A Shot-by-Shot Analysis from The Fifth Element

In the film The Fifth Element, the world in general and protagonist Korben Dallas’ life in particular are complicated, strange, and dangerous. Life is fast-paced and science-fiction devices abound. However, the alien Leeloo, sent by ancient beings to prevent the destruction of the universe, represents a peaceful return to normalcy, both for humanity, whom she saves, and for Korben, with whom she falls in love.

The contrast between the world with and without Leeloo’s influence becomes particularly evident in a scene in the middle of the movie, in which Korben accepts a military mission representative of his old life in order to pursue and help Leeloo. The camera motion, shot length, mise-en-scene, and sound all change from calm simplicity to frantic complexity as Korbin turns his attention from Leeloo to the rest of the world. The scene itself is almost exactly halfway through the movie, and the sequence I will be analysing starts at timestamp 1:05:56 and runs until 1:06:49. (In the clip, this is from 0:05 to 1:06 — I included a little bit more for context.)

My first shot is a long one, lasting 41 seconds. As part of the plot preceding this scene, Korbin has hidden a number of people in his apartment: Leeloo in his shower, the priest Cornelius in his bed, and three soldiers in his fridge. Leeloo, the orange-haired humanoid alien, is the first to be rescued; immediately prior to this shot, Korbin has retrieved his shower, which retracts into the ceiling and out of view, and discovered that Leeloo is now soaking wet because of an “autowash” feature.

In this shot, the camera moves very little; it starts with a slight pan to the right as Korbin helps Leeloo out of the shower, but this is primarily because the previous shot was moving, and to keep the transition smooth it must cut from motion to motion. After the pan, it begins moving forward in a very gradual, slow process which makes the framing simpler and more intimate as the scene goes on but which will probably not register consciously as camera movement.

Leeloo also doesn’t move– she stands in the center of the shot, shaking, as Korbin walks behind her and noisily tosses items out of a hidden cupboard. His apartment in general is very cluttered, and as the unidenfitifiable objects as they hit the floor their clanging highlights his unsettled state.

He finds a towel and walks back to Leeloo to wrap it around her. He starts by vigorously drying her off, but the more time he spends with her, the slower his movements become. His dialogue also changes from being more high-energy to calmer the longer he is with her; he begins by explaining and apologizing for the autowash, then comments that this is the second time today that Leeloo has ended up in his arms, then falls silent as he contemplates that fact and her face.

The moment around 1:06:25 best encapsulates the mood of Korbin-with-Leeloo. He has finally stopped frantically moving around, only absently stroking her shoulder from time to time, and he has stopped talking. The camera has moved forward enough to cut the shower and the cupboard out of the shot, giving us a view of Korbin’s apartment with an unprecedented lack of clutter. He is totally engrossed in looking at her face; we expect him to kiss her at any moment. The slightly cheesy romantic music, which has been playing since Leeloo appeared, becomes most audible at this moment.

However, a whining/ moaning noise also becomes audible, and at 1:06:31 we begin our transition out of Leeloo-land. Korbin physically turns away from Leeloo to look behind him for the source of the sound, and asks (in a voice that has become a whisper through her influence), “Did you hear something?” and the music stops. When she answers, “Cornelius,” he is silent for a moment, and then we finally cut away from Leeloo and to our next shot.

In my second shot, we see a return to the world of action and technology that represents Korbin’s life without Leeloo. The music stops abruptly, and instead we hear a mechanical whine (which actually begins to be audible in the last few seconds of the previous shot) as Korbin’s retractable bed slides out from the wall, with Cornelius trapped under its plastic wrap.

The camera begins moving again as Korbin runs into the frame. In his haste, he kicks a aluminum soda can, which clatters metallically;  it’s not meant to be noticed consciously but as with the junk thrown out of his cupboard in the shot before, it calls to mind the clutter of Korbin’s usual life. As the can skitters away, Korbin rips the plastic off the bed, and Cornelius sits bolt upright with a loud gasp for air. The shot lasts four seconds, a mere tenth of the shot before.

