celebrating the 20th anniversary of milla jovovich’s career-defining role in 'the fifth element'
World Saved by a Nude Babe? Cool!
Spare a thought for all of those redheaded girls with sharp bobs and great bodies, whose Halloween costume of choice almost did not materialize. Having failed her audition, alongside another three thousand rejected women, Milla Jovovich had all but given up on playing the role of Leeloo Dallas. "I was dressed up [for the test]," Jovovich remembers. "[Luc Besson] thought I was cool, but just too New York 90s chick. Then, a few months later, I just happened to be at a hotel having breakfast in jeans and a T-shirt. Luc was at the pool chilling out, and I'm like 'Hi, I'm the girl that didn't get the part.' He looked and saw the character for a split second because my hair was everywhere and I looked a little bit like an animal. I wasn't trying to look sophisticated and be something."
Jovovich's Leeloo is one of those characters you can't imagine as anyone else. You can't imagine the styling any differently, either. Leeloo is, by now, too iconic and too much a part of the way we imagine pop sci-fi. "Milla has the physical thing," said Besson, the physical thing being, I would imagine, extraordinarily good looks. "She can be from the past or the future. She can be an Egyptian or Roman. She can be Nefertiti and she can be from outer space. That was one thing that I liked physically about her." Evidently, he liked more than one thing physically about her, as the two were briefly married. Two years after The Fifth Element, she starred as Besson's sexified Joan of Arc in his film The Messenger, proving that she could play two kinds of unearthly — alien, or saint.
At one time, she was the best-paid model in the world — she had been photographed by Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts before she'd even turned 12. Standing in for the "perfect woman" was not, with this pedigree, much of a stretch. In The Fifth Element, she is the titular fifth element, which has taken the shape of a human woman. Specifically, in the shape of Milla Jovovich, making her not just an actual person, but also an actual sex symbol. This should be more jarring than it is, but Leeloo has a certain feral, freaky charm. Preparing for the role, the model-actress trained in ballet and karate; at the zoo, she practiced moving like a bird. Already totally fluent in English, Serbian, and French, she learned Leeloo's fictional language.
If it all sounds absurd, this is because it is absurd — but so is the movie. I couldn't explain to you why exactly it works except for the fact it's such fun you'll forgive it. When her bandages fall off as she's escaping captivity, turning into that deeply sexy Gaultier look with the straps, it says something that Jovovich sells it. When Bruce Willis falls in love with her despite the fact that she talks, acts, and thinks like a child, it's somehow mostly un-sinister. We believe that she would dress herself like a cross between a girl adventurer and a girl scout in a porno, because we believe she does not know what porno or girl-scouts or sexiness are.
Something she does know: how to pull a gun on a man who tries to kiss her while she's unconscious (she says something like "ecto gammat," which means "never without my permission.") Besson apparently originally wanted Julia Roberts for the role, which in hindsight seems crazy. I cannot see Julia Roberts in two or three strips of white bandage and nothing else, even post-Pretty Woman. "In the fashion world," Jovovich said, "most of the guys are gay and they have the etiquette not to notice [revealing costumes]. But these English guys working on the set were whistling and stuff."
"I spoke with Luc about what is futuristic," Gaultier has said, of designing the costumes. "We decided that there could be elements of today… Everything is possible." There are elements of contemporary fashion in the film's costumes, seen 20 years later, though some of this may be admittedly down to the fact that everything old is new again. What is new now are the 90s: crop-tops, bandage swimwear, and the occasional rubber harness rule, even if we are not yet, like Leeloo, living in 2263.
Milla also ended up destroying her hair — or having her hair destroyed for her, at least, by the film's crew — with a punishing, punk-style bleach 'n' dye regimen. Later, they switched to a wig for the sake of the actress's scalp and sanity. "I would have loved to [have kept that hair color] but I do have to pay the rent…" she said later. "The movie company would never let me keep it. It was also the sort of thing that if I walked down the street, elderly people would cross to the other side, so it wasn't the most practical thing in the world."
Evidently, things have changed as far as the real-world practicality of Leeloo's style is concerned: one elderly person's trash is another Instagram trendsetter's treasure. "The world seems to have Milla Jovovich on the brain lately," Vogue.com reported last May, in a trend-piece nodding at bright orange hair's popularity. "It's been almost 20 years since Jovovich inhabited her now-iconic role in director Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. And a look at city streets and international Instagram feeds proves that the cultish 90s-era film is experiencing a resurgence in the minds of bloggers, models, and artists. Eschewing natural washes of brunette, blonde, and red, women from Tokyo to Nottingham are dyeing their lengths a Leeloo brand of Technicolor tangerine — with bangs, to boot… Any way you customize it, Jovovich's infallible equation of scissors, Manic Panic, and texturizing spray is clearly experiencing a resurgence."
Though she is a girl — a girl-shaped alien, rather — of very few words, a number of Leeloo's observations stand the test of time: chicken is good! Humans do act strange, and almost everything that we create is used to destroy! When she's introduced via alphabetical video montage to 5,000 years of human history, it should be crass to watch her cry at the terrible images flooding in for W's "War." Instead, it's curiously touching (though, as one astute commenter says on YouTube, surely she has already seen "H for Holocaust" "M for Murder"?). Jovovich gives her supreme alien being, in one of the goofiest sci-fi films ever made, a genuine touch of humanity — fitting for an atypical action heroine, whose beauty contracts end up matched by those for zombie movies. "Which other actress can you name who has played both Joan of Arc and a genetically modified vampire and seemed to get more of a kick out of the vampire?" asks an interviewer at the Guardian. "She has been the face of L'Oréal for over a decade and also appeared on the cover of High Times magazine, espousing the noble cause of pot smoking. She believes all models should be martial arts experts. She smokes. She cusses. She once eloped with a boyfriend to Las Vegas."
One of my favorite anecdotes about Jovovich: due to her time spent handling weapons as a cinematic action hero, she is far too scarred to serve as a L'Oreal hand model, and always uses a double as a result. As an image, it's the perfect synthesis of haute and hard. There is maybe not a single review of The Fifth Element that does not use the word "model" — unless it has used "supermodel" instead. Usually, the use is derogatory; often, it's used to imply that a model should not be allowed to portray someone tasked with the mission of being humanity's savior. Janet Maslin, reviewing the film for The New York Times, used the headline World Saved by a Nude Babe? Cool! Reading it now, you agree, even though she is being ironic. It might not be, as I said, 2263 just yet — but at least we now understand that nude babes are, even when they're only made to look like people, people too.
Text Philippa Snow