Analysis SZ and The Fifth Element

Despite the importance and popularity of S/Z in post-structural literary theory, it has rarely been applied to films, with the exception of Julia Lesage's analysis (1986) of Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939). Raymond Bellour also refers to the proairetic code, the hermeneutic code, and especially the symbolic code in his analysis of North by Northwest, although Barthes's terms are simply integrated into Bellour's more widely focused textual analysis (see Bellour 2000: 86-7). However, Lesage presents an informal reading that offers a general (but useful) summary of the moments in Rules of the Game where the codes operate. She does not analyse the film in the step-by-step process of S/Z. In the following analysis we shall follow The Fifth Element as it unfolds, divide it up into pertinent lexia (according to the presence of and shifting relations between the codes), summarize each lexia, and then list and comment on the codes. We shall follow Barthes's practice of separating the list of codes by placing stars in front of each comment.

Plot summary. The film begins in a conventional manner, with a prologue set in Egypt in 1914, which serves an expositional function (it introduces us to the five elements and the threat to earth that will arrive in 300 years). The film fhen jumps forward 300 years. It singles out the main protagonist, Korben Dallas (played by Bruce Willis), his helpers, including father Cornelius (Ian Holm) and his assistant David, the antagonists - 'pure evil' (called 'Mr Shadow'), represented as a ball of fire in outer space that rushes towards earth, aided by Zorg (Gary Oldman) and the mangalores. The prized object is established early on - the four stones representing the four elements (earth, fire, water, air), and the fifth element, personified as 'the perfect woman', Leeloo (played by Milla Jovovich). The film also sets up a narrative conflict that needs to be resolved within a strict time limit: the evil ball of fire returns to earth every 5000 years to destroy everything. It can only be stopped by the four stones in combination with the fifth element. The protagonist is sent on a quest - to return the five elements to earth in order to save mankind - all within 48 hours. Meanwhile, the antagonists also attempt to obtain the stones. As expected, the protagonists win out. For this, Dallas receives the reward of consummating his love with the fifth element, the perfect woman. The moral of the film is transparent and banal: war and evil are bad, and can only be overcome through love.

Lexia (1): credit sequence. Every narrative film's credit sequence marks a transition from the non-fictional to the fictional realm. The non-fictional realm refers to the space occupied by the spectator (either the cinema auditorium or in front of the TV at home), and to the credits, which name the company that financed the film, plus the actors and technicians involved in the film's production. The image(s) behind the credits depicts the film's fictional space (the diegesis) which, in The Fifth Element, simply consists of rapidly moving objects entering from the top of the screen, travelling towards the spectator, and exiting at the bottom of the screen. The camera then pans up to reveal the source of these flying objects - a galaxy. The film's title is then superimposed over the galaxy. *REF. Finance company (Gaumont), director ('A film by Luc Besson'), actors and actresses (Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry). The referential code also includes common knowledge about the four elements (earth, fire, water, air). **HER. Enigma 1: theme. The common knowledge about the four elements leads to the film's first enigma - what is the fifth element? ***~SEM. Mystery. The electronic music score creates tension and mystery.

(2) After the film's title appears on screen, the credits continue, but this time over an image of the earth seen from space. An alien spacecraft enters screen right and moves towards the centre of the image, into earth's orbit. This is a typical (indeed, stereotypical) opening for a science fiction film. The electronic music heard in the film's opening continues, and is combined with distorted bass voices. In conjunction with the image of the earth, the music makes reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey and to Ligeti's Lux Aeterna. *REF. Film technicians. Science fiction films (2001), and music (Lux Aeterna). **ACT. 'Journey': 1: to enter earth's orbit.

