Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Films of 1968: Barbarella

Roger Vadim’s 1968 cult-classic Barbarella boasts a mixed reputation with critics and audiences, and understandably so. 

In short, the erotic space fantasy starring Jane Fonda (and based on the 1962 “adult” comic by Jean Claude Forest) is in equal proportions impressive and tiresome. 

Barbarella impresses on the basis of its stunning costumes, incredible sound-stage production design, and on the back of Jane Fonda’s in-the-know, delectable performance as the titular character. She is the film's greatest special effect.

The film proves tiresome, however, on the basis of its story-telling approach which is, alas, pure camp. 

As I’ve written here before, camp is an aesthetic style constructed on a sense of knowing theatricality. The camp approach is one of exaggerated artifice. It is the antithesis of “real,” or “genuine,” as Susan Sontag once noted.  

While it’s true that camp productions prove “susceptible to double interpretations” (see: Adam West’s Batman [1966-1968]), it is also accurate to note that camp, through its flamboyance, distances the audience from a production’s narrative and characters.

My personal and critical equation on this subject is that camp -- while occasionally or briefly amusing under some circumstances -- severely reduces our ability to care about a work of art. 

If everything is played as a joke we start to see important dramatic elements (plot, character, theme) as jokes too.  Accordingly, we dis-invest from something we perceive to be camp.  If the artist can't take the material seriously, how can we?

There’s much magic in Barbarella, to be certain, from Jane Fonda’s zero-g, spacesuit strip-tease, to the interior set design for her shag carpet spaceship: the Alpha 7. But every time we feel as though we could invest in the character, and her world -- one in which sex is no longer saddled with centuries of Puritan guilt -- we regret it, because of the distancing camp style.

Though undeniably a cultural touchstone, Barbarella nonetheless feels deeply inconsistent. Some moments feature astonishing, erotic, and even disturbing visuals, and other moments are so silly in conception and execution that audiences feel silly going along for the ride.

“The universe has been pacified for centuries.”

In the 41st century, the President of the Solar System contacts his best agent, Barbarella (Jane Fonda) to travel to the distant Tau Ceti solar system. 

There, Durand Durand (Miles ‘Shea), the inventor of the deadly weapon known as the “particle ray,” has vanished.

Barbarella’s vessel, the Alpha 7, experiences magnetic disturbances on approach to the sixteenth planet in the system, and crashes on the surface. 

There, Barbarella experiences strange and erotic adventures. She learns the primitive art of love making from the Catchman (Ugo Tognazzi), falls in love with a blind angel called Pygar (John Phillip Law) -- the last of the ornithanthropes -- and challenges the “Great Tyrant,” the Black Queen (Anita Pallenberg).
Barara also faces danger from mobile, fanged toy dolls, carnivorous parakeets, and Durand Durand’s most fearsome and diabolical invention, an “Excessive Machine,” (essentially an orgasmatron).

“Are you typical of Earth women?”

Today, we live in the era of CGI or digital sci-fi movies. Alien landscapes and world-building are built, often, via the conjunction of green-screens and computers.  

This approach permits for spectacular scope, certainly, but not necessarily a sense of reality. Often, these alien worlds look cartoon-like. Going back to 1968, and the making of Barbarella, this method of “seeing” science fiction vistas didn’t exist. Everything to appear in a film had to be designed, constructed, painted, etc.

Barbarella is a “sound-stage” movie. By this I mean that the labyrinth of Sogo, the Chamber of Dreams, the ice plains of Tau Ceti 16, and other wonders are all real; tactile

It’s true that matte paintings are utilized occasionally in some sequences, and that some scenes meant to suggest scope fail because of inadequate miniatures, but many of the visuals remain unforgettable. 

In fact, they still look stunning.

Above, I mentioned Barbarella’s spaceship interior, and it’s a good place to begin a discussion of the film’s design. 

The Alpha 7 interior is decorated with wall-to-wall carpet…or fur, like a 1970s van…but also features statuary and other works of art (a large painting, for example). The ship appears designed for comfort, by a hedonistic 41st century society, rather than for mere utilitarian functionality. The cockpit is a recessed cubby in the floor -- like a tub -- surrounded by piano-like control keys. And beyond the cubby is a wall-sized view screen.  It’s colorful, it’s weird, and it is a splendid first peek at the film’s future world.  It suggest a way of looking at the world (and humanity) in a complete different way.

The ice plains and ice ship are impressive too, especially given that they are constructed on a stage.  

And certainly -- though undeniably weird -- the evil, silver-fanged dolls leave quite an impression.  It’s not clear what they are, or why they exist, yet they are pretty unforgettable in terms of their imagery and horror.  

Since the film is about the innocence of sex and lust, shorn of societal and historical taboo, it’s entirely possible that the murderous baby dolls represent the (unpleasant) specter of sexual responsibility.  They represent children, the natural result of sex, and a menace that eats everything with their sharp teeth, including parental time and freedom.

But that’s just one possible interpretation.

