Barbarella is best remembered as the skeleton
in Jane Fonda's closet
: a soft-core dumb blonde comedy
notable otherwise only for providing the name for a semi-forgettable 80's rock
group, Duran Duran
. This is unfortunate, since it's one of the best SF
movies of the Sixties
and one of the very few that truly captures the sensual ambiance of the time.
In France, BB is one of the better-loved adult comics: an ageless blonde bombshell, intelligent, witty, and dead-on competent, whose transgalactic adventures usually involve casual sex with a variety of partners. If this seems a bit contradictory, it's the effect of fifteen-odd years of sexual backlash, recovery movement theory, and feminist puritanism: I've hardly ever seen anyone as sexually free (in the bad old sense) as this woman, in comics or in any other medium. She simply, purely, likes sex with men, early and often. She isn't (often) duped into it, doesn't agonize over it emotionally, and never uses it to manipulate or bargain. (Long-term relationships don't seem to be her strong point either -- like her near-contemporary, James Bond, she tends to love 'em and leave 'em -- but unlike Bond, both partners usually leave completely happy about it.) Her chosen profession is search and rescue from natural disasters -- unfortunately for her, her compassionate nature and pacifistic upbringing didn't adequately prepare her for human natural disasters, such as greed, envy, sadism, anger and so forth, which is milked to great comic effect. This is not to say that she's stupid, it's just that her culture can't see much point in violent aggression: anyone who tries to threaten her generally gets so much comic-liberal diplomatic nattering (You want my money? OK, why?...For drugs?...Are you sick?...Let me take you to a hospital, then...No? ... I'm shocked! Doesn't welfare cover that here?...You want to do what?...Here?...Well, OK, but...this is very sudden...shouldn't we get to know each other first?...Gee! You really ought to see a therapist about that hostility problem!) that they give up in sheer confusion.
Her character in the movie doesn't show this much depth -- instead of making her intelligent- but- unworldly, she's more a cookie-cutter dumb blonde of the Monroe/Mansfield mold, which brings me to Jane Fonda's portrayal. Fonda, to me is not as good an actress as people would like to think she is: she's such a strong personality that every single one of her roles ends up looking and sounding the same -- earnest and well-bred as a good elementary-school teacher, her best strength is choosing roles to fit. Applied to Barbarella, she's a lot closer to the original than the ditz the script calls for: after a particularly tricky bit of business that leads to an impromptu tryst, she shows a genuine warmth of affection and gratitude that is at sharp variance with the campy mood of the film; offered a smoke of "essence of man" from a gigantic narghile, she simply shrugs and takes a draw.
Oh yes, the plot. Well it seems like Duran Duran, a noted scientist (of what, it's uncertain) disappeared onto a planet designated as a free-range penal colony ten years ago and it's B's job to get him to safety. Of course, this means that she might have to deal with violence....and as soon as this sinks in, she crashlands. In quick succession, she meets a band of feral children and their handsome trapper, a saintly blind man with wings, and a grotesque band of peaceful outcasts living in a labyrinth. Hitching a ride with the angel, she flies to a Paolo Soleri-inspired city-on -stilts dedicated to debauchery, where she's befriended by a one-eyed horny (in more ways than one) lesbian (played--to the hilt--by Anita Pallenberg). The rest of the flick involves Barbarella wandering around looking for Duran, and trying to get back off-planet afterwards. Somehow she ends up rescuing the planet's Queen, a perennially smacked-out lazybones, from the Mathmos, which looks like an angry lava lamp -- in the course of all this she encounters some truly frightening dolls with blue hair and steel teeth, gets locked in a suicide chamber, laid at least twice, tortured by an Orgasmatron, and nearly pecked to death in a bird-shaped cage filled with carnivorous parakeets. ("This is far too poetic a way to die." she gasps, in between bird bites.)
Eye candy abounds: everything looks spectacular. Jane takes off a spacesuit in one of the most convincing zero-gee sequences I've seen, including the real thing. The city is wildly crowded, with really interesting looking people walking through alleyways just a few feet wide, and free and public everything, something like a Rainbow Gathering for perverts. Marcel Marceau eats an orchid. Spooky transparent people. Green rabbits. (Outdoor scenes don't quite fare as well: the snow country looks aggressively plastic.) Casting is impeccable, and scripting is wacky enough to cover the occasional dull point. It almost seems beside the point, but what science there is, (is/was) well-researched, to the point where it's now one of NASA's reference points when planning Mars colonies.
At the time of its release, a great deal of fuss was made over the scenes of graphic sex and horror scattered through the film. Nowadays, these sequences seem merely clumsy -- although it was probably liberating at the time to occasionally call the bluff on some hoary Hollywood cliches, its best moments are those of suspense and suggestiveness, when these tropes are played straight. With judicious fast-forwards, it would be a lovely film for a wicked old aunt to share with a favored teenage niece; without them, it's a cutely saucy date movie. Make a lot of popcorn for this one, buy or brew some Sangria (or smart drinks), and guys, don't forget the condoms. Have fun.