When it was released in 1997 the strong female role in movies was still relatively rare. We were still fighting with the idea that woman could be both feminine and strong. I’d watched Samantha Cain ‘coming back’ in the Long Kiss Goodnight and throwing knives like a chef and Sarah Hamilton failing to be confused by time travel in Terminator but Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo character was the perfect blend of feminine and kick ass. At the time I wanted both the orange hair and the ability to punch two baddies’ lights out in one move.
It wasn’t the body. OK, maybe it was a bit. I remember coming out of seeing the movie with my then boyfriend and saying how I wished I had a body like hers. He turned to me and just said ‘you do’. It remains one of my favourite compliments although I couldn’t see it myself. Still, all these years later I find myself looking and thinking ‘did I really?’. You wouldn’t have caught me wearing a little Gaultier number because I’d have said I was too unfit but I’ve definitely missed the orange leotard chance now.
Throughout the film Leeloo watches with naïve innocence while around her the men are busy doing the patriarchal thing and trying to look after her – the Supreme Being, perfect in every way but who clearly can’t save the world without male intervention. Males who faff out of their depths and busily ignore the words ‘me protect you’ with a wry smile ‘yes, of course you will’. And then in the best scene of the movie, while all the men are busy blowing up half the ship Leeloo steps into a room full of intergalactic unsavories and dispatches all of them in balletic style, with her bare hands and barely raising a sweat. Any woman who can eat several whole chickens in a row without putting a pound on anywhere and learn Kung Fu in two seconds should, I feel, be taken more seriously.
It’s ironical that both options turn out to be exactly what happens: the war-view weary Leeloo is unable to fulfil her raison d’etre and wallows in despair until Bruce Willis declares his undying love for her. At which point she saves not just one man, but mankind. Because, clearly, that’s what you have to do to be taken seriously by the man in your life. But if the message was a more simple one of men and women needing each other was that a bad thing? After all, Bruce is looking particularly buff in the Fifth Element and even a strong woman has the right to take a break from being the strong one sometimes and share the responsibility.