An Aria for Humanity

The Fifth Element (1997)

illustration by Moses Lee

The first time I witnessed an aria, I was 10 years old, watching a woman who could not possibly be human sing the famous “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”). The Italian aria translates simply to air; I found myself bereft of it watching the soprano produce sounds that seemed superhuman, otherworldly, filling an entire opera house without a microphone in an explosion of raw emotion that rendered everyone present awestruck. This moment—when a voice was so mighty it possessed every human and pillar, every stone of the opera house like a spirit too immense to be held within one body alone—was the moment I first realized the sheer magnitude of human emotion and the unique capability of music as its conduit. This intense experience instilled in me a life-long fascination and love of opera—this artform that combines and celebrates the powers of the written word, orchestral music, acting, costuming, lighting, and the very epitome of the human voice, contrasting their beauty with the utter madness and absurdity of our species. 

Film, it can be argued, is one of opera’s successors both in spirit and in popularity; it was perhaps only natural that a few centuries later the science fiction subgenre, space opera, would begin to show up on celluloid, with works like Star Wars (1977), Flash Gordon (1980), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). All of these films share the unbridled joy, melodrama, and musical grandeur of opera, but none fuses the two kindred forms so completely as Luc Besson’s groundbreaking work, The Fifth Element (1997), where we meet the incarnation of my younger self’s perception of an opera singer in all her glory: a blue alien diva whose song seems to single handedly uphold a spaceship, humanity, and life itself in the dark emptiness of space. 

***

The aria Diva Plavalaguna (acted by Maïwenn Le Besco; singing voice by Inva Mula-Tchako) sings in the film’s most famous scene is “Il dolce suono” (“The Sweet Sound”), infamous as the ultimate example of the ‘mad scene’ that dominated the Italian bel canto opera period of the early 19th century. The great works of this time essentially pitted the sublimity of love against the degenerate power of society, madness being the tragic result if society won. And there is plenty of triumphing madness to be found in the universe of The Fifth Element

In 1914, we see a monstrous spaceship hover over an abandoned temple in Egypt. The aliens that arrive are not monsters, but kind entities known as Mondoshawans who stop an archaeologist from fully deciphering a ‘battle plan’ to defend ‘good’ from an evil that comes forth every 5000 years by using a mystical weapon that harbors both life’s survival and its destruction. The Mondoshawans, knowing that World War I is coming, retrieve it: four stones representing the archaic elements and a sarcophagus embodying a mysterious fifth one, to protect humankind from their own destruction, promising to return it when an even greater evil than us strikes. 

The story jumps 300 years forward, and we find ourselves in 2263, in a New York infinitely more overcrowded, people in outrageous fashion dashing about in flying vehicles—an urban hellscape of chaos. In Space above, the abstract evil has returned in the shape of an ominous fireball that communicates with an impressive bass voice. The Mondoshawans try to deliver humanity’s defense as promised, but their ship is destroyed by violent alien mercenaries under the orders of a nefarious human industrialist. Humans find only remains of the sarcophagus; the stones are missing and soon will have the entire universe chasing them in a running gag of epic proportions. The first scene that musically conveys the depth beneath this comic grandiosity is when a phantastic laboratory reconstructs a humanoid woman from the wreckage in a serenade of lively violins rising from within a darker chorus and horns like a phoenix: Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), our Fifth Element. 

Generally, Éric Serra’s superb score and Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières’s popping production design have been credited with giving the film—featuring bumbling soldiers, flying car chases, and Bruce Willis in a neon-orange tank top—a hint of sophistication. That the story itself might offer any considerable depth has been a rare opinion. Much like the many modern viewers and critics who scorn opera for its melodramatic and often absurd surface, people have sometimes dismissed the central themes of this space opera as superficial and sentimental at best. It is seen as an European blockbuster, casting professional Savior of Humanity Bruce Willis in your average good-versus-evil-story, just slightly more intelligent and surreal than its American counterparts of the time. After all, this is a story that proposes that the ‘fifth element,’ the redeemer of humanity, is, spoiler alert, love—we never get an explanation of what exactly this higher being amounts to, apart from a vague notion of divinity. But underneath this deceiving simplicity and the film’s fast-moving surface of action, outrageous design, and comic madness lurks a surprising depth. The Fifth Element emerges as a deeply humanist work, a cinematic poem to human paradox delivered through the power of music.  

***

The key to deciphering the film’s poetry is the aria of the alien singer who is revealed to be the guardian of the four elemental stones that Leeloo seeks and depends on to protect humanity. As two higher beings charged with the protection of humankind, Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn Le Besco) and Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) will join in a captivating symbiosis in the opera scene, a transcendent celebration and admonition of humanity through the complex aria, Il dolce suono. I have always loved to ask viewers who do not speak Italian nor are familiar with the opera what they think the piece is about. Most guess despair, lament, and heartbreak, a fair conclusion from the somber desperation the melody indisputably evokes. 