(3) The camera begins in space, complete with a shooting star (probably the alien spacecraft entering earth's atmosphere). The camera then pans rapidly down from space to earth, stopping on a very long shot of the desert with a large tomb in the background. A boy on a donkey walks into the image from screen right and moves towards the centre. Discordant strings are added over the rumbling electronic music, and tension is created through semitone notes. Ethnic Arabic reed music is also added, once the camera reaches the desert. A title is superimposed over the image: 'Egypt 1914'. *ACT. 'Journey': 2: to enter earth's atmosphere. 'Trek': 1: to travel through the desert. **REF. Egypt; World War 1 ('1914'). ***SEM. Menace (electronic music). Ethnicity (reed music). ****SYM. Antithesis 1: A: space. B: earth. This antithesis is mediated by the alien spacecraft entering earth's atmosphere. Antithesis 2: A: futuristic mode of travel (spacecraft). B: ancient mode of travel (donkey). Both the spacecraft and the boy on the donkey enter from screen right and move in the same direction. This formal parallelism highlights the differences between the mode of travel. Furthermore, the boy carries water (a symbol for life) whereas the alien spacecraft visits earth to take away the four stones and the fifth element, which protect life.

(4) The boy gets off his donkey, runs towards the entrance to the tomb, and leaves some water for the other boys sitting outside the tomb. Signs of Egypt (camels, Egyptian language, etc.) are clearly visible and audible. *ACT. 'Trek': 2: to arrive. **SEM. Ethnicity (modes of transport, language, clothes). ***SYM. Antithesis 3: A: outside. Antithesis 4: A: Middle East children.

(5) Inside the tomb, the boy stops and looks at two archaeologists. He then wakes up another boy (Aziz) who is meant to be providing light. The older archaeologist (the professor) is standing by a wall interpreting hieroglyphics, and calls out to Aziz to provide more light. The younger archaeologist, Billy, repeats the professor's words, but without enthusiasm. *ACT. 'Trek': 3: to deliver water to the archaeologists. **SYM. Antithesis 3: B: inside. Antithesis 4: B: Western archaeologists. Antithesis 5: A: old. B: young (referring to the archaeologists at this stage). Antithesis 6: A: light. B: dark. ***REF. The psychology of the old (serious, self-important) and of the young (lack of interest, boredom).

(6) The professor begins to decipher the hieroglyphics (which predict a disaster every 5,000 years), and Billy makes notes, draws pictures, and responds in a half-interested manner. *ACT. 'Interpretation': 1: to decipher hieroglyphics. **SYM. Coded representation of disaster. ***REF. The psychology of the old and of the young.

(7) From nowhere, an old priest appears, takes the water from the boy, and sends him away. The priest then watches the archaeologists. *ACT. 'Trek': 3: to deliver water to the archaeologists (this action does not progress, but is simply transferred from the young boy to the old priest). **SYM. Antithesis 5: A: old. B: young (now referring to the Egyptians).

(8) The professor continues to decipher the hieroglyphics (of 'people gathering together the four elements of life - water, fire, earth, air - around a fifth one, a ... fifth ... element'). *ACT. 'Interpretation': 2: to continue deciphering the hieroglyphics. **SYM. Representation of the five elements. The professor slowly utters the film's title, therefore thematizing it within the film's diegesis. It is also symbolically represented as a hieroglyph (a person). ***HER. Enigma 1: thematization.

(9) Upon hearing the professor utter 'the fifth element' the priest decides to poison the water because the archaeologists know too much. *ACT. Kill: 1: to-poison the archaeologists' water. The archaeologists know too much about the fifth element; hence it is established as a secret that must be concealed at any cost, even by a priest committing murder. The water, a symbol of life (and one of the four elements) becomes contaminated. **HER. Enigma 1: formulation of the enigma.

(10) The priest walks up to the two archaeologists and offers them water, while the professor offers part of his interpretation to the priest (the professor talks about good and evil, and a weapon against evil). The professor decides to throw the water away and drink a toast with grappa. Billy goes to fetch the bottle. *ACT. 'Trek': 4: to deliver the water. 'Kill': 2: thwarted attempt to poison. 'Interpretation': 3: to continue deciphering the hieroglyphics. **SYM. Antithesis 7: A: good. B: evil.

