Luc Besson’s film The Fifth Element has an anti-technological bias conveyed in an unusually subtle way. Generally, when a science fiction film is anti-technology, it conveys this by depicting robots murdering humans in the streets (or something similarly obvious); in The Fifth Element, however, the bias is conveyed by setting up two characters’ worldviews as oppositional, and then encouraging the viewer to identify with the point of view that is opposed to technology.
By manipulating our impressions of who is looking at certain scenes (as described by Daniel Dayan) and taking advantage of our identification with the camera (as described by Christian Metz), we are presented with two ways of seeing associated with our two lead characters. When the pacing, mise-en-scene, and sound design of the shots vary in concordance with these two views, we come to see the viewpoint of ex-military 23rd-century taxi driver Korbin Dallas (played by Bruce Willis) as complicated, technologically-oriented, and sexless, and the viewpoint of the world-saving divine alien being known as Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) as calm, simple, and romantic. The film then endorses Leeloo’s philosophy by having Korbin, throughout the course of the film, change his life to become more like Leeloo.
To exemplify this conveyance of this ideology in the film, I have chosen a short sequence that is something of a turning point in the movie, in which Korbin is strongly attracted to Leeloo (and everything she represents), but still distances himself from her. The scene is almost perfectly halfway through the movie, and immediately precedes Korbin’s decision to abandon his current life in order to pursue and help Leeloo. The sequence I will analyse runs from timestamp 1:05:5 until 1:06:49 in the film; this is from 0:05 to 1:06 in the clip below, which also includes a few extra shots for context.
First, there is the process by which the oppositional viewpoints are defined. The real origin of every image in the clip above lies, of course, in the camera and the filmmaking process. However, through the conventions of suture, “the real origin of the image–the conditions of its production represented by the absent-one–is replaced with a false origin and this false origin is situated inside the fiction” (Dayan, The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema, page 117 of Film Theory and Criticism, 7th ed.). Suture is to be expected in any conventional film, and yet I think the choice of false origins in this sequence is being used to tell us more about the conflict of philosophy within the film, and the ideology ultimately promoted by the film. So, let’s look at who, exactly, is looking at whom.
Korbin looking at Leeloo
Part 1 consists of only shot 1, which is 41 seconds long and begins at 0:05 in the clip above. An earlier shot/reverse-shot sequence showed us Leeloo, and then Korbin looking at Leeloo, so we predict that this shot will once again represent what Korbin sees. However, instead of a more traditional reaction shot showing Korbin’s face, we see Korbin and Leeloo together, as Korbin’s look at Leeloo (both the implied look of his earlier role as absent-one, and the literal look depicted in the scene) pulls him closer into her world. At the beginning of the shot, Korbin rummages through a cupboard, throwing things over his shoulder to clang noisily on the ground, separate from Leeloo as in his usual life, but after he begins to dry her off his field of vision shrinks. As he is influenced by her calm, he goes from chatting and drying her vigorously and glancing from one part of her to another, to silently gazing into her eyes.
The camera colludes in this tunnel-vision. As the shot progresses, it quite elegantly removes all traces of technology from the screen, so that the closer we are to Leeloo the further we are from anything that marks the scene as happening in the future. To accomplish this, it moves slowly forward throughout the shot, transforming a cluttered medium shot into a clean close-up, an action it carries out so subtly that I almost didn’t notice it even after several viewings. We are meant to see Leeloo as Korbin sees her: a stable center with an inexplicable allure that draws our attention away from the other distractions of life. And so, she never moves from the middle of the frame, while we, as camera-Korbin, physically move closer to her without quite realizing our own movement, and literally lose sight of anything but her.
The remarkable change within shot 1 which goes un-remarked on.
Our attraction to Leeloo is romantic, with soft horn music, the close physicality of drying off, and especially the near-kiss toward the end all contributing to a sexually-charged atmosphere. When Leeloo and Korbin stand close to each other, as they do throughout most of the shot, there is a sense of belonging. It is notable that Korbin’s shirt is so bright orange; throughout the film, this colour is strongly associated with Leeloo, so when Korbin begins to wear it as well it is a sign of his increasing allegiance to Leeloo’s way of life.
So, when Korbin looks at Leeloo, he sees simplicity and calm, and he is attracted to what he sees.
Leeloo looking at Korbin
Part 2 consists of the following 4 shots: shot 2, in which the bed slides out of the wall and Korbin rips Cornelius (a monk trying to help Leeloo save the world) out of the plastic; shot 3, in which Leeloo comments, “autowash” and begins to take off her suspenders; and shot 4, in which Korbin pulls Cornelius to his feet.
When shot 2 begins at 0:50 in the clip above, it’s not immediately clear who is seeing it. Here we must visit Dayan and his The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema, to consider the process by which a moviegoer decides upon the false origin of the images presented. Dayan says,
“Within the system of suture, the absent-one can therefore be defined as the intersubjective “trick” by means of which the second part of a given representative statement is no longer simply what comes after the first part, but what is signified by it. … On the one hand, a retroactive process organizes the signified. On the other hand, an anticipatory process organizes the signifier.” (page 116-117).
