Unmitigated Gaul

Reviews of the latest films.
May 11 1997 3:30 AM

Unmitigated Gaul

The Fifth Element and Irma Vep.

The Fifth Element
Directed by Luc Besson
A Columbia Pictures release

Irma Vep
Directed by Olivier Assayas
A Zeitgeist Films release

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A 10-year-old once attempted to explain to me the plot of a convoluted kiddie sword-and-sorcery epic. I didn't have a clue as to what he was talking about, but was charmed by his fervor. The scrambled space opera The Fifth Element has all the fervor but none of the charm; it would probably improve in a 10-year-old's retelling. "When the three planets are in eclipse, the black hole opens and Evil comes," intones an archaeologist in the opening scene, set in Egypt in the early 20th century. He reads aloud from the wall of a cave: "Water, fire, earth, air, gathering around ... a fifth element ... a weapon against Evil." Suddenly, an enormous black shadow passes over the desert, and large rubber tortoises with small bird heads emerge from a spaceship shaped like a large rubber tortoise foot and kill the archaeologist. Then it appears that the large rubber tortoises are good guys, and perhaps didn't mean to kill him. One of them gets shot by an actor from Beverly Hills 90210 and is shut in a cave, an event of great, if puzzling, significance. Three hundred years later, a big black ball spitting fire heads for Earth. Dispatched to do a thermal analysis, a general reports, "The thermal analyzers have jammed." A priest (Ian Holm) who happens to be in the room announces that the ball is the Evil referred to in the cave 300 years earlier. "It is Eeevil," he confirms. "Absolute Eeevil." Another ship full of large rubber tortoises is shot down by a ship full of large rubber hippos. Fortunately, someone has the sense to clone Milla Jovovich, who scampers off in a loincloth to save mankind.

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It seems that the French are behind all this. In fact, The Fifth Element, at a reported cost of 90 million (dollars, not francs), is the most expensive French-financed film in history. As directed and conceived by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita), it may or may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is one of the most unhinged. Much of its running time revolves around Retrieving the Stones. I had no idea what the Stones were, but it eventually turned out that they represent the Four Elements, and that the rubber tortoises, before being shot down, had left them in the care of a blue-skinned opera diva with long hoses (bellows?) dangling from her head.

So Jovovich, who is the Fifth Element, and who, in combination with the Stones, has the power to save mankind, teams up with her Galahad, a fair-haired Bruce Willis, to Retrieve them. The two fight off bad guys to get seats aboard a space shuttle bound for the diva's concert, which is being held on Phloston Paradise, a sort of interstellar Oahu. A good half hour is spent getting the couple past the flight attendants. It's as if Luke Skywalker had to wait around for his billet to be stamped before he could fly off to destroy the Death Star. An American director would never have devoted so much time to what is, after all, a matter of public transportation.

Say this for Besson: He has never been hobbled by bourgeois notions of logic, coherence, or consistency. The Fifth Element alternates between high solemnity and low buffoonery, without for a second finding the ideal middle ground. One moment, creatures are blowing one another away in gun battles that have all the suspense and emotional weight of custard-pie fights, while a queenie talk-show host (Chris Tucker) shrieks and capers for the groundlings. The next, our heroine is viewing a series of genuine 20th century wartime-atrocity photos, and weeping with doubt over whether this vicious world is really worth preserving. At such times, that big black space ball begins to look like a metaphor for the movie--a giant Gallic turd.

The other thing to say for Besson is that here, as in Nikita, he has a communicable fetish for short-haired, feral girls in scanty outfits. I imagine that he was powerfully moved by Daryl Hannah's punky, kick-boxing android in Blade Runner as well as her lissome, childlike mermaid in Splash; he has created a role for the Ukrainian-born model Jovovich, who has an urchin's face atop a willowy body, that's a strange fusion of both. As a Supreme Being, one of the most powerful forces in the universe, she spends much of the film being slung around, semiconscious, by her male co-star, on whom the awesome responsibility falls to convince her that humans are capable of giving love. Willis redeems the species but not the movie. Still, if the French persist in wanting to make this kind of American-style blockbuster, they should study his performance, which is neither serious nor facetious but something--intangibly American--in between.

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A s it happens, the French film industry is the target of an overpraised yet amusing satire called Irma Vep, which has been enjoying a successful run at New York's Film Forum and will shortly open in major cities around the country. In it, an aging, exhausted New Wave director, played by one-time Truffaut alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud, decides to remake Louis Feuillade's static 1915-16 French melodrama, Les Vampires, with the Hong Kong starlet (and sometime Jackie Chan co-star) Maggie Cheung as the black-latex-clad leader of a gang of jewel thieves. That he has no reason to remake the film--apart from a very French fixation on hommage, a need to work, and a fancy for beautiful Asian girls in black latex--becomes apparent to him a bit later than it does to his savvy cast and crew.

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Irma Vep has been dubbed the anti-Day for Night, a cynical answer to Truffaut's romanticization of moviemaking for its own sweet sake. Yes, the shoot collapses into chaos and despondency. But Irma Vep's director, Olivier Assayas, evinces a love of the process that's nearly as palpable as Truffaut's. His hand-held camera zigs and zags among the actors and technicians, embracing the hubbub in the post-Altman manner of HBO's brilliant The Larry Sanders Show. He relishes the communal aspect of filmmaking: the near-familial bickering, the post-shoot potluck suppers. On two occasions, the picture takes off into cinematic flights that leave The Fifth Element (which cost about 50 times as much) sputtering on the launch pad. In the first sequence, Cheung re-creates her character's nocturnal prowl in her own hotel, the camera coiling around her like a boa and hovering breathlessly over her shoulder as she snatches a necklace from another guest's room, then regards it on the rooftop in a cool neon-lit drizzle. The second is a black-and-white montage that's as mind-blowing, in context, as the '60s shorts by Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage that it so cheerfully apes.

Cheung, who speaks English with a surprising British accent, at once grounds the film and gives it a touch of mystery--the mystery of simplicity. The movie uses her open Asian face to make the French faces seem neurotic and devious: Hers is like a clear pool next to their rather pinched visages. The ingenue, the straight man, she is lithe and funny in her own right. She listens politely to Léaud's nearly incomprehensible English musings on Feuillade, then goes ahead and does her job with a minimum of fuss. You wouldn't spend hours discussing your motivation with Jackie Chan.

Irma Vep was written and shot on the fly, conceived as a piece of a three-part anthology and perhaps overextended. It's thin. It gains much, however, from a subplot featuring Nathalie Richard as Zoe, a high-strung lesbian costume designer who's too shy to put the moves on Maggie. (That Richard bears an uncanny resemblance to Anne Heche adds to the frisson.) Zoe doubles as a spokeswoman for the director's aesthetics: American films, she complains, "have too much decoration, too much money"; French films are increasingly impersonal and apolitical. It's not hard to imagine what Zoe would make of The Fifth Element.

In fact, watching Irma Vep, my thoughts kept drifting to Luc Besson's shambolic, would-be epic, which represents the real dead end of French cinema. Imagine an Irma Vep-like documentary of The Fifth Element's filming, on vast sets, with hordes of technicians attending to hordes of gun-toting rubber hippos. Imagine Luc Besson sitting, like Jean-Pierre Léaud, amid the chaos, a hand on his forehead, mumbling, "Zere ees no flesh ... no blood ... I feel nossing ..."

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