But Il dolce suono, like all great arias, is a revealing juxtaposition of contradictory things, defying attempts of clean-cut definition. The title translates to “The Sweet Sound” and is the protagonist’s culminating piece in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera, Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, an idealistic and gentle young woman, is instrumentalized and manipulated by the men in her family of Scottish lairds and their rivals. She is in love with the enemy, but expected to marry another to restore her family’s fortune. The power plays of the various men around her eventually drive her to despair, murder, and, finally, madness.

Leeloo shares the Mondoshawans’s (clearly Buddhist-inspired) belief in the innate sacredness of life and so accepts her mission to protect it without question. And while she possesses supernatural strength and enormous intelligence, for much of the film she has little agency. This characterization has been understandably criticized as emblematic of a kind of damsel-in-distress trope by contemporary and modern female critics (even though her plight represents the reality of the powerless positions too many capable women like Leeloo are forced into).It is Milla Jovovich’s performance, alternately playing Leeloo with childlike innocence and ancient gravity, that makes her the stringent, vulnerable heart of the film. At times, Jovovich plays Leeloo like a dangerous animal, wild and deathly effective, her constantly moving eyes seeming ancient and divine; she is not human, even if she sometimes acts it. She awakens in this human world captive and bare, shocked by its cruel treatment of herself and others. To escape the lab is to stare down the brutal vastness of a futuristic New York, all concrete chaos of flying taxis with not a tree or bird to be found. 

But she is also awed by this life, by the multifariousness of language, the pleasure of food, the endless capacity for human expression through art, the rarity of kindness. When Leeloo is at her happiest, the film is marked by joyful bursts of notably non-Western music. The energetic Alech Taadi (“Why are you cruel”) by the Algerian musician Khaled (formerly Cheb Khaled) plays the first time a human shows her kindness, as Willis’s jaded taxi driver Korben Dallas—whose flying cab Leeloo first crashed into when she entered Earth, when she entered the film—risks his livelihood to help her flee from the police. Terii Taputu’s Fanora Meherio greets her from a live Polynesian band as she enters the space cruise ship Fhloston Paradise, where she witnesses the wonders humans are capable of creating: beautiful, futuristic and baroque architectures, floral wreaths, music, dancing. The awe in her expressive eyes is palpable, grounding. And then Diva Plavalaguna enters the stage to sing her aria.

***

What is an aria? 

An aria is intangible. One thing that sets it apart from other forms is its laser focus on powerful melodies and lack of recitative. It is not so much defined by musical form or narration, but by the essence of the character it seeks to express: their feelings, their ideals, their contradictions … the very core of them. Time stands still when an aria is sung. Other characters and the audience freeze as the singer moves to exist in their own sphere, one that begins emanating from their voice and finally elevates the listeners into its heart. There is no common air to be found in this ethereal space, but we are given life in a rarified form of pure emotion, allowing us to experience it jointly on another plane if but for a fleeting moment.

Lucia di Lammermoor sings “The Sweet Sound” after she murders the man she was forced to marry and made to believe that Edgardo, the man she truly loves, has abandoned her. We never see the murder. We never see her rage, her realizing the degree to which she has been manipulated. We do not see her break under the immense burden of reality. She does not sing any of it. Instead, we hear a heart-wrenching ode to her love for Edgardo. We hear an imagination of their wedding. She is wanton with ethereal happiness while she descends—or ascends—into her broken heart and her imagination.

The Fifth Element’s diva, in our brief time with her, is shown to have psychic abilities and a tether with Leeloo through their divinity and purpose. As the diva takes the stage before the background of a radiant blue Earth and begins to sing, Besson takes the time not only to show how Korben—who has clearly never been in an opera house before—is immediately captivated, but also how the diva affects ostensibly insignificant side characters: a pop star’s entourage that, until now, we’ve experienced as a loud and rowdy bunch, fall into silent adoration. The opera director sits with tears in his eyes from the very first notes. But as the diva sings on, becoming more and more agitated, we see what she senses: back in her dressing room, her acolytes are shot dead by the brutal Mangalores hunting for the missing elemental stones. 

Leeloo is listening outside the opera hall, first trembling with the emotion of the aria, and then with frightful rage as the diva’s song awakens the memories of her violent return to Earth: she simultaneously sees the mercenaries kill the diva’s people in real time crosscut with the past, where they worked themselves into a violent frenzy killing the Mondoshawans. As Leeloo listens to the sublime music, she cannot reconcile its beauty and her mission with the ugliness and violence of this world she was torn into; she is consumed by rage against it all. The moment builds until the diva, in a brief moment of calm, sings directly to Korben.

