It could be argued that when The Fifth Element was released to theaters, the world wasn’t prepared for it. The advertisements promised something “beyond Star Wars” and “beyond Star Trek”, which turned out to be something of an understatement. While cinema was no stranger to sci-fi spectacles in 1997, there had never been one quite as outrageous, colorful, or exuberant as Luc Besson’s career-defining film. There had also never been one nearly as queer, for that matter, and 20 years later, it’s a distinction that the film still carries.
It isn’t that the film has prominent queer characters. The main players all present as primarily heterosexual, although only Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) appears to be definitely so. It isn’t that the film touches on themes of oppression. Stripped of its flourishes, the primary conflict appears to be a fairly simple, yet wickedly efficient save-the-world story. Instead, there’s something intangible about the film itself, as if there’s queerness coded into its DNA. It’s part of a larger experience; it isn’t the film’s primary reason for being, but it’s most certaintly present.
To understand The Fifth Element’s queer aspect, it helps to first look at its pedigree. The film was heavily based on the works of French comic book artists Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Mœbius) and Jean-Claude Mézières. It wouldn’t be the first time that their work inspired a sci-fi blockbuster; Mézières’ work especially was highly influential to the aesthetic of the early Star Wars films. It also wouldn’t be the last time Besson was influenced by their work, either, since 20 years after The Fifth Element’s release, Besson would direct a straight-up adaptation of Mézières’ long-running Valérian series. Mézières’ work tended to turn its focus not to space battles or defeating an enemy but instead centered on themes of an optimistic kind of humanism that embraced diversity and, more importantly, sexuality and sexual equality.
Whereas Star Wars drew off of 1930s serials and a liberal application of Joseph Campbell’s studies on mythology and Star Trek was like a western crossed with Isaac Asimov, The Fifth Element appears to be more in line with Métal hurlant, the comic anthology co-founded by Giraud. (Americans know it as Heavy Metal.) The series wasn’t afraid to present decidedly “mature” storylines that included sex and nudity mixed in with the usual sci-fi action and speculative fiction. In that respect, you could say that The Fifth Element owes more to Barbarella than it does to Flash Gordon.
It’s this level of maturity that sets The Fifth Element apart from the two franchises it explicitly set itself up as a counter to. Aside from Princess Leia’s metal bikini in Return Of The Jedi, sex and sexuality was all but completely absent from the early Star Wars films. Likewise, in the anodyne future of Star Trek, human sexual diversity seems to have been eliminated along with poverty, war, and whatever other moral failings the Enterprise crew discovered on the strange, less-civilized worlds they encountered. Both franchises also tend to devote their plots to a central good-vs-evil conflict that ends up defining the series as a whole, arguably holding more importance than the players involved.
The Fifth Element, on the other hand, turns its focus squarely on its main characters. The ostensible over-plot — that is, defeating the evil planet hurtling toward Earth — seems more like an excuse to show the personal stories of Korben Dallas and Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). In fact, the Big Bad can only be defeated if and when Leeloo grows to understand the full depth of the human experience, including (and most importantly) love. It’s this connection to the humanity of its cast that helps to give The Fifth Element its queer elements.
This is perfectly encapsulated in the film’s true climax, which is not the final defeat of the evil heading toward earth. Instead, it’s what is inarguably the film’s most famous sequence, the performance of the alien diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn Le Besco with vocals by Inva Mula). For several minutes, the film becomes quiet and contemplative as the audience watches enraptured by the diva’s performance of the famous “Mad Scene aria” from Lucia Di Lammermoor. This may be the only time a sci-fi epic stops everything for a bit of opera that’s just as dramatic as any spaceship skirmish.
Instead of featuring on hard, aggressive, typically masculine events, the diva’s performance is soft, vulnerable, and nakedly emotional. It’s these qualities that become the most important to the film’s central conflict. As he watches, Korben’s face lights up with a kind of new emotional intelligence as he begins to understand the power of vulnerability. From that point forward, it becomes clear that Korben must resolve both masculine and feminine parts of himself to truly succeed in his mission. For lack of a better phrase, he becomes archetype-fluid.