Thus, when we see the bed sliding out of Korbin’s wall in shot 2, just after Korbin turns his head away from the camera in shot 1, we are thinking both, “Ah, this is what he was looking at before” and “Who is looking at it now?” We provisionally consider that Korbin is still the signifier in shot 2, but then at 0:51 he runs into the shot, and we realize that he can’t be looking at himself. Since Leeloo is the only other person in the room, we think it is probably her, but we have been wrong before; when shot 3 shows us Leeloo simply pointing and saying “autowash,” it is not for the purpose of the joke, but to reassure us that Leeloo really was our absent-one in the shot before, and to confirm that we have changed our perspective from Korbin-seeing-Leeloo to Leeloo-seeing-Korbin.
So, what changes when we start looking through different eyes? For one thing, technology and clutter have both returned to Korbin’s life. The sound bridge connecting shot 1 to shot 2 is a mechanical whine, and when Korbin first enters the frame of shot 2 he kicks an aluminum can and sends it clattering across the floor. Most obviously, a bed emerges from the wall, a concrete example of the ways that technology drives Korbin’s life. The soft horn music also ends, completing the shift from romantic timelessness to science-fiction technology.
Sex has also been totally removed from the equation. It is somewhat ironic that it is Korbin’s bed to come out of the wall just after his romantic moment with Leeloo, because it is very clear that no sleeping, euphemistic or otherwise, is likely to happen. For one thing, Cornelius lies on top of the sheets, and the bed has been made. For another, Cornelius has been wrapped in sterile plastic. Additionally, the character of Cornelius is actually a monk– an embodiment of celibacy.
Shot 2 and shot 4: technology, plastic, and clutter.
Leeloo’s reaction to both of these changes is very much that of an outsider. Whereas Korbin and Leeloo share focus equally in shot 1, in shot 3 (the only shot in which they appear together) the depth of field has narrowed so that only Leeloo is in focus, and Korbin is set apart from her. Leeloo does not get involved in the action of rescuing Cornelius, merely passing comment on the action while she continues with her own business of dealing with her wet clothes.
The world without Leeloo is also less happy than the world with her. This is evident both on the obvious levels of the previously-mentioned cluttered mise-en-scene and change in music, as well as the nature of the action, but it is also true on a more subtle level: the camera moves more obviously, with a distinctive handheld shake, and everything within the shot is moves as well– the stability provided by Leeloo has been lost.
At the end of shot 4, Korbin and Cornelius look directly at the at the camera, making us ask quite explicitly, “What are they seeing?”
This shot demands a reverse-shot.
The answer, of course, is Leeloo.
Korbin and Cornelius looking at Leeloo
Shot 5 shows Korbin and Cornelius looking behind them at Leeloo, and then immediately turning back to face the camera because Leeloo has taken off her wet shirt to wring it out. They stand awkwardly, and then Korbin edges out of the frame to get coffee. Even though this shot expresses their view of Leeloo, we never get a clear look at her at all; the depth of field is narrow and Leeloo, behind the two men, is totally out of focus.
Shot 5: trying not to look at Leeloo.
I find this shot most telling because in it, Leeloo expresses what she really represents, and Korbin aligns himself with the monk to quite literally turn his back on her. Leeloo, as a symbol of straightforward sexuality, has no qualms about taking off her wet shirt to wring it out: how else would she get dry? But this is still the middle of the movie, the point at which the hero must decide whether or not to accept his quest, and at this point he is determined not to accept. The camera, like Korbin, obeys the authoritarian message on the wall to “Keep Clear” (an artifact of an authoritarian society), and refuses to look at her, blocking her out with the two men who represent the usual way of things in this science fiction world.
The true origin of the looks: the camera
The story becomes more complex when we remember that Korbin and Leeloo are both fictional characters, and therefore cannot possibly look at each other. In Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, he attempts to tease out the truth behind the spectator’s experience of identification with film.
“The spectator’s look… must first “go through”… the look of the character out-of-frame. … This invisible character, supposed (like the spectator) to be seeing, will collide obliquely with the latter’s look and play the part of an obligatory intermediary.” (page 700)
Thus, we are the ones beginning to feel alienated from Korbin’s technologically-focused, conflict-driven life, and we feel attracted to Leeloo’s simpler way of living.
However, we must not forget the fact that “as he indentifies with himself as look, the spectator can do no other than identify with the camera, too, which has looked before him at what he is not looking at.” Although our look is more real than the look of the fictional character, it is still not the cause of the image; the true origin lies, as always, in the camera. We take a stance on technology not through our own will, then, but as a direct result of the camera’s placement—or rather, the director’s placement of the camera.
Thus, the beautiful slow zoom in shot 1 is caused not by Korbin’s attraction to Leeloo (the false origin), but by the director’s desire to make the viewer subconsciously associate Leeloo with calm, gentle feelings. The shots get jumpier and shorter starting with shot 2 not because Leeloo is disoriented by Korbin’s world, but because the director wants the spectator to consider the world disorienting. Every detail has been orchestrated with intent, and at great cost, to cause us to identify with a very specific ideology.
Finally, let us consider how the film ends: when Leeloo does save the world, it is as an embodiment of love, not as a technological weapon. In the epilogue, the President wants to speak to Korbin and Leeloo to thank them, but, as a scientist awkwardly explains, they are “occupied”; they are encapsulated in a healing device, no clothes in sight, unashamedly having sex. That is, Korbin has completely embraced Leeloo’s world, and brought the spectator into seeing a “happy ending” that consists of keeping out the rest of the world, in order to enjoy life on a primal, uncomplicated, “uncivilized” level.
The Fifth Element, despite its surface similarities to technology-glorifying science fiction romps, therefore subtly encourages the spectator to identify with an anti-technology ideology.