Barbarella is a movie I’ve seen a number of times but oddly enough until now I’ve never gotten around to seeing it on DVD. Or in its correct Cinemascope aspect ratio. Which makes a wonderful movie even more wonderful.
I also suspect that I’ve never seen this film completely uncut before. I certainly don’t recall seeing quite so much of Jane Fonda before. Her opening credits striptease in this version is certainly guaranteed to get your attention.
It has to be said that this Franco-Italian co-production is a movie you either love or hate. If you don’t appreciate high camp silliness then you’re well advised to sit this one out. And if you have a thing for Serious Film-Making that has profound things to say about the human condition, this is not the movie for you. Jane Fonda was later embarrassed at having made this movie which just shows how humourless you can become when you start taking yourself way too seriously. In fact it’s arguably her best ever performance.
Based on a French adult comic book, and directed by Fonda’s then-husband Roger Vadim, the plot is slight to say the least. Barbarella is 41st century Earth’s top astronavigatrix and she’s just been assigned to a vital mission to track down missing Earth scientist Durand Durand who has disappeared taking with him he ultimate weapon, the positronic ray. Unfortunately Barbarella is forced into a crash-landing when her spaceship is damaged.
After being menaced by feral children she is rescued by a hirsute stranger in a weird wind-powered sled vehicle. She ask what she can to repay him and he tells her they could make love She naturally assumes he’s referring to the civilised 41st century version of sex where you first make sure your psychocardiograms are aligned and then you each take an exaltation pill and then touch hands. She is shocked to find out that he means sex in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a practice long abandoned as being too distracting. But she’s willing to give it a try. And she discovers that she likes it. She likes it a lot. Even if it is very very distracting. This is perhaps the key to the film - Barbarella’s sexuality drives pretty much the entire plot.
Barbarella has another astronautical mishap and finds herself in the Labyrinth. The enemies of the Black Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) are consigned there for all eternity, including a hunky angel named Pygar (John Philip Law). Pygar has lost the will to fly. There’s no physical reason he can’t fly; it’s just a matter of morale. Luckily Barbarella knows a surefire method for restoring morale and after a roll in the hay (or in this case a roll in the feathers) with Barbarella his morale is fully restored. Barbarella finds that old-fashioned sex really can be remarkably useful.
Pygar and Barbarella journey to the notorious city of SoGo, the headquarters of the Black Tyrant. SoGo is a city dedicated to evil, and to sexual depravity. The Concierge runs the city for the Black Tyrant and he turns out to be none other than Durand Durand. The stage is set for a confrontation between two contrasting views of sexuality. The Black Tyrant and Durand Durand represent sex as a destructive force, while Barbarella represents the positive life-affirming side of sex. This comes to a rather effective climax (if you’ll pardon the pun) when Durand Durand imprisons Barbarella in an infernal machine, a kind of musical orgasm machine, where she is destined to die of pleasure. But Barbarella’s healthy and innocent but alarmingly prodigious sexual appetites overload the machine.
SoGo is fueled by a monster called the Mathmos but it will be no match for Barbarella’s essential goodness.
Many of the criticisms levelled at this film seem to miss the point. Comparisons to Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik are misplaced. Bava and Vadim were making very different films. Danger: Diabolik remains the best comic-book action/adventure movie ever made but Vadim’s movie is a high camp erotic psychedelic fantasy and must be judged on its own terms. Terry Southern’s involvement in the script is a major clue here to the importance of camp in the appreciation of this movie.
The most delightful surprise in the movie is David Hemming’s very funny turn as an inept revolutionary. Anita Pallenberg isn’t given enough to do. She certainly looks suitably spectacular though. But the movie belongs to Jane Fonda. She has never been more gorgeous, and she has never been sexier, but this is also a delightfully witty performance showcasing her considerable gifts as a comic actress.
Barbarella remains a unique film, and one that has had little direct influence on the evolution of cinematic science fiction. Its mix of whimsicality and kinkiness had more influence on some of the more offbeat European exploitation movies of the 70s than on mainstream science fiction, but then it never tried to be mainstream science fiction in the first place.
One of the true masterpieces of camp, and immensely enjoyable if you accept it for what it is.
Paramount’s DVD release is barebones but quite impressive. Perhaps one day we’ll see special edition, or even a Blu-Ray release?