Director: Roger Vadim / Writer: Terry Southern (from comic-book by JC Forest) / Editing: Victoria Mercanton / DoP: Claude Renoir
Cast: Jane Fonda / John Phillip Law / Anita Pallenberg / Milo O’Shea / Marcel Marceau / David Hemmings
The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades…
Turns out, that 1968 was a vintage year for classic Sci-Fi pictures, with