins of both genders, and a fin de siècle Lara Croft and you get some idea of his range.
I’ll admit to having been a fan of Luc Besson since the 1980s. I caught up with his work part way through his “Cinéma du Look” period. The first film of his that I saw was Nikita and I fell in love with Anne Parillaud and Tchéky Karyo in equal parts: I may have to write a longer piece about that later. After seeing Nikita I had to find out what else he’d done. Remember younglings, back then there was no internet. Well, not in the way you know about it. Back then to find out about a director’s previous work you had to dig out a copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide and look them up.
Finger’s Gonna Kill Me
Once you’d actually got a list of titles then the fun began! Streaming and downloading in general didn’t exist back then so you had to hope that HMV had a good selection of foreign films on VHS. They used to be expensive when they first came out as they were quite specialist and never seemed to appear in video rental outlets. A good day was when there was a sale on and all those obscure French titles that cost twice the price of a typical blockbuster were reduced to clear. That’s when I managed to get hold of copies of Subway, Le Grand Bleu, Atlantis, and Nikita. It was well into the current millennium that I managed to snag a copy of Le Dernier Combat!
I remember the kerfuffle surrounding the release of Léon or The Professional. This is another film that I think I may have to write about in the not too distant future. I remember that there were competitions to win preview tickets and pairs of the Jean-Paul Gaultier sun glasses that Jean Reno wore in the film. It was made on a budget of $16 million and took $46.1 million…Luc Besson had started to make it big. As a result, he was given a $90 million budget for his next film; The Fifth Element. At that time, it was the highest budget European film ever made. It became the highest grossing French film ever at $264 million and held that record until 2011 and Intouchables was released.
You’re A Winner!
It wasn’t just the increased budget that guaranteed a great cast. Gary Oldman and Luc Besson had been friends for years. Oldman wasn’t a fan of The Fifth Element, he said in 2011: “It was me singing for my supper, because Luc had come in and partly financed Nil By Mouth”. Gary Oldman had already put in $1.4 million of his own money and was his first and only writing and directing credit. Bruce Willis came on board after Mel Gibson dropped out. He signed on for $14 million and a percentage. He ended up making around $100 million.
As well as Gary Oldman there is quite a variety of other British talent on show. Ian Holm appears in his second sci-fi outing with a character called Dallas…remember Alien? Assisting Cornelius was David (Charlie Creed-Miles). Lee Evans was more known for his frantic, sweaty stand up routine but he acquitted himself well as Crewman Fog. Richard Leaf played Korben’s slightly deranged neighbour. Zorg’s right hand man, Right Arm, was Tricky who’s probably better known for his music.
One face that popped up would prove to be familiar to many viewers – Christopher Fairbank. That name may not be familiar but I’m positive his lined, pock-marked face would be familiar. He became a household name, in the UK at least, when he joined the main cast of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet as the Scouse arsonist Moxey but he has many small roles in a lot of big projects: Tim Burton’s version of Batman, Alien³, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Doctor Who, Andor, and his character of The Broker bookended the Guardians Of The Galaxy trilogy.
And the ten minute or so introduction set in 1914 Egypt featured a face from my childhood, John Bluthal. I remember him from numerous cameos, many non speaking, over the years. He plays the professor analysing the engraved marks on the vault containing the five elements. During that segment there is another character taking notes. He has less screen time and fewer lines than John Bluthal but, somehow, Luke Perry manages to get his name in the opening credits after Chris Tucker but before the film’s title!
Is The Diva Here Yet?
And having mentioned Chris Tucker it seems appropriate to talk about him and his character, Ruby Rhod. Based on and originally intended as a role for Prince a scheduling conflict led to him being unable to take the part. And so Mr Tucker got the role. Jamie Foxx was liked for the part by Luc Besson but Tucker’s small frame looked better. Was this a pivotal role for Tucker? I’ll just say that within the year the Rush Hour franchise took off! Incidentally, there are various theories about the name change from Luc Rhod. The one I like is that Rubidium is the first of the period 5 elements and halfway along that row is the element rhodium…
Despite Leeloo’s bright orange hair, (bright artificial hair colouring was not as big a thing back then) the most striking character is the Diva Plavalaguna. She seems to be about two metres tall, is bright blue and has tentacles! As is often the case she is played physically by Maïwenn Le Besco but the aria is sung by Inva Mula. When Eric Serra showed Ms Mula the score for the song she had to tell him that it was impossible as the human voice couldn’t change notes that much or that quickly. As a result Inva sang all the notes individually and they were stitched together. And as we’re on to music…
Quiver Ladies, Quiver
One of the most easily recognised aspects of a Luc Besson film is the music. Ever since Le Dernier Combat Luc Besson has engaged the services of Eric Serra to compose the score. Well, apart from Angel-A and I don’t know why that was. You may ask what difference does a composer have on the end result of a film and I’d just point you in the direction of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Ludwig Göransson. Trust me, I have the musical capabilities of a house brick but even I can recognise an Eric Serra soundtrack. The pulsating drive is unmistakable. As is the look of the characters…
Costume design was by the legendary Jean-Paul Gaultier. He was an obvious choice as his designs were renowned for being avant-garde and futuristic. When he started out his designs were not widely accepted due to being considered decadent. He had designed for a few films before Luc Besson came around. In 1989 he worked on Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover. 1993 was Kika written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. And 1995 saw him working with Caro and Jeunet on La Cité Des Enfants Perdus. I’ve see all three and the costumes are all eye catching!
I Need A Tan! I Need A Cocktail!
When the cameras rolled everyone in front of the lens was in couture that had been personally checked by JPG. You don’t have to be a fashion whizz to recognise some of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s signature styles Bright colours, playful geometry, cut outs, and themes borrowed from the French navy. All of those can be seen in The Fifth Element. The infamous bandage outfit that Leeloo escapes in had some costume related drawbacks Milla Jovovich said that the bandages were difficult for stunts. “There was a lot of skin showing, so I got pretty bruised up, because I couldn’t wear pads and things that other people could wear.”
I said before that Luc Besson was a pivotal figure in the Cinéma du Look movement along with Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax. These directors were said to favour style over substance and spectacle over narrative. Their films had a slick, gorgeous visual style and a focus on young, alienated characters. They were said to represent the marginalised youth of François Mitterrand’s France. So it will come as no surprise that The Fifth Element is visually impressive and features some definitely estranged individuals.
Gimme Da Cash!
There is the delightfully strung out mugger (Mathieu Kassovitz). He waits for people to open their front doors onto what they think is an empty corridor. That’s because he has a picture of an empty corridor stuck to his head. They look through their peep hole, see an empty corridor, open their door, and there he is! There is also his short tempered neighbour (Richard Leaf) who gets dragged away by mistake because someone has swapped the name plates.
Unsurprisingly, the visual elements look like they have come out of a comic book. Besson hired comic artists Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières to help with the production design. Following the release there was a claim of plagiarism brought by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud. Apparently though it was the publishers rather than the artists who filed the case. It was dismissed partly because Giraud had been hired to work on the film. So, quite frankly, some of it should have looked like his work!
Is That Your Idea Of A Discreet Operation?
And as I come to the end of another ramble the other thing that strikes me about The Fifth Element is the humour. It isn’t listed as a comedy but when you have Bruce Willis, Chris Tucker, Lee Evans, and John Bluthal on board there’s bound to be a humorous vibe. Throw in sight gags like the cigarettes that are 80% filter, the Mondoshawan crash surviver being just a hand in a glove, and the various Bruce Willis ad-libs and you end up with something which manages to raise more than a few smiles.
Would I support watching The Fifth Element on the fifth of the fifth every year? Yes I would!
Movie Grade: A+
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!