(11) The alien spacecraft, first seen in lexia 2, now lands next to the tomb, and slowly casts a shadow over everyone as it does so. The professor is completely oblivious to the aliens, and simply continues to interpret the hieroglyphics. He demands light from Aziz, but receives it from the aliens. He then focuses on the figure of the fifth element ('This man, this perfect being, I know this is the key into it'). The aliens enter the tomb, kill the professor, and open the inner tomb containing the five elements. The priest knows the aliens, and is told that the stones are to be taken off the earth because of the coming war. *ACT. 'Journey': 3: to arrive on earth. 'Interpretation': 4: to decipher the fifth element symbol. **HER. Enigma 1: snare (due to his prejudices, the professor wrongly interprets the symbol of the fifth element as a 'perfect man'). ***REF. World War 1. ****SYM. Antithesis 6: A: light. B: dark. With the introduction of the aliens, the film brings into existence a complex web of antitheses (see Fig. 5.1). However, as the sequence progresses, the antitheses are regrouped. Antithesis 8: A: human. B: alien.

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Fig. 5.1. The web of the symbolic code in the opening of The Fifth Element

(12) Inside the inner tomb, four stones (symbolizing the four elements) are on display. In the centre is a sarcophagus containing the fifth element. The aliens remove them from the tomb. *ACT. 'Journey': 4: to retrieve the five elements. **SYM. The five elements are symbolized in three-dimensional form.

(13) In response to the priest's plea that the earth is now defenceless against evil, the leader of the aliens remarks that 'when evil returns in 300 years, so shall we'. Perturbed by the aliens' presence and their killing of the professor, Billy pulls out his gun and threatens the leader of the aliens. The priest tries to persuade him that the aliens are 'our' (the humans') friends, but only ends up 'alienating' himself (for Billy simply thinks that he is with the aliens). Billy slips and fires his gun. Although he doesn't harm anyone, the gunshots make the inner tomb close, with the leader of the aliens trapped inside (but not before he passes the key to the inner tomb to the priest). Throughout, ethnic reed music is heard, and combined with menacing electronic music. *ACT. 'Defence': 1: to shoot. 'Journey': 5: to exit the tomb. **SYM. Antithesis 9: A: life. B: evil. This lexia adds another - more general - layer to the web of antitheses represented above, between life (humans and aliens) and evil (death and destruction). Billy also groups the priest and aliens together, breaking the antithesis between alien and human. ***SEM. Ethnicity and danger.

(14) The spacecraft departs, and the priest vouches to safeguard the key. The soundtrack becomes louder; it combines ethnic music, vocal sounds, and a drum beat. "ACT. 'Journey' 6: to depart earth. 'Safeguard': 1: to protect the key to the inner tomb. **SEM. Ethnicity and danger.

(15) The scene ends with the camera focusing on a detail from the hieroglyphics, the symbol showing the moment when evil will return - when three planets are in eclipse. In the cut to the beginning of the next scene, the same three planets are represented in the exact configuration, except on a computer screen. The following shot, inside a spacecraft populated with humans, is overlaid with the title '300 years later'. *SYM. The time of evil's arrival is symbolized in hieroglyphics and a computer screen. **REF. Chronology: 300 years later (a temporal progression prefigured by the leader of the aliens).

The above analysis simply represents the first 11 minutes of the film. These 11 minutes clearly thematize and formulate the enigma around the fifth element, and set up a complex web of antitheses. Yet the enigma is not sustained throughout the whole film. It is resolved within 25 minutes of a two-hour movie (the fifth element is 'the perfect woman' - hence the professor's snare). Once the enigma is revealed, the main tension in the film comes from the imposition of a strict deadline: evil, represented as a ball of fire in space, heads towards earth and will destroy it in two days. A hero is established to save the earth, although obstacles are put in his way: the alien spacecraft returning the stones to earth is attacked; Zorg tries to possess the stones, etc. (The strategies of delay listed in the hermeneutic code can also be used to account for the delays in achieving the actions in the proairetic code.)

An analysis of the entire film in terms of Barthes's five codes would run into many pages. As an alternative, we shall attempt to analyse the whole film using a different strategy - by focusing on the film's narrative structure and its relation to digital narrative, as represented in video games.

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