Upstreet October 1999

Everyone says (to her) "I love you"
by Jean-Pascal Grosso, Photos by Frank W. Ockenfels

Milla Jovovich. Is she the last starlet of the century or a sexy mirage for a society addicted to the ephemeral? Will she be admitted into the pantheon of famous great actresses or be adopted as the meteoric muse of that idol of France's McDonald generation, the prolific and hirsute Luc Besson? The red-haired alien of The Fifth Element and soon to appear as the Maid of Orleans in the ambitious and top-secret Joan of Arc, the sculptural Milla stands out as a phenomenal actress-model-singer of the close of the century and, maybe, as a heroine for an entire generation.

A signed photo with a $450 price-tag in a Las Vegas souvenir shop. An advertising poster for a brand of cheap and cool clothes in the Gare du Nord in Paris. On TV screens all over the world she zaps a row of yes-men into heavily made-up businesswomen while drying her nail varnish in a stainless steel elevator "parce que je le vaut bien" (because I'm worth it). Milla Jovovich seems to be omnipresent these days, a member of the very exclusive club of magazine cover girls. The Ukrainian Lolita who used to shock the stuffy by her very feminine poses on the covers of the chic fashion magazines has grown up and is now 23 (though it's not very polite to say so). The teenager who told interviewers that she would end up living a life of luxury in Beverly Hills seems to have brought it off: she's admired for her cold beauty, is now a success in films and, against all expectations, a recognized and appreciated musician. Milla is beautiful, Milla is rich and Milla really has talent. She's one of the most discreet of top models (her nightclub escapades are largely eclipsed by any little cryng fit of Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss) and has a spectacular aura. Chris Brenner, her agent working at Next, finds her "shattering". The greatest photographers praise her perfectionism. Luc Besson, her Pygmalion, thinks she is "the most beautiful girl of the twentieth century". And even in this magazine our writer on music (see the accompanying article) really melted for Milla after listening to her album The Divine Comedy (nothing to do with the group of the impulsive Neil Hannon). This intriguing figure, a mommy's girl who became a top model and the Leeloo of The Fifth Element at an age when most young ladies are trying to pass their hairdressing certificate or making a shambles of their first marriage, calls for closer acquaintance.

Summary of the previous episodes

Milla Jovovich was born in Kiev on 17 December 1975, the daughter of an actress who very soon started to boost the career of her only child and of a doctor tenderly nicknamed Bogie. She arrived in the United States at the age of 5 and found that her Russian accent was not terribly popular among her classmates. Barely ten when she started a successful career in modeling, she was worth close to a million dollars by the time she reached 15. Her more chaotic career in acting included adventure-filled films for TV (Night Train to Kathmandu, 1988) and brief appearances in movies (Chaplin's Lily in the Attenborough biopic in 1992 and a folk-singer in Dazed and Confused in 1993). Her biggest role before Besson, in fact, was as a replacement for the grown Brooke Shields in the follow-up to The Blue Lagoon with the brilliant title Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991)! Milla plays a nymphet lost on a tropical island, an expertly tanned mermaid with a pearly smile who finds that Mother Nature is a little strict on kids. The film doesn't leave an indelible memory, let us say. Then, in 1996, Luc Besson was looking for the leading actress for The Fifth Element, an ambitious sci-fi film with a huge budget by French standards. The casting was exhausting work: no less than two thousand candidates turned up and were turned down. Milla got the job on the spot and then blabbed to anybody who would listen that she had done everything to get it. Everything? She was certainly asking for tongues to wag... So, thanks to Luc Besson, she was thrust into this futuristic world, a more or less successful cross between Blade Runner and a packet of Smarties, alongside Bruce Willis in his undershirt and Gary Oldman transformed into an intergalactic Pierre Kaffon. The fans and a (very busy?) section of the critics talked about a work of genius. Luc Besson was awarded France's Oscar equivalent, a Caesar, and proclaimed himself and his pals Kassovitz and Kounen to be a culturally exceptional trinity. And Milla? Her androgynous figure wielding a laser gun was on posters in all the toy shops and fast-food outlets around the world. This success - though her acting is not totally convincing - was unexpected for a young woman who had chalked up a series of minor parts and flops up until then. In December 1997, happy with their intense. collaboration, Milla and Luc got married in Las Vegas.

