The Fifth Element

(Luc Besson, France, 1997)


I am about to plunge into the heart of darkness for every film reviewer. I want to raise an issue, probe a sore point that I have so far resisted in my professional career – because it implicates me along with every other dude who presumes to review movies.

I can put it simply. Do film reviewers know what they are talking about?

More specifically: do they really know what they’re saying when they chop up films into their component bits and ascribe evaluations of good or bad, better or worse, to these respective bits? One sometimes hears this complaint – I think it’s completely valid and justified – from people who work in the film industry, people who actually make films, as opposed to people (like me) who mainly only watch films, write about them, or talk about them on the airwaves or in classrooms. Do such hands-off, armchair critics really understand the processes that go into the making of a film? Do they really understand the technical aspects, the division of labour across the various members of the crew; do they have the foggiest about the difference between pre-production, production and post-production?

Well, to be fair, some critics do have an idea about these technical and practical aspects, and some have had industry experience. But I think it is an essentially true complaint: most film reviewers know diddly-squat about how films are materially made.

To some extent – maybe a large extent – I don’t think this necessarily matters, that it’s necessarily a problem. Film critics do work in a different mental, imaginative space to filmmakers. Critics see things abstractly, holistically. They may not know what a key grip is, but they might have seen dozens or hundreds of movies similar to the one they’re reviewing, and that can give them a certain frame of reference, a context. Sometimes, that viewer-fan-connoisseur knowledge of cinema can even give the opinions of a critic a measure of authority. At the very least, the armchair or coach-potato approach to cinema criticism can lead to a passionate, fanatical appreciation of movies, manifesting itself in a capacity to interrelate them in intriguing and imaginative ways.

So that’s all well and good. But where do film reviewers come undone – where do their pretensions and presumptions show up? I’ll tell you. It happens when they look at a movie and then write or say: it’s a well-directed or a badly directed movie; that the acting is great or its awful; that the editing or art direction or cinematography or some other component is finely-tuned, or overdone.

Critics being, by and large, rather cerebral and wordy people, there’s only one area in which I think their comments can be trusted, or at least taken on face value: the area of the script, the screenplay. Although, even there, when reviewers start going all pompous about "script problems", I must wonder again if they have the slightest notion about where the contribution of the scriptwriter ended and where the work of the director and the actors began.

Let’s get this much straight. Critics usually see a film just once before they review it, and they usually don’t have much time in which to digest it and process it into a piece of writing. They do not see – because you cannot see on the basis of a single viewing – the distinct contributions of director, writer, actors, cinematographer, editor, and so on, all cleanly separated out and signposted. What critics get, what they work from, is a gestalt of the movie, some sense or experience of it as a whole thing, a whole object. And what they then write or speak about is their response to that indefinite, monumental object – their gut feeling, as the expression goes. (For a brilliant dissection of this term, cf. Meaghan Morris‘ oft-reprinted essay on film reviewing, "Indigestion".)

All film reviewing, like it or not, begins from that feeling: the conviction that one is watching a movie which is good or bad – hence, a feeling of either pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort, amusement or irritation. Critics then convert that general gestalt feeling, that primal sensation of pleasure or pain, into a series of hunches about all the different levels of the film – the script in relation to the direction in relation to the actors and so on – and these hunches get converted into judgments, evaluations; in short, into opinions.

For me, a good critic is one whose hunches seem informed and finely tuned – they may not have been able to really study the movie in close detail, but they’re able to intuit some sense of its aesthetic qualities and properties, how it achieved its particular look and sound and feel and mood. A bad critic, in my opinion, is one who appears not to connect at all with the form, the style, the material nuances of the film in front of their eyes. You can spot these critics a mile away, because all they can talk about is plot and characters, and their evaluations of movies tend to be based solely on how much they personally liked or disliked the characters, as if they were people they just met at a party.

But let me get back to the self-flagellating part of this little oration. If it was in my power, I would make every working film reviewer in this country (myself included), take a simple test. They would have to nominate a scene from a movie that they consider well-directed and one that is badly directed. They would have to select a good screen performance and a bad one. Let’s just leave it there, at directing and acting, although we could certainly extend it to every other department in the filmmaking process. The really important part of the test would be this: in getting every reviewer to say, to point to, exactly what makes a film, in their view, well or badly directed and acted. My unkind suspicion is that, in many cases, this explication would simply collapse into that initial, inchoate gut feeling: I just don’t like the movie, therefore I believe it’s badly directed, badly written, badly acted, etcetera. But that is precisely the false step in the argument of many film reviews.

I’ll tell you why all of this matters to me right now. I have often championed films that many of my colleagues dismiss violently as bad films. I can think of plenty of titles in this category down the 1990s, such as Body of Evidence (1993), Hudson Hawk (1991), Color of Night (1994) and Ishtar (1987). Sometimes, my defence of such films is based on elements of their content – maybe they do something interesting with a lowly, obscure genre; or there’s something perverse, mad or daring in what they handle their subject matter.

But, just as often, I will find myself burdened with the unpopular conviction that, even if the content of these films is weak or uninspired, they are still good films. And what I usually mean by that is that they are cleverly or finely crafted, or pleasingly shaped – in short, that they’re well directed. Cinema history is teeming with mediocre projects redeemed by good direction, subtle or strong or just exceptionally well-balanced and consistent direction. When I see this, when I feel or intuit it, I am pleased by a movie; because, to me, the direction is absolutely fundamental to a film’s artistic success or failure.

Luc Besson’s French sci-fi blockbuster The Fifth Element – which has been almost universally panned and trashed by critics – is, in my view, a superbly directed film. I also happen to think that it is exciting, vigorous, inventive and a whole lot of fun. But mainly I like it because it’s so well directed. Besson’s direction of the actors – by which I mean his ability to blend his diverse actors into a performing ensemble – is especially outstanding.

The Fifth Element made me appreciate at last what a fine actor Bruce Willis is, what a wonderful grasp he has of screen acting and of his own screen presence. The movie is such a well-directed action-comedy that every turn of Willis’ head, every move of his eyes, registers as a drama, as some kind of punctuation or explosion. And the same goes for all the cast, including such surprise choices as Ian Holm and Lee Evans: all of their gestures, movements and vocal inflections are so perfectly timed and pitched in relation to each other that they all become like cartoon figures bouncing around and commanding the film frame.

So ignore the critical consensus, and please check out The Fifth Element.

MORE Besson: Joan of Arc, Taxi, Transporter 2, Unleashed, Léon: The Professional

© Adrian Martin June 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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