Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze exposes the unconscious and phallocentric ideologies of a patriarchal society which positions the heterosexual masculine figure as the active subject, and the fetishised feminine figure as the passive object within forms of mainstream film and media. In this essay, the male gaze will be explored throughout Luc Besson’s 1997 science-fiction film, “The Fifth Element”—mimicking Mulvey’s adoption of psychoanalytical tools (833), the role of the apparatus in framing the feminine as the eroticised image will be dissected, with scrutiny centred on the power dynamic which removes control from the subservient female class.
With protagonist Korben Dallas’ projected male identity, and love interest Leeloo’s castrated existence, Mulvey’s exploration of the scopophilic pleasures directed toward the heteronormative male viewer is demonstrated as a sustained framework in cinema over two decades following the release of her seminal essay. Whilst acknowledging the relevance and overarching themes of masculine dominance and anti-feminist narrative in contemporary media, and society at large (Gamman and Marshment 16), critique should also be considered, with the theory’s lack of focus on individual viewer interpretations (Ritland 1284) from experiences beyond conventional representations, along with the absence of a feasible alternative in reorienting the cinematic gaze from the masculine partiality which continues to effectuate a divisive gender binary system.
The presentation of the heterosexual CIS-male protagonist as the cultural default creates an expectation of universal identification with the focalised experience, furthermore preventing sexualisation of the central character due to his perceived mirroring of the viewer (Mulvey 836). “The Fifth Element”s Korben Dallas is rendered as the futuristic equivalent to the contemporary working class man–his consistently masculine flaws: his disheveled unit, sarcastic wit, and hard persona, insist on a conservative and nostalgic conception of manhood (Schuckmann 680). Appealing to the viewers’ narcissism, unpunished male aggression; apparent in Korben’s continual use of weaponry (“The Fifth Element” 00:19:25-00:20:18), and self-serving motivations; expressed in his pursuing of Leeloo and her mission (“The Fifth Element” 00:42:05-09), are demonstrated as expected and welcomed masculine behaviours, perpetuating the conservation of traditional phallocentrism and further advocating for the viewer’s mirrored sense of masculine ego. Imbalance of male and female power aligns itself with Mulvey’s exploration of “active/passive division of labour” in cinema (Mulvey 838); the positions of control held by President Lindberg, scientist Mactilburgh, leader of the federated army; General Munro, and celebrity radio host; Ruby Rhod, enforce a hierarchy of influence and control held exclusively by the patriarchy into the creed of the universe within the film, and by extension, reality itself (Hartley 203). Korben’s dominance over the men holding real positions of power validates him as inherently superior to his male counterparts, and entirely capable of saving the world single-handedly—this more perfect reflection of self stations the average man as a hero; forced into the journey, his active response is an expectation, with the plot shifting to centre Korben as the operative element in the story. Consequently the male protagonist fails to stagnate to a degree in which he is perceived as either object or eroticised body; thus, as the operational agent driving the momentum and unfolding structure of the story, he is maintained as entirely three-dimensional as the uncastrated, and decidedly whole, individual.
Leeloo, as the fifth element and Korben’s love interest, exemplifies Mulvey’s (834) notion of the “bearer of meaning,” literally objectified, her womanhood becomes the defining factor of her identity, even beyond that of her role as humanity’s saviour. She is introduced as a corporeal feminine form rather than a sentient human being; reconstructed in a glass tube upon Munro and Mactilburgh’s discovery of her remaining cells (“The Fifth Element” 00:27:03-32); the men gawk at her newly naked figure—Mactilburgh comments “I told you… perfect,” to which Munro replies “I’d, uh, like to get a few pictures… for the archives,” delivered comedically, and relenting to the matched fantasies of the spectator, unconcerned with the demeaning and objectifying overtones of the possible implications. The camera pans slowly from Leeloo’s arm, across her trapped, bare body; revealing her stark womanhood—the male gaze is made plain by their centrally framed faces and gaping mouths as the scene switches between Leeloo and her onlookers, establishing the roles of man as viewer, and woman as viewed (Reid 47). This scene repeats itself on several occasions, with her naivety of human customs seeing her undress in front of David and Cornelius when brought new clothes (“The Fifth Element” 00:48:01-05), and again in front of Korben and Cornelius when she is drenched in the auto-wash (“The Fifth Element” 1:06:37-40); structural use of the apparatus to create blocking positions the men in the foreground of the frame facing the viewer, with Leeloo’s blurred naked figure centrally stationed in the background. Her guilelessness is fetishised, and the audience is situated to strain in perceiving her nudity, intentionally highlighted to accede to the viewer’s voyeuristic desires. Emphasising her emergence as a castrated figure (Lurie 52), her innocence and initial inability to communicate complicates the undertaking of her mission; falling into Korben’s cab, she is infantilised and addressed with child-directed speech (“The Fifth Element” 00:34:18-33)—thus her foreign nature pressures her to conform to current patriarchal norms, seeking protection and guidance from her male peers—“please help,” (“The Fifth Element” 00:34:53-57), and therefore further yielding to the lust of the scopophilic audience. Despite the film’s comedic overtones, there is a lack of self-awareness at the irony in Korben’s solicitous nature toward Leeloo, who is the “Supreme Being” (“The Fifth Element” 00:21:45-50) sent to destroy evil. In Leeloo’s entrapment, literally constructed into the image of woman inside the confines of a transparent cage, Nagypal’s reference to the eroticised spectacle of the female struggle (2) is performed; the structuring of this scene lacks a sympathetic angle towards the frightened and scampering Leeloo, on display and surrounded by male figures, she is instead positioned to the viewer as a specimen to be witnessed, consequently fortifying the ideology of chauvinistic desire. Bending to the will of the masculine protagonist, Leeloo overidentifies with Korben’s overtly sexual desires (Nagypal 2) in a reinforcement of subservient feminine expectations, disabling her from existing beyond the realms of womanhood, and establishing her objectified image as a non-autonomous and entirely dependent being.