Milla vs. King Charles VI

After a quite interesting Spike Lee film that was not released in France (He Got Game, 1998), Milla went back to working with her man on a major project, a new version of the life of Joan of Arc. As revised and updated by Nikita's daddy, will the exploits of the heroic Maid of Orleans take her on a frenzied gallop through a heroic fantasyland? The history teachers were already quaking while Besson, reduced to the role of producer, was bickering with the American director Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days) over who was to be chosen to play Joan. Luc wanted Milla, Kathryn was dropped and Luc took over the direction. Filming began in June 1998 with a monumental distribution: John Malkovich as King Charles VI, Dustin Hoffman as the Grand Inquisitor, as well as Faye Dunaway, Vincent Cassel and Tcheky Karyo. Gaumont, Sony's partner for the international distribution, was already rubbing its hands. It was filmed in the utmost secrecy, with tarpaulin covers to hide the sets and no information given to the press, not to mention photos. A few lucky hand-picked journalists, however, did get to see the sets: their qualification was their magazine's circulation figures. Milla told an English magazine: "It's probably been the most incredible experience of my life. It's our baby, Luc's and mine. Nine months working together." Music, please! The promotion of the film was like a cliff-hanger serial. She accepted interviews and then refused them. She was coming to Paris but never turned up. Her photos were sent to a few chosen agencies and had to be paid for cash on the nail. The Californian dream of the Russian doll cost hard cash. Milla seemed to lose a lot of that fresh candor that added to the virginal beauty of her character in Return to the Blue Lagoon. She surrounded herself with rapacious agents and turned into a demanding businesswoman, giving as her repeated excuse the memory of a childhood without a cent when the Jovovich family arrived in the States and the image of her father recently sentenced to prison for swindling (sentenced to twenty years, he'll be away for five). Sympathetic articles were published all over the place and she won over a bunch of people who had stubbornly resisted the charms of this Arago of the catwalks.

Personal stuff is non grata

It is quite difficult, in fact, to write an objective piece on the mysterious Milla Jovovich whose role as a free young woman in impudent and total control of her protean career and private life seems so spectacularly organized. Milla plays the rebel and charms and sometimes hypnotizes magazine journalists on both sides of the Atlantic. She turns up at the luxurious set of a commercial for L'Oreal looking all scruffy and tired out from filming but does not forget to collect the cheque before starting. She is regarded as a wild thing in the hippest places in New York but behaves like a demure young girl for the screening of The Fifth Element at the Villa Gaumont during the Cannes Festival. An ambiguous, ambitious and unfathomable character. "I don't like talking about myself", she excuses herself. She has raised the veil a little, however, in short interviews. She doesn't like violent people and devours books. "I have never seen anyone else in films read so much. When, I first met her she asked me if I had read Honord de Balzac!" says Chris Brenner, still amused. So what's the explanation for her media presence? Where does she get this charisma from? Her modeling career was less spectacular than Evangelista's or Schiffer's and her films were not very successful until she met Luc Besson.And hertalents as a singer, let's admit it, have been appreciated so far by a limited audience. Having managed through sheer will-power and a fair dose of pushiness to carve out a place for herself in artistic spheres coveted by her model rivals (who remembers the musical efforts of Naomi Campbell or the movie exploits of Cindy Crawford?), Milla now belongs to the small circle of gold-plated, beautiful and talented girls whose every move is feverishly reported by the paparazzi. She has succeeded, so far, in surfing on the waves of her ability to play one of the stars of the American Way of Life. But a few clouds are already building up on the horizon of the conquering Milla.

The party's over!

