Movie Talk

Unwrapping Milla Jovovich’s famous costume from ‘The Fifth Element’

photo: Columbia/Everett Collection

Time for sci-fi "fanboys" and action-heroine worshipers to pay some respect. Whatever you might think of "Resident Evil" ("Retribution," the fifth in the series, comes out September 14) the franchise has made actress Milla Jovovich today's reigning action star — a destiny that can be traced back 15 years to "The Fifth Element." The breakout role of Leeloo didn't just give her action chops and solidify her woman-as-supreme-savior legacy. That costume has become a fanboy favorite and sci-fi trope to honor, from cosplay tributes to movies like "Run Lola Run" and "Prometheus," which served up a double helping with Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron in the ACE-Bandage ensemble.

[Video: 'Resident Evil: Retribution' trailers]

When high fashion meets science fiction
In 1997, an orange-haired Jovovich literally crash-landed in "The Fifth Element" screeching an alien language and artfully entangled in medical bandages. The strategic wrapping on the supermodel waif's frame came from a collaboration between director Luc Besson and oh-so-high fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Gaultier, whose onscreen success with the female form includes "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" and "The Skin I'm In," impressed Besson with his work on Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour. (Actually, you can thank Gaultier's grandma for that look; she encouraged his fashion artwork by showing him her pink satin corset. Yes, you can be vaguely disturbed.)

The director, though, had definite ideas on how "The Fifth Element" universe should look, given that he had worked on his script since he was a teen — and pre-"Star Wars," to boot. Saturated colors — not that dark, rain-drenched foreboding typical of classics like "Blade Runner" — were the working orders, and Gaultier's 954 costumes more than measured up. Sci-fi became truly fabulous with Chris Tucker's RuPaulian flamboyance, Bruce Willis's orange-and-black rubberized masculinity, and Gary Oldman's villainous cowlick extraordinaire. (Besson's verbal sketch of the evil Zorg for Gaultier: "dandy, nouveau riche, Hitler.")

When supermodels blush
The scarcity of fabric did make even Jovovich, who made a historic and controversial debut on the cover of Mademoiselle at age 11, hesitate. Getting her rear in gear with karate, kickboxing, and ballet lessons was fine, but the skimpy look "was a bit embarrassing," Jovovich told Entertainment Weekly when the film was released. "In the fashion world, most of the guys are gay and they have the etiquette not to notice. But these English guys working on the set were whistling and stuff."

Jovovich appreciated the 'do more. "I would have loved to [have kept that hair color] but I do have to pay the rent and unfortunately, that is not the way to secure a good business relationship with people," she told a fan in an online chat session. "Anyway, the movie company would never let me keep it. It was also the sort of thing that if I walked down the street, elderly people would cross to the other side so it wasn't the most practical thing in the world."

Fans of the look might thank Gaultier's 12-year-old crush. In a revealing onstage conversation this year, the designer gushed about falling for a freckled Algerian girl with skin so pale he could see her veins, and "beautiful beautiful red hair, like an Afro-type, but red hair."

Ex marks the spot
The design may have been brilliant, but it took Jovovich to carry off the look —- eventually. About 8,000 women turned up for the casting call, and she was among the thousands rejected. Besson changed his mind in an accidental second meeting; Jovovich painted the scene to a Chicago newspaper about the reversal:

"I was dressed up," remembers Jovovich. "He thought I was cool, but just too New York-'90s chick. Then, a few months later, I just happened to be at a hotel having breakfast in jeans and a T-shirt. Luc was at the pool chilling out, and I'm like 'Hi, I'm the girl that didn't get the part.' He looked and saw the character for a split second because my hair was everywhere and I looked a little bit like an animal. I wasn't trying to look sophisticated and be something." (May 9, 1997, Daily Southtown)

Turns out that Besson's turnabouts extended to courtship: The two would marry —- and divorce —- in short order.

'The Fifth Element' at 15
Movie critics weren't unanimously charmed, but France's then-most-expensive blockbuster, which opened the 50th Cannes Film Festival, grossed $260 million. Fifteen years later, "The Fifth Element" remains Besson's biggest hit and fans' fashion-forward favorite. Gaultier, whose costume sketches were featured in a museum exhibit, "From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk," ranks the Besson collaboration as among his top three movie experiences. (Too bad Besson quashes any hope of mining a sequel from his old 400-page script.)

And Jovovich frequently makes the top action-heroine lists, but her Leeloo role so far is still her most defining. As she told EW way back when, "My character's all about what's inside... It's not really about her clothes."

Watch the trailer for Jovovich's upcoming 'Resident Evil: Retribution:'

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