Leading up and immediately after the event, we’re treated to a number of bits that further reinforce the film’s queer credentials. Shortly before the diva’s performance, we are introduced to the flamboyant galaxy-class VIP Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker). Prancing around like a cross between Prince and Dennis Rodman in Jean-Paul Gautier’s gender-fluid bodysuits, Ruby is unapologetically gender non-conforming. While clearly cisgendered, his fashions are decidedly effeminate by 20th-century standards to say nothing about his mannerisms.
To top it off, Ruby’s surrounded by a pack of gay male admirers/lackeys. But at the same, he’s also seen as sexually desirable by nearly every woman he encounters, and the only person who seems to find Ruby’s behavior difficult is Korben, which comes off as more a basic personality conflict than anything else. While Ruby is not clearly and canonically bisexual or pansexual, he admits to having had relations with non-human aliens, so it is entirely within the realm of possibility that he’s hooked up with at least a couple of men in his time.
Ruby isn’t the only queer attendee in the audience, though. A background character, Baby Ray (Ian Beckett), is accompanied by a male significant other in an outfit even more gender-non-conforming than Ruby’s leopard-print and rose-festooned unitards. Ray himself is dressed in gauzy white lace, and like Ruby has many female admirers. While relatively unimportant to the main story, Ray gets more screen time than any of the other extras in the audience, and Besson isn’t afraid to show the emotional connection between Ray and his partner.
Beyond all of that, The Fifth Element is possessed of a production fueled by bright colors and outrageous situations. From Leeloo’s neon orange hair to Plavalaguna’s sky-blue skin, Besson isn’t afraid to surround his characters with vibrance and light. In fact, he’s said in interviews he did this deliberately to avoid the “dark corridor” effect he saw in so many sci-fi films. Besson literally employs every color in the rainbow for his film.
And of course, The Fifth Element cannot be discussed, especially in a queer context, without spending time on Gautier’s unique costume designs. The “bandage dress” Leeloo wears in her first scenes has since become iconic and instantly recognizable, perfectly summarizing the out-of-the-box aesthetic of the film. Gautier shows a lot of skin and a lot of sex in his outfits with both genders, from the cleavage-baring uniforms of the Euro-models working the 23rd century McDonald’s to the ultra-tight spandex worn by the deliciously steroidal musclemen working for the villain, Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman). While it’s kept all within a PG-13 framework, it’s remarkably mature and sophisticated when compared to other sci-fi epics of the time.
But as the production design goes, so does the heart of the film itself. While on the surface, The Fifth Element is often defined by its visuals, but it’s true nature is revealed in the humanity of its story. The future envisioned by Besson, Giraud, and Mézières isn’t dystopian or homogenous. In fact, it appears that they’ve taken the diversity and emotional potential of humanity and amplified it exponentially, in effect erasing many of the boundaries around gender and sexuality that its audience has come to know and accept. The human heart of the film defines its unabashedly wild palette and not the other way around.
By focusing itself around the experience of its characters and not the conflict that’s the ostensible primary narrative, The Fifth Element opens itself up to the explore full breadth of humanity. It envisions a future where everybody has a place and everybody is free to express themselves as they see fit, no matter what. It’s the same kind of freedom that fuels the queer experience, where identity is very much self-defined by each individual in different ways. In fact, it’s this freedom that ends up being the key to saving the world and, by extension, the universe. It’s perhaps the most hopeful and optimistic kind of science-fiction, one where true strength and power comes from vulnerability and openness. It’s one where the players define the story instead of the story defining them, and that definition can be anything you want it to be.
That’s one hell of a multipass.
The header image is by Nick Runge. Check out more of his artwork here.
The Fifth Element is returning to theatres on May 14th and 17th, 2017, in a new, restored 4K transfer. Check Fathom Events to see if it’s playing in your area.