We cut back to Leeloo for the third shot. It’s a dirty single, with Korbin’s out-of-focus back in the foreground of the shot. However, it’s not very dirty, since Leeloo is standing in front of the only blank wall in Korbin’s apartment, and absolutely none of his things are visible. It is essentially a reverse-shot, showing Leeloo’s reaction to to action in the shot prior.

Leeloo is unworried. She does move, but it is to begin taking off her own wet clothes, not to get caught up in the action surrounding Cornelius. Instead, she simply points off-screen to the action, and comments, “Autowash.” (It is probably worth noting, for those who have not seen the movie, that Leeloo does not yet speak English in this scene; she speaks primarily in one-work proper names, but we are meant to read a further eloquence into them; they do not represent an intellectual deficiency on her part.)

However, Korbin is no longer engrossed in the calm world of Leeloo, and this shot lasts only two seconds.

In the fourth shot, the camera jostles back and forth as Korbin pulls Cornelius to his feet (a motion which also pulls a huge swath of plastic into the shot). We are once again looking at the messy part of Korbin’s apartment, with open drawers, cupboard doors, and shelves of books, awards, photographs, and knickknacks.

The men shove at each other for a few moments, Korbin in an attempt to brush Cornelius off, and Cornelius in an attempt to brush off Korbin’s attention (and to express his annoyance). Korbin is talking loudly again, saying almost the same thing he was saying to Leeloo when he pulled her out of the shower– lots of “sorry.”

Then, with an amusing swooshing sound effect, they both look directly at the camera.

In shot five, the two men are in the foreground in focus, obscuring Leeloo as she takes off her wet shirt behind them. We get the swooshing sound again as they both in unison turn their backs to her. Korbin awkwardly offers Cornelius a cup of coffee and steps out of the shot as Leeloo wrings out her shirt (the water splashing audibly on the ground) and mutters “autowash” to herself.

By standing with Cornelius and literally turning his back to Leeloo, Korbin has rejoined Cornelius’ world of action (a world that does not have time for romance). It represents a complete reversal of his position towards her earlier, which was romantic but devoid of action. It also represents the general tone of the movie, a tone that Korbin consistently tries to escape by pursuing Leeloo.

As the scene continues, we see Korbin pour a cup of coffee, then a reverse shot of Cornelius standing awkwardly, then a point of view shot as Cornelius notices some plot-important cruise tickets and grabs them, then a reaction shot of Cornelius as he crosses himself and grabs an award statue of Korbin’s, then a shot of Korbin and the coffee as Cornelius runs forward to bash Korbin on the head, and then a shot in the hallway as Cornelius and Leeloo flee– all of which happens in barely thirty seconds, less than the time Korbin spent just drying Leeloo off!

Overall, these five shots (and the context surrounding them) perfectly encapsulate the two worlds of the film, and Korbin’s reaction to them. When we move away from Leeloo, the camera moves more, the shots come faster, the mise-en-scene is messier, and the sound changes from peaceful music to motion-driven sound effects, whereas the closer we get to Leeloo, the calmer all of these things become. Because of this, throughout the movie, Korbin is drawn to Leeloo, and in fact puts up with more frenzied action than usual in order to gain the happy romantic “clinch” at the end.

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2 Responses to A Shot-by-Shot Analysis from The Fifth Element

  1. Nacoran says:

    Another interesting thing I noticed in Fifth Element was how many different people claimed to be, were mistaken for, or where offered a chance to be Korbin Dallas. At various points in the movie, a shape-shifting alien, one of Zorg’s henchmen, the young priest, and the bystander taken in by the police are all ‘Korbin’. Meanwhile Korbin shifts from being an ex-operative/cab driver, to a son, to an unemployed person, to an operative to a talk show guest, to the guy in love with LeeLoo, to the guy LeeLoo needs to help save the world.

    Is it just me, or was the there a metaphor that each element needed it’s element to activate and LeeLoo represented love, the ultimate element? It wasn’t until Korbin told her he loved her that she was able to save the world.

  2. Brandon says:

    Loved the breakdown – intriguing! I want to know the significance of the scars – throughout the movie, from Aziz onward, most characters are scarred or bandaged, including Corbin, Zorg, The General, etc.

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