Luc Besson's Fifth Element and the Notion of Quintessence

In Ana Dishlieska Mitova (ed.), Philosophy and Film: Conference Proceedings. pp. 69-76 (2022)
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The Fifth Element (1997) is a French science-fiction film in English, directed and co-written by Luc Besson. The title and the plot of the film refer to a central notion of Greek philosophy, that is, pemptousia, or quintessence. Pre-Socratic philosophers such as Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximenes and others, were convinced that all natural beings – in fact, nature itself – consist in four primary imperishable elements or essences (ousiai), i.e., fire, earth, water, and air. To these four, Aristotle added aether, a fifth essence (pemptousia). The introduction of aether gave birth to a great tradition in late Antique and Medieval philosophy, and eventually it came to signify not an additional primary element, but the core-essence of all beings, their fundamental ontological structure. Besson’s film draws its inspiration on this philosophical tradition but its cinematographic rendering of the concept of Quintessence is typical of the contemporaneous views on the core characteristics of matters. The modernity that stimulates the film is equally anti-transcendentalist and anti-essentialist. Thus, the fifth element of the film is existentially personified and genderized making the traditional philosophical significance of the term to be adjusted by modernity in an immanent and temporal context where in addition aesthetics plays a crucial role.

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Evangelos D. Protopapadakis
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens


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