The Fifth Element ★★★★

Though I would never have argued that Luc Besson's garish sci-fi fantasia represents the pinnacle of the art form, or even that it is the French director's best film (for that you'd have to look to La femme Nikita or Leon) but I also cannot deny the fact that the film has a mesmerising, almost hypnotic, quality that means one can (and one did) sit in front of it innumerable times and still happily rewind it to start all over again.

The Fifth Element is not a story, it is a symphony of images. More than any of the more readily recognised "MTV-inspired" films produced in the 90s, Besson's futuristic trip distils the cadence of music into a visual medium. Besson's horrendously convoluted screenplay, which he apparently wrote while he was still in high school, jettisons almost every law of narrative structure and character development in favour of an approach that favours orchestrated cinematic movements over the traditional three acts. In fact, here, narrative and character are the least of Besson's concerns; he uses characters as clothes horses and narrative as a means of driving the visuals from one set piece to the next, transported conspicuously by the Euro-future-pop beats of composer Eric Serra.

Back then, I lapped it up. Watching the film with fresh eyes, it hasn't lost any of its lurid charm. It is big, bold and unashamedly comic take on a genre that is usually marked by the straightest of faces. The Fifth Element is the ridiculous extension of what was labelled by French critic Raphaël Bassan as cinéma du look, essentially a fancy name he coined for what most would call "style over substance". Besson’s earlier works (The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita) were the hallmarks of Bassan’s moniker when he coined it in 1989. What The Fifth Element did in '97 was to take what Bassan saw as the common subject matter of the films of the “movement”, young lovers in alienating surroundings, and smear this subject matter into the stylistic fabric of his film, collapsing subject into style. In doing so, Besson creates a symbiotic relationship between the aesthetic and the action, building a narrative that is necessarily reliant on broad themes (human fallibility and perfection, evil, and the all-conquering power of love) without ever having to bother with the detail, such as nuanced characterisation or narrative-driven intrigue. In effect, The Fifth Element is cinéma du look on steroids...

Read the rest of this essay, which I've nominally labelled "Style and the Sublimation of Substance in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element", over at