Sensual Female Guardian Angels:

Luc Besson’s Early Films, Part 2

The Fifth Element features a similarly incongruous love story between a retired-marine-turned-cabbie and a woman that is, literally, all the goodness and beauty humanity has to offer. The plot concerns a contest between the radically dualistic forces of good and evil –allegorically represented as light and dark, life and death – which takes place once every 5,000 years and determines whether life will continue in the universe or be annihilated. In 2263, hard-luck, loveless New York cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) finds himself thrown in the path of the would-be savior of all life in the universe, the gorgeous Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), who is at once the perfect human, and the personification of the Fifth Element, which is often represented in mysticism as “heaven” or the quintessence of life itself. Leeloo’s mission is to defeat of Mr. Shadow, a Satanically evil, living planet that threatens to consume every living thing in its path, and his human agent, the megalomaniacal corporate executive Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman). As important as it is for Korben to protect Leeloo for the sake of humanity, Korben often seems more interested in winning her love than worrying about defeating Zorg and Mr. Shadow.

The Fifth Element flirts with a pacifist message, and shows that traditional military force cannot stop Mr. Shadow. In fact, every time it is attacked, it doubles in size. As Leeloo’s priest protector and mentor Fr. Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) explains, “Evil begets evil. Shooting will only make it stronger.”  However, shooting is repeatedly shown as effective against evil’s agents in the film, and ex-special forces operative Korben Dallas is particularly good at gunning down the Mangalore mercenaries in Zorg’s employ. Meanwhile, Leeloo herself is not above using karate to kill her opponents in self-defense. For his part, Vito Cornelius is willing to use violence and deception to fulfill his mission, but he is the most consistently gentle of the characters, and even saves Zorg’s life when it would be in his best interest to let the evil man die. In fact, Cornelius is arguably the most sympathetic portrait Besson ever paints of an establishment male religious figure, although his exact religious affiliation isn’t clearly explained.

In the film’s most emotionally affecting segment, Leeloo learns about the history of humanity by downloading 5,000 years of human history directly into her memory from a computer database. She registers all she learns with full comprehension and complete emotional immediacy, and the result is an experience akin to Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he takes into himself all of the sins mankind ever committed. The burden of human evil destroys Leeloo’s resolve to save humanity, and she tells Korben, “Everything you create is used to destroy.”  Korben agrees sadly that that is human nature, but argues that romantic love makes life worth living and humanity worth saving. “I don’t know love,” Leeloo says. Just when it seems as if Leeloo’s crisis of faith will cause the end of the universe, Korben tells her he loves her and kisses her. This kiss generates a divine Light of Creation that destroys Mr. Shadow and saves humanity from annihilation. In a scene reminiscent of the epilogue of a James Bond film, Leeloo and Korben proceed to have truly great sex to celebrate the successful completion of their mission, and the implication is that the earthy cab driver and the Divine Being will live happily ever after.

The Fifth Element spends more screen time exploring the romance between Leeloo and Korben than it does exploring the motivations of its villains, who appear to be evil incarnate and not overly complex. However, Oldman’s character does justify collaborating with Mr. Shadow through a psychotic devotion to a Darwinian capitalist philosophy that sees war and destruction as necessary for the generation of corporate profits. In interviews promoting The Fifth Element, Besson explained that Oldman’s character was a destructive, murderous secular ideologue no different than most evil religious ideologues throughout history. These themes – the hubris of ideologues, the violence born out of religious zealotry – are central to Besson’s next film, The Messenger, about French military hero and Roman Catholic Saint Joan of Arc. The possibly supernatural heroine, again played by Milla Jovovich, is the teenage girl who led the French army to victory against occupying British forces in 1429, most famously at the Siege of Orleans. Joan is a fundamentally compelling subject for a film, whether it is presented as a religious melodrama or, as in the case of The Messenger, a historical epic, because her very existence defies easy explanation. What would compel the then-uncrowned King Charles VII of France to assign a nineteen-year-old peasant girl command of the army or Orleans?  How did she convince the commanding officers she supplanted to yield control to her?  Why did the soldiers obey her?  How did she lead them to victory?  Since Joan succeeded against such overwhelming odds, rising above her social class and gender and defeating the hated enemies of France, it seems reasonable to assume that her ascent was, indeed, miraculous and guided by the hand of God.