Focalising the viewer beyond the apparatus, the distinctive judgements of spectators are proposed to be uniquely understood when imposed onto the observed subject (Reid)—thus Mulvey’s notion of controlling phallocentric forces in cinema as a singular, and collectively experienced gaze (833) can be critiqued through the perceptions extraneously manifested in the mind of viewers unable to identify with the cinematic representations, thus defying a strictly male/female perception of film. Despite routine fetishisation of her womanhood, Leeloo’s dynamic feminine presence; characterised as almost God-like, with immense physical strength (“The Fifth Element” 01:30:49-32:11) and unfathomable knowledge (“The Fifth Element” 00:45:46-46:02), demonstrates an empowerment of the white CIS-gendered heterosexual female representation—her active participation in the story’s progression and self-oriented motivations allow for an interpretation of her character without oppressive interference. Mulvey’s approach to theorising cinema remains strictly within a gender dichotomy, aligned with her appropriation of a psychoanalytical language (833) that fails to acknowledge the perception of the cinema to those outside the traditional gender binary, those within the LGBTQ+ community, the physically disabled, and people of colour who fail to find representations to the same degree as the widely accepted sub-identities which occupy the majority of screen time. Removed from positions of power, the non-white woman solely occupies positions of servitude, complying with historical oppression of people of colour; completely flat and fragmented (Hobson 46) they exist to obey the dominant class, exemplified through the flight attendants which greet Korben and Ruby Rhod in scantily clad outfits, and encountered in faceless close-up shots of cleavage (“The Fifth Element” 01:15:57). Ruby Rhod’s presence as a black man is also made a mockery of; his non-masculine disposition centres him as comedic relief (“The Fifth Element” 01:11:39) and a lesser depiction of man which hinders, rather than aids, Korben’s endeavours. In this Korben is reinforced as the norm, whilst Ruby remains the other. In terms of LGBTQ+, non-binary, and disabled individuals, there remains complete erasure of their entire existence throughout this, and the majority of, mainstream film. Schuckmann’s description of the cinema as a safe place to practice perverse fantasies without consequence (671) can consequently be extended to include the experiences of white CIS-gendered heterosexual women, and Mulvey’s suggestion to re-strategise film techniques in order to broaden pleasure to include a female audience (844) thus perpetuates the exclusion and marginalisation of those oppressed by the intersectionality of their identities within cinema. Her claim that film relies on binary processes neglects a large majority of spectators, along with the distinct nuances and morally ambiguous personas of mainstream cinema which fail to fall within static/active roles (Mulvey 838), and as such removes liability of the audience to perceive visual storytelling outside structural and directorial intent.
The masculinist fantasy remains a central priority in modern cinema, with the ego libido pushed via protagonist mirroring, and voyeurism fulfilled in the face of a female presence. “The Fifth Element,” despite being based in the year 2263 (“The Fifth Element” 00:17:06), sustains Mulvey’s theory regarding the ascension of the patriarchy in film, further enabling the cycle of representations and ideology as a continued reflection of society’s present norms; solidifying beliefs via apparatus and narrative storytelling. In repairing these biased cinematic structures, supplementary exploration of integrated mise en scène and diverse casting choices are advised, in order to normalise heterogeneity, and alter the balance of cinematic portrayals and their subsequent public beliefs as a repercussion.
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“The Fifth Element.” Directed by Luc Besson, Columbia Pictures, 1997