I had formed very few expectations of Barbarella before watching it. The snippets of half-formed ideas I had about the film were based on the enduring image of Jane Fonda floating around in zero gravity in a state of undress (I figured it was a bit porny?) and the notion of it being a 1960s space romp (I figured it was a bit corny…) I was right on both counts.
Barbarella was based on a comic strip of the same name and directed by Frenchman Roger Vadim. The film has a European feel to it (just look at the credits) – several of the supporting actors have their voices dubbed. The basic premise is that Barbarella is sent on a mission by the President of the Earth to locate the elusive Doctor Durand Durand (the second ‘d’ is silent and band stole its name from the film. I kept expecting Simon Le Bon to stroll on screen in his Wild Boys gear, he wouldn’t have been out of place…) Earth is now a peaceful place, and Barbarella must find the doctor in order to ascertain that his positronic ray has not fallen into the wrong hands. To be honest, Barbarella does not follow a very coherent plot (as you’d expect when so many different people worked on the story and script) but that’s not really the point of the film.
To me, the film had a warm and disarming fairy-tale vibe to it. I was particularly reminded of the Wizard of Oz (1939), with a heroine who stumbles from one perilous situation to another, attempting to keep up her positive mental attitude while meeting a variety of strange characters along the way and somehow coming out on top. Some of her winningly childish (but somehow ‘meta’) statements also put me in mind of Dorothy, “What’s that screaming? A good many dramatic situations start with screaming…”
As a film, Barbarella trades on a lot of the big lofty 1960s ideals of peace and free love, while also knowingly parodying these ideals. Pygar, the blind angel, is almost completely blissed out as he delivers with glorious conviction that “an angel is love”. Barbarella wears a variety of sexy outfits, but while wearing her “furs”, she gets her tail stuck in the door of her ship. The merciless 1960s aesthetic is established from the opening titles which dance around jauntily as if they’re at a Bert Bacharach concert. There’s also Barbarella’s multiple costume changes and her opulently fur lined space craft, controlled by a well-meaning and rather effeminate sounding on board computer. As the film progresses, it also becomes clear that no one can travel anywhere without the swinging 60s ‘go-go’ music firing up.
It was clear watching this film where all of the design ideas from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) had come from once You Only Live Twice (1967) had been sucked dry. With her tight space-age outfits, knee high boots and blonde bouncing curls, our erstwhile heroine is every bit the fem-bot in looks. Only Barbarella’s secret weapon is not her jubbly-guns, it is her innocence. Though a very sexy film, Barbarella as a character is unaware of her own sex appeal and is totally unashamed of her body or her sexuality. The film is a playful romp, made with all the sexual self-awareness of a cheap blue movie – in one scenario, Barbarella’s spaceship breaks down and the mechanic who repairs it for her teaches her how they have sex on his planet. There is also a scene where Barbarella encounters a broken angel, Pygar (played by John Phillip Law), suffering a crisis of confidence. One night in the nest with Barbarella is enough of a boost to restore Pygar his power of flight.
This rampant sexuality at times make you feel as if you are watching Carry On in Space – particularly the Excessive Machine – a contraption designed to torture our heroine with ecstasy until she dies in the throes of ultimate pleasure. There’s also an incompetent resistance leader known as Dildano. The high camp and the tongue in cheek humour feels very much like a foreshadowing of Flash Gordon (1980).
Barbarella was released the same year as Kubrick’s often worshipped 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I appreciate thoughtful and convoluted science fiction, I also recognise that thoughtless and convoluted science fiction also has its place. Barbarella is enjoyably silly, refreshingly unpretentious and heart-warmingly frank.
Watch this film or I’ll melt your face.