Secular-minded historians have suggested that Charles VII acted politically, taking advantage of a peasant legend predicting a female savior to send Joan to the front lines as little more than an inspirational, “figurehead” leader. In this interpretation of historical events, Joan was not involved in making any actual military decisions, but her role was to rally demoralized French soldiers by claiming to communicate directly with God and offer His assurance of victory. On the other hand, recent feminist historians have stressed Joan’s intelligence, charisma, and leadership on the battlefield, arguing that efforts to assign her greatness to the men around her, or to portray her as a martyr passively awaiting her burning with a rapt expression on her face, minimize her historical significance and are part of male-chauvinist historians’ attempts to undermine her greatness. Equally controversial are Joan’s visions, which some believe were genuine supernatural revelations and others do not. For some, it is likely that Joan faked her visions as a political maneuver and a means of winning support for herself and her cause. Still other historians believe that Joan’s visions were the result of a form of mental illness that involved hallucinations that there was no diagnosis for at the time.

Seemingly paradoxically, Besson’s interpretation of Joan of Arc draws upon all of these theories about Joan’s visions and the reason for her rise to prominence, as all of them are advanced, at one time or another, by a different major character. No definitive answer is given to any of these questions, but the film favors the theory that Joan was driven primarily by a hatred of the British, and was haunted by a form of mental illness. Even as Besson and co-screenwriter Andrew Birkin present this deconstructionist vision of the saint, they praise her for being a highly daring and charismatic figure that won victory by refusing to see any obstacle – political, social, or military – as insurmountable. The film is told primarily from Joan’s perspective, and evokes audience sympathy for her even as she tends to fly into unexpected rages and exhibits restlessness and nervous ticks that signal her mental instability. Since Milla Jovovich’s portrayal of Joan is peculiar, and the film is replete with close-ups of her wild-eyed, sweaty, and hyperventilating face, audience reaction is sharply divided between those who find her interpretation of Joan captivating, sexy, and intriguing and those who are irritated and offended by her. (Jovovich’s manic performance is reminiscent of Michael York’s turn as John the Baptist in the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, and some of Willem Dafoe’s more emotionally explosive moments as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ.)

Certainly, the male characters in the film are similarly divided in their reaction to Joan. Unsurprisingly, the British soldiers curse Joan from their battlements, calling her a “whore,” belittling her gender, and threaten to rape and murder her as they did her sister, Katherine. More varied reactions come from the French forces Joan is sent to lead in battle. Tcheky Karyo gives the most conflicted and nuanced performance as the commander of the French forces, Dunois. Dunois is incredulous that Charles effectively replaced him with an inexperienced, raving teenage girl, and his male pride never fully recovers from the blow, even after Joan leads his army to victory. In contrast, the men under her command react with more uniform faith and loyalty, and she is able to inspire even the cynical and worldly Gilles de Rais (Vincent Cassel) to a modicum of faith until her first major defeat in the battle of Paris. Most importantly, Richard Ridings’s character La Hire is a warrior-born who is loyal to Joan because she is bloodthirsty, sexy, and a good leader, but he also seems to believe that her visions are genuine and she is, indeed, a messenger from God. La Hire’s hatred of the British worries Joan because it mirrors her own, but she civilizes him somewhat by coercing him into giving up swearing. La Hire’s reaction is the one that is most typical of Besson’s male characters to the “divine” female, and this makes his secondary, comic-relief character thematically significant.

