Possibly one of my favourite movies to date, The Fifth Element is a sci-fi cult classic with a seriously strong aesthetic. Full of amazing costumes (by Jean-Paul Gaultier, no less) and meticulously developed environments, I could easily pick apart every facet of its visual qualities because there’s just so much material. That would be a long text, so let’s just talk about makeup.
What makes The Fifth Element so appealing is, aside from the sense of humour, the aesthetic direction that is so typical of its time. You can really tell it’s from the late ’90s – it’s charmingly grungy and wild, not the polished apple store aesthetic you see in more recent sci fi productions.
The film follows Leeloo, played by Mila Jovovich as she rushes to save the earth from a mysterious evil force. Pilot-turned cab driver Korben Dallas – played by Bruce Willis in an orange latex tank top – acts as love interest and self-proclaimed protector. It’s not a movie without its issues – I can always do without heterosexual romance – but I’m willing to excuse it if it looks cool enough. And it does.
When Leeloo first appears, she is revived through some kind of space tech tube, so of course she’s butt naked initially. Despite having just been reconstructed from a dna sample, she has roots – her hair (and eyebrows!) has been bleached to oblivion and then dyed bright orange. Makeup wasn’t included in the genetic package, so she’s actually bare-faced for the first part of the movie.
That is, until she is given a “makeup box” that the priests just had lying around. Either way, it’s a hilarious gadget emblazoned with a Chanel logo. It looks like VR glasses, and applies eye makeup – including eyebrow pencil – on Leeloo’s unsuspecting face. One of the funniest recurring aesthetic choices is this use of product placement – brands we’re familiar with like McDonald’s and Chanel appear (this is also used very successfully in Josie and the Pussycats)
The McDonald’s appearance is during the car chase scene at the beginning of the story, where a drive-through attendant is wearing a bright red wig with a M headdress. She appears to be wearing pitch black eye makeup as well as black lip liner. I think one of the more interesting choices in the film is that most of the characters have their own look, it’s not as unified as it might be in other movies. I’d say the biggest common denominator in the makeup looks is the use of minimal base makeup – skin looks very natural across the board.
Leeloo’s look remains the same throughout the movie (except for the scene where she gets stuck in Korben’s shower and her makeup runs) but there are many side characters with interesting makeup looks to check out. My favourite is Zorg’s secretary. In her first appearance, she’s changing the colour of her nails with a device that looks kind of like a chanel nail polish bottle. Her makeup look is a sheer wash of an aqua duochrome eyeshadow and what looks like a silvery blue mascara. Lips are just lightly glossed. (Side note – doesn’t her ring look like one of those Hard Candy nail polish rings?)
One of the most iconic (hate that word actually) looks in the entire movie is the air hostess uniform. It’s so. Cool. Cute. Sci fi. I mean, all the costumes are amazing (there’s also a woman wearing a thong under a lime green clear plastic mini skirt? incredible) but the air hostess uniforms are just outrageously good. The little wings on the hat… the wigs… yes. The makeup looks are very cute too – they’re all wearing blue eye shadow, but used in different ways. For example, the ticket clerk has a really cool blue eyebrow that trails down the sides of her nose. The on-flight staff do more of a sheer wash of blue across the lid all the way up to the brows.
The character Ruby Rhod has a really cool look with extravagant costumes and hairstyles – I mean, just look at that rose-edged top! I love the scoop necklines and sculpted eyebrows – and I’m pretty sure he wears tinted lip gloss.
One of the side characters that only appears momentarily is Plavalaguna’s swan-like assistant, who has a really cool outfit and makeup look with her shaved head, black eyeshadow and neutral lips. And then there’s the unforgettable Plavalaguna herself.
I mean, she’s a tall, blue shimmery alien with tentacles sticking out here and there – I just think she looks so spectacular. Black lipstick and nail polish set off the bright shimmery opalescent blue of, well, the rest of her body. No hair, no brows, no lashes – she looks incredible.
I think the strength of the visuals in The Fifth Element is the diversity of styles and references that make it feel life-like and recognisable – it manages to avoid the pitfalls of sci-fi that looks aesthetically homogeneous. While there are misogynist elements to the story, the way the women look makes sense – everyone has their own style, even while in uniform.