April 1999, Rumors about the impending divorce of Milla Jovovich and Luc Besson were picked up by the press. Housewives followed the drama as they sat waiting in hairdressing salons the world over. The couple complained about being separated by thousands of kilometers. And seventeen years. No sooner had Milla left her martyrs stake as Joan than she was playing alongside Mel Gibson in the latest film by the Teutonic metaphysician Wim Wenders. Million Dollar Hotel, currently in postproducbon, is described as a zany thriller written by no less than Bono, U2 leader. She plays the role of Eloise Brooks, an unstable resident of a hotel that has seen better days and where a crime has recently been committed. Milla now describes herself as -an actress who's just become unemployed.. Will she make the transition from being Besson's star, another Dietrich after her release from Von Sternberg? Or will she end up using her martial physique in decreasingly flattering productons? Has a star been born or has ft faded as quickly as her victory over the English, who ended up burning her, as we will soon see? Can you imagine her already fat and flopped in from of the box in a cruddy caravan in a Pennslyvanian suburb? These are some of the questions that might drift into the mind of those intrigued by the case of Milla Jovovich.

Milla the singer

In 1994 the world of the top models was hot news everywhere. Cyndi, Claudia, Eva and Naomi expressed themselves on every subject under the sun and tried their hand at acting and singing. Milla's first album came olrt at this painful juncture and went unnoticed, but for different reasons. On the cover of her CD - The Divine Comedy - there was no sign of Milla. You had to open the lyrics booklet to find a photo of her by Mario Testino with long hair and in trainers. Although she was only 19 at the time, she refused to sell her top model image and insisted on the quality of her music that had nothing in common with the lousy pop released by some of her colleagues. Her style? Folk songs backed by guitars and acoustic percussion. Milla composed some of the tunes, all the lyrics and sometimes plays the balalaika. Overall, The Divine Comedy comes over as very fresh and natural. One extract was made (Gentleman Who Fell) and a promotion with five of the album's best numbers (Gentleman Who Fell, Its Your Life, Bang Your Head, Clock, In a Glade). The last one, despite its English title, is a traditional Ukrainian ballad that Milla often heard as she grew up. Translation of the lyric: "in the forest, near the Danube, a nightingale is singing. it is calling to its mate and nestlings. But I am sick with loneliness and want to fly to the one I love..." In Russian her voice is deeper and more sensual. On the rest of the disk she switches between Kate Bush and Liz Fraser - influences she readily admits. The Divine Comedy got some good reviews in Britain, including a double page spread in The Face. When it came out in the US, Milla went on a tour with a band, merchandising and the works. Many of the songs she sang on the tour have yet to be published on disk. Net pirates are taking a special interest in these.

Folk guitars and electronic loops

EMI France at first turned down Milla's album. The decision was taken after a sample group gave it the thumbs down (the bait was a free round trip to Moscow, and in due course the lucky couple headed off for Red Square). Nobody at EMI remembers this episode now, for some reason. When The Fifth Element started to go big, somebody remembered that they had the heroine's album in their archives and suggested that it might sell a few thousand copies with an appropriate sticker. Nobody took up the idea, however. Milla, in the meantime, as you can imagine, was feeling rather piqued. She continued to carry notebooks with her on her trips to jot down ideas for lyrics, a kind of rhyming diary. Before filming started on Joan of Arc she recorded a new album during stopovers between Los Angeles and San Francisco, The Peopletree Sessions.This time round the guitars have a more electronic and contemporary sound. It's like a series of poems set against a light techno background that has some resemblance to the latest album of yet another rebel top model, Leslie Winer. But Milla turned her back on the showbizz scene completely and released it on the website of a small underground label on 29 April 1998! By doing so she made sure that the information about its release would reach her fans all over the world and that the proceeds would not have to be shared out among a bunch of executives. Don't forget, Milla is not at all shy about pocketing cheques. The latest we heard was that she is working on her third album now, according to an efnm sent in the spring to one of her American fan clubs.

CD discography: The Peopletree Sessions (1999) The Divine Comedy (1994, SKG/EMI)