The Last Battle & The Fifth Element
By Hugh Lilly
Luc Besson’s first film, Le Dernier Combat, was an auspicious, audacious début. It’s in black and white, and it contains only two lines of dialogue—and even those aren’t real words. That God-awful Ronan Keating was right: Besson, like many of his protagonists—Léon in Léon, Jacques in Le Grand Bleu, Fred in Subway—says it best when he says nothing at all. The post-nuclear-apocalypse environment of Le Dernier Combat is like the lost city of Atlantis, except instead of water there’s sand.
Cavernous, vacant skyscrapers and derelict buildings in various states of disarray stand submerged in tonnes of sand, half-jutting out of dunes and overrun by a small but feisty population of cartoonish scavengers who fight each other for measly weaponry and other possessions, and dribs and drabs of sustenance. People sleep in abandoned car boots because there’s nowhere else habitable, and the hierarchy of control is intimated largely through the exertion of physical force. Because there’s basically no dialogue, physical actions are exaggerated: Jean Reno seems at times like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton—or Wile E. Coyote. For all intents and purposes a silent film, Le Dernier Combat delivers a solid story with little to no traditional (i.e. vocal) exposition: no cop-out voiceover, no externalised thoughts—just pure acting. (Chris Petit’s near-flawless seminal 1979 British road movie Radio On comes close to achieving the same effect.)
Aside from the fact that “in space, no one can hear you scream,” there’s not much in common between Le Dernier Combat’s expansive silence and the vibrant phantasmagoria of what will likely remain Besson’s last great film, 1997’s The Fifth Element. An extravagant space opera of epic proportions, the film was essentially a Bruce Willis vehicle, and a way for Hollywood to anoint one of its then-new ‘it’ girls, Kiev-born model-cum-“actress” Milla Jovovich through her breakthrough lead role. (She was also in Dazed and Confused, but no one really remembers her for that.)
Blade Runner meets Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City in the film’s year 2263 megalopolis flying-car future, where Willis plays Korben Dallas, a grunty ex-marine taxi driver with hardly any points remaining on his driver’s licence. As the film’s 1914-Egypt-set prologue lays out, the story is premised on the fantastical idea that every five thousand years the planets align and a ‘Great Evil’ descends upon the Earth seeking to destroy all living things. The only way to stop it is to find the titular fifth element. (The others are wind, water, fire and earth—sorry, lil’ Amazon-rainforest ‘Heart’ dude from Captain Planet, you gotta sit this one out.)
At the behest of a priest named Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), Korben is tasked with taking care of Leeloo (Jovovich), an alien creature with a late-’90s rock-chick orange hairdo. Together they come up against the evil-doer Zorg (Gary Oldman in extremis) and have to get Leeloo back to Earth to save the world, while also stopping off on an interstellar cruise ship hosted by a flamboyant Prince-like radio personality played by Chris Tucker. The film is stylish and colourful, and way funnier than I remember it being when I first watched it as a kid—although watching it now shows up a lot of its gimmicky props and creature-design flaws, and the CGI on which Besson was overly reliant has dated the film a touch. Still, it’s a hugely entertaining sci-fi jaunt the likes of which haven’t really been seen since—at least not infused with this much humour.
Born in 1959, just as France’s cinematic waves were beginning to wash ashore around the world, Besson—along with Leos Carax, Jean-Jacques Beineix, and his fellow pioneers of the cinéma du look—helped elongate the free-spirited bon vivant sensibility introduced by Truffaut, Godard et al., and infused it with a dash of colour and a pinch of internationalism. Although he’s mostly a producer-director of kids’ films these days—he hasn’t really made a proper feature since his 1999 pallid, limp remake of Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, which received very poor notices; his 2005 film Angel-A seemed much more like an exercise in high style than anything else—Besson remains an important figure in French cinema, and reviewing his body of work remains integral to any major study not just of contemporary French cinema but of recent pop cinema in general.
Both The Last Battle and The Fifth Element are out now on Blu-Ray. The picture quality on the former will astound you, and the special features on the latter are pretty great, even if they’ve just been carried across un(re)touched from the DVD.