Ok. If you haven’t heard of the movie ‘Barbarella’ (1968) then this review may be a bit of any eye-opener for you. And if you have heard of ‘Barbarella’ then you’re probably a dyed-in-the-wool honest-to-goodness geek who knows that this is undoubtedly one of the campiest, most kitsch-ridden Science-Fiction flicks to ever grace the silver screen (if you know a film to out-camp ‘Barbarella’ then please tell us – we want to know!). The plot itself is so stereotypically Sci-Fi that it rises to the level of knowing pastiche. Based upon the controversial French erotic comic ‘Barbarella’ by writer/artist Jean-Claude Forest, it stays close to the spirit (if not the substance) of the original work under the direction of French auteur Roger Vadim and legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, blending the psychedelic anything-goes zeitgeist of 1960s cinema in a very European style (the movie was shot bilingually in French and English) with a dollop of porn so soft it would hardly raise a mother superior’s eyebrow.
The central character in the film is Barbarella (played by Vadim’s then wife, Jane Fonda – no, not the Jane Fonda you know from rom-com hits like ‘Monster in Law’ or various ‘beauty’ advertisements, but a very young, spandex-clad Jane Fonda with bouffant red hair and leather-encased boobs). Barbarella is a secret agent ordered by the President of Earth to retrieve the scientist Durand Durand (inventor of a fearsome new weapon called the Positronic Ray, and inspiration for a later, possibly dyslexic, 1980s new wave pop band) from the mysterious planet Tau Ceti. Unfortunately for her things go wrong from the get-go as she crashes on the planet and is captured and tortured by a group of feral children using fiendish automated dolls, until rescue comes along the way in the shape of the Catchman; an officer who patrols the outer lands searching for delinquent children (played with enjoyable gusto by Italian teeth-and-beard stud, Ugo Tognazzi). There then follows the first of several obligatory – if mainly off-camera – sex scenes as Barbarella pretty much shags her way to the errant scientist through a number of male characters including a blind angel named Pygar (John Phillip Law in an annoyingly wistful performance) and a revolutionary called Dildano (David Hemmings, in euphemistic guise). The erotic adventures come to a climax (ahem) in the now legendary scene of the Excessive Machine, a torture device played like an organ and into which Barbarella is inserted and where she manages to reach, um, some high notes, under the musical skills of a character called the Concierge, who in fact is the lost scientist Durand Durand in disguise (played by our own wonderful Milo O’Shea, who hams it up with such obvious wide-eyed mania that it is impossible not to enjoy it).
The whole plot is of course utterly ridiculous. Gritty social realism it isn’t, and it serves no other purpose than to see Barbarella go through a series of increasingly skimpy costumes. But hey, what’s so bad about that? Upon release the film did poorly with box office audiences and critics alike but has grown in popularity since then as a symbol both of its era and of kitsch Sci-Fi at it best (or worse). Many years later producer De Laurentiis would return to the continental European style of camp SF cinema with ‘Flash Gordon’ (1980), creating a much more popular movie, and one that was later matched in style by another European-born Science-Fiction hit, ‘The Fifth Element’ (1997) from French director Luc Besson.
Ultimately ‘Barbarella’ is silly, over-the-top fun without any deeper message (unless it is some vaguely counterculture peace and love mantra). Ok, yes it has dated, the acting and script is fairly dodgy, as is many of the special effects and yes it is less than politically correct for much of today’s sensitivities. It is a world away from later ‘serious’ SF like Michael Crichton’s 1971 slow burning hit ‘The Andromeda Strain’ though it does share some risqué similarities with the 1976 flop-turned-cult ‘Logan’s Run’. And it is certainly no ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) classic. But so what? It represents a bit of hippyesque nonsense, with enough of a veneer of cultishness to make it relatively acceptable to even the most prudish out there. It also showed that in terms of Science-Fiction, European cinema did have a distinctive voice of its own, quiet at odds with its American counterparts, and a noticeable ‘look’. As for Jane Fonda she never looked better, turning her up-to-then girl next door image on its head, as she created one of the more famous opening scenes in movie history, a slow, low-gravity striptease, that has been emulated by everyone from Australian elfin-warbler Kylie Minogue to Welsh songstress Jem. Though a sequel or remake has been promised several times none have got beyond the purgatorial stage of development hell, but the original is still widely available on several DVD editions and is worth a viewing. It’s silly, high camp fun, and you’ll never look at Jane Fonda the same way again. Or Milo O’Shea!
- Photos of Jane Fonda as Barbarella, 1968 (vintag.es)
- LIFE With Jane Fonda: Behind the Scenes on the Camp Classic, ‘Barbarella’ (life.time.com)
- Funky Fresh to the Maxx (svapodmaking.wordpress.com)