There are moments here that, certainly, forecast the Star Wars approach. We engage in Barbarella with a lived-in kind of universe, where no explanations are given.  We meet fantastic aliens (like Pygar), broach a deadly weapon (the Particle Ray, rather than the Death Star), and even get a mid-air battle between the Queen’s fighters and Pygar and Barbarella. 

This dogfight sequence, though a decade behind Star Wars in terms of special effects execution, certainly helps the stage for the “space fantasy” approach of that Lucas film.

A key question regarding Barbarella involves sexism. Is the film sexist for depicting a kind of space nymph engaging in intercourse with every male alien she encounters? 

I suppose it depends on how you think about it.  

This story is set in a universe in which a common salute/greeting is “Love.” It occurs in a universe that has been “pacified for centuries,” and in which there is no longer a state of “primitive neurotic irresponsibility" among humans. 

Barbarella lives not in a world that has responded to and rebelled against long-standing Puritan sexual mores, but a world in which those beliefs have been overcome…and then forgotten. 

She is, therefore, innocent, and that’s the way that Jane Fonda portrays the character.  When asked if she is typical of Earth women, she responds that she is “about average.”   Barbarella is not supposed to be a sex goddess, or "liberated" in a 1960s sense. She is a future human, divorced for all her life from the shame and guilt that human cultures imposed on sex.

Barbarella is innocent. She has no guile or guilt about her body, her person-hood, her attractions, or anything else. If that’s indeed the case then the costumes she so memorably wears are not exploitative.  They are just...futuristic. 

And apparently in the future, there is little modesty.

Finally, Barbarella defeats her enemies under her own power and with her own gifts. They try to kill her with sexual pleasure, and she discovers that her power in that realm overcomes theirs. They try to kill her with her sexuality, in other words, only to find that her “power” is indomitable.

Or, if you look at it the opposite way, the film is sexist in a profound way. Barbarella is an object for male sexual gratification, and not a hero in her own right.  She's but a a dumb blond (forgive the stereotype...), bumbling from one "adventure" to the next, unaware of how she is used.

It is easier, I feel, to make this particular argument because of the film’s camp approach. Fonda’s innocent portrayal of Barbarella can be misinterpreted as something else, and the character can be perceived as gullible, and even dull-witted.  

This is just one case in which a tongue-in-cheek approach hurts the film and its characters.

Much of the film’s humor is annoying, frankly, because of the insistence on keeping things camp. There’s the scene here in which Dildanno gives Barbarella the ridiculously-long password to possess an invisible secret key and she effortlessly repeats it.

And then there's the line that “Only an invisible key can open an invisible wall."

Such material makes it plain: the whole thing is a joke to the filmmakers.

It’s tough to remember today, but there was a time when filmmakers, critic and audiences didn’t take sci-fi seriously.  The genre was the purview of the adolescent mind, filled with gimmicks like invisible keys, positronic rays, and dream chambers. Barbarella doesn’t take any of these concepts seriously, and again, that undercuts the film’s hero and her journey.

Barbarella goes on a hero’s quest in this film, not entirely unlike the one undertaken by Flash Gordon. She unites an alien planet against a tyrant, and a mad-scientist. The fact that she is the film’s protagonist grants Barbarella some level of agency, but that agency is undercut because the universe around her -- though beautifully conceived in 1960s terms -- doesn’t have any grounding in reality or science.  It's all just phantasmagoria.

A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming,” Barbarella advises in the film. The sad truth about this Roger Vadim film is that the dramatic situations begin with promise, because of the filmmakers' imagination. But by the end of Barbarella, you'll be screaming in frustration at the way the director and writers handle virtually every aspect of their space fantasy universe.

Barbarella doesn’t get her due from the filmmakers.


  1. Think we must have seen 2 different films.

  2. John very entertaining review of Barbarella. I am so glad that you discussed the production design of this interesting 1968 science-fiction film. It is amazing that in 1968 we got the spectrum of both Barbarella and Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey.


  3. Sheri5:14 PM

    John, I have to disagree with your statement that critics, filmmakers and audiences didn't take sci-fi seriously in that era. Like SGB, I note that 2001, in theaters that same year, it certainly was considered "serious" and reviewed as such. So were The Time Machine, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and Fantastic Voyage.

    Trouble was, some of the greatest sci-fi was in B movies like The Thing, Them!, and The Incredible Shrinking Man--I even think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a higher-budget B movie--and those tended not to be reviewed by many mainstream movie critics. Also, there was genre confusion to contend with: were the movies I just named sci-fi or horror, or both? Were any/all of the classic Universal horror pictures also science fiction? What about Metropolis--fantasy? Sci-fi? Then we have the problem that Disney produced pictures such as The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, and The Shaggy D.A. that technically could be considered sci-fi or fantasy but were thought of as family comedies. And was The Nutty Professor NOT science fiction (or horror) just because it was a Jerry Lewis comedy?

    I think a lot of science fiction movies were taken seriously by critics, filmmakers and audiences alike--but perhaps not as science fiction!