In addition to the sexism of the male characters, the film is centrally concerned with the inherent contradiction of the figure of the warrior-prophet. After all, Christ himself is widely considered a pacifist figure, so why would a follower of Christ lead soldiers into battle? The Joan of Arc of the Bernard Shaw play St. Joan resolves the conflict by arguing that invading hordes lose their humanity and become demonic figures, so killing invaders in defense of one’s homeland is not murder in the eyes of God. However, she asserts, should the French seek revenge and invade Britain, then the French would lose their humanity as they cross the border into a foreign land and lose their right to God’s protection. Shaw himself does not necessarily endorse this argument, but Joan is never shaken from this belief. In contrast, Besson’s film is much harder on Joan and consistently charges her with hypocrisy, murder, and warmongering. Joan is a religious zealot throughout The Messenger, and her early success cements her faith in the fundamental rightness of her cause. However, her faith is shaken when the British finally capture her and tried by an ecclesiastical court. She does not acknowledge the court’s authority over her, and declares that, “If the Church wants me to say that my visions are evil, then I do not believe in this Church!”

Even as she triumphantly outwits and out argues most of the judges who question her in court, Joan has a far more difficult time answering questions put to her in the second, parallel trial she undergoes simultaneously. During quiet moments alone in her cell, Joan is visited by a mysterious, unnamed cloaked man (Dustin Hoffman) who only she can see. He is identified in the end credits of the film as “the Conscience.” The Conscience dogs Joan with pointed questions about her motivations, her inconsistent words and deeds, and the kinds of questions a modern, secular person might have for a warrior-prophet like Joan. She initially assumes that the robed figure is the Devil, and his goal is to shake her faith, but the film suggests that the two other possible true identities of the Conscience are more likely – Dustin Hoffman is either playing God Himself, or, literally, Joan’s Conscience. Both interpretations work, and the deliberately ambiguous figure of the Conscience is one of the reasons the film might ultimately appeal to both religious and secular viewers, its deconstructionist take on St. Joan notwithstanding.

By the end of the film, the Conscience convinces Joan that her words and deeds were, ultimately, not consistent with the message of a peaceful and loving God. She kneels before the Conscience and makes her final Confession to him. “My Lord, I saw many signs. The ones I wanted to see. I fought out of revenge and despair. I was all the things that people believe they are allowed to be when they are fighting for a cause. I was proud … stubborn … selfish … cruel.” After she makes this heartfelt confession, the Conscience gives her absolution. In the final scene, she is burned at the stake. A cross is shown held aloft in the sky as her ashes float upward. The cross symbolically links her directly to the crucified Christ, another figure who was executed for heresy by a religious establishment that was threatened by the popularity of a revolutionary prophet.

While the film is critical of Joan’s zealotry, Besson’s most strident criticism is ultimately reserved for the members of the ecclesiastical court who executed Joan. The all-male court condemned Joan for heresy, fearing that her claim to communicate directly with God made the clergy redundant, and for androgyny, arguing that one of her most grievous sins was dressing as a man to earn the trust and respect of the men under her command. Besson finds the Catholic Church’s eventual declaration that it made a mistake in executing Joan, and its decision to canonize her five hundred years later, a disingenuous and contemptible political maneuver. However, he does portray several of the priests in the tribunal as complex figures, some of whom believe that Joan is indeed a divine figure, while others are coerced into finding her guilty by the vengeful English, who want to salve their wounded pride by seeing the girl who defeated them burned at the stake.

The Messenger grants Joan of Arc more depth, complexity, and subjectivity than many of Besson’s other “supernatural” women, primarily because her story is not told through the eyes of a male viewpoint character. As the hero of her own film, Joan is infinitely more complex than Angela and Leeloo, but is too conflicted and humbled a character to match the feminist appeal of the assassin Nikita, who is allowed to triumph over adversity at the end of La Femme Nikita. And yet, perhaps the most complicated, and interesting character of all is another young girl who, like Joan, found herself old before her time in a world scarred by violence and death – Mathilda, the young heroine from Leon: The Professional, whose virtuous love brings redemption to a seemingly irredeemable assassin.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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