And then Besson does something extraordinary. The moment the two women are seemingly driven to madness by humanity’s cruelty, the somber strings are suddenly blown open by kinetic, synthesized beats. Leeloo, until now condemned to be a weapon at the whim of the powers trying to wield her, takes full agency for the first time, exploding into the dressing room. The diva starts to dance in sync with Leeloo in a mesmerizing dance of her own, as she single-handedly takes on the Mangalores with an ecstatic display of martial arts and acrobatics. It’s vital to note that the diva and Leeloo take and make joy in their moment of defiant glory: the diva freestyles on stage while Leeloo teases the Mangalores, the electric music nudging their palpable pleasure towards something like ascent.

This counterattack is not a retaliation but a triumph: Leeloo does not kill a single Mangalore, but merely renders them defenseless. A story that was seemingly defined by its despairing tones has been wrenched back into life, the narrative literally transformed through its music. This tour de force of musical takeover is a direct cinematic translation of a particular feature Donizetti wrote into the notes of Il dolce suono two hundred years ago, one that dominated the arias of bel canto: the connotation of coloratura, by which a composer essentially provides the performer the freedom—the challenge—to give the aria their own interpretation. Traditionally, the great singers who have performed Il dolce suono have done so through dizzying vocal ornamentation such as trills up through the highest vocal ranges with a precision and agility that Éric Serra and soprano Inva Mula take to unprecedented heights by obliterating any chance for the singer to draw breath, achieved by Serra’s production and Mula’s striking tessitura. What results is literally a breathtaking transformation. By the end of their uprising, Diva Plavalaguna and Leeloo, charged with the protection of humankind, have become both champions and challengers of humanity through their aria. Their final bow before us, the audience, ends a defiant and powerful appeal: look, this is the power you have, humanity! This is how you can and should use it. 

‘Madness’—in this case a credo for life and love in the face of a reality that belies it—  comes to be a radical act of defying corruption and cruelty. This interpretation of Lucia’s mad song has been observed before: musicologist Susan McClary suggests that the heroines of bel canto, through their ‘mad songs,’ reach a strange kind of emancipation while going ‘mad,’ achieving the last kind of freedom attainable within their time and position in society. I suggest this goes even further: by casting off the shackles of a self-defined ‘sane’ society—by changing its tune—Lucia, the diva, and Leeloo all expose its corruption and sanctioned inhumanity. They gloriously reject the wheel of evil.

***

This rejection, no matter how radically resonant, naturally meets resistance. Leeloo, deeply shaken by the violence and destruction she has experienced, says to Korben: “You humans act so strange. Everything you create is used to destroy.” He tries to soothe her pain, but Leeloo needs to see for herself.  Typing ‘WAR’ into the computer she uses to learn about humanity, she watches a montage of images that not only matches her experience of human violence, but shows it to be worse than she could ever have imagined. Somber war drums herald a rapid picture flood of human atrocities: the Ku Klux Klan and a burning cross, lynched men, missiles in flight, mangled soldiers, pleading refugees, mass graves, cities turned to wastelands, the Warsaw Ghetto, and, finally, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, scored with a desperation that echoes Lucia di Lammermoor’s despair. I was 12 years old when I watched this scene for the first time, and just like Leeloo I shook and cried. It was the first time I ever saw footage of the atomic bomb exploding, and it seemed much less believable than any of the outrageous scenes of this film. It was as incomprehensible to a child as it is to Leeloo—why is this species worth saving when this is what we create?

In the Egyptian temple where the story began, a taxi driver, a radio DJ, a priest, and his apprentice plead with her to save us nevertheless. Korben says that he knows how awful humans are, but promises there are good things worth saving… like love. And in the end, life itself is saved by this group of flawed, vulnerable individuals—because one smokes and has a match, one breathes out his despair, one sweats with exhaustion, and one finds the strength to give someone the most vulnerable promise that can be made to another person. Korben tells Leeloo that he loves her, and their kiss sets free what she embodies: the divine light of love itself, encompassing them and shooting into space, freezing the giant fireball of evil just before it can crash into Earth, accompanied by a triumphant female chorus. Is it ridiculous? Or is it a madly defiant aria to the unfathomable human paradox of life and destruction?

This paradox, so fantastically embodied in both the bel canto operas and The Fifth Element, remains with us today: we are capable of producing divine music and of waging horrible wars. The Fifth Element is a space opera deserving of the name, a masterful counterpart to its predecessor. These forms crash us into the harsh realities of our world and, through their imaginative sound and image, transport us to a heightened one, where the entropic cosmos is imbued with the guiding light of love, purpose, and sacrifice. A light that can seem both insignificant in the depths of space and as brilliant as the sun. We walk in neon through a gray world and sing our madness. We sing the air and call it love.