At first glance, Luc Besson’s 1997 sci fi epic The Fifth Element seems totally avant-garde, from the bright colors to the techno music to the costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. The story itself is nothing new–an unlikely yet endearing group must team up to save the world from a vague “evil”–but there’s no question that stylistically, this film breaks the mold. Certain bizarre character and style choices lead the viewer to think The Fifth Element is transcending the traditional, yet upon closer inspection, it seems that this is just another fairy tale.
One of the most memorable aspects of The Fifth Element is Chris Tucker’s character, the flamboyantly dramatic radio host Ruby Rhod. Rhod’s costumes look like something Lady Gaga would wear (not surprising, considering the star is known for her affinity for Gaultier). Rhod essentially is dressed as a woman, complete with makeup and leopard print jumpsuits, but he acts like a stereotypical gay man (high pitched voice, feminine mannerisms). Yet he’s also a womanizer, and has a ridiculous effect on women, who fawn over him and are brought to orgasm by his mere presence. Rhod, in short, is a complete contradiction, and seems to break every gender mold out there.
The female characters in The Fifth Element are also interesting to consider in terms of gender norms. By and large, they are empty stereotypes: sex object stewardesses who all look the same, Korben Dallas’s nagging mother, Zorg’s ditzy secretary.
But at the same time, there are a great deal of women present in the film, which should count for something. And they do seem to come out on top for the most part: the stewardesses, though prey to Rhod’s seductions, don’t put up with crap from passengers, and the final scene features Dallas’s mother telling off the president. While the portrayals of women in the film are stereotypical, it is apparent that women are nonetheless important figures. The “Diva” character, a goddess-like alien crucial to the plot, embodies this female-worship best.
Of course, the most important woman in The Fifth Element is Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo. She is described as the “perfect being” designed to save the planet from evil, which sounds like a pretty feminist image. But not so fast. Although Leeloo is placed on a pedestal in the film and can certainly hold her own in certain scenes (why shouldn’t a 120-pound woman be able to defeat a team of burly aliens?), in the end she’s as helpless as a poisoned Snow White.
Despite her role as a savior, throughout the film Leeloo is constantly infantilized–she barely speaks, and when she does she sounds like a child. True, she doesn’t speak English, but that doesn’t mean she has to repeat “multipass” over and over like an airhead, as endearing as that is. At one point Korben Dallas states, “when is Leeloo not in trouble?”, as if she’s a toddler on the loose. And after every scene in which Leeloo seems to assert her independence, she seems to end up unconscious in Dallas’s arms. Despite Leeloo’s declaration that she will protect Dallas, it’s he who does the protecting.
The final scenes of The Fifth Element are where gender norms fall squarely back in place. The Diva tells Dallas that Leeloo is “more fragile than she seems” and that she needs Dallas’s love to survive (every man’s dream, right?). Leeloo then becomes completely incapacitated after watching war footage–she’s barely conscious, mumbling and gasping for air. As a perfect being, Leeloo is understandably traumatized by the dark side of human nature, but instead of taking a stand she becomes utterly helpless, like an infant.
As the clock ticks down to the end of the world, Korben Dallas is the only figure who can save it, and it’s because he’s a standard heterosexual male figure. Though Rhod and two celibate male priests are present, they don’t have what it takes (i.e., masculinity). Dallas alone has to tell Leeloo he loves her, or she and everyone on Earth will die. It’s an ending highly reminiscent of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, where the charming prince must kiss the maiden to save her from evil. After two hours of gender bending and boundary pushing, The Fifth Element ends up just like a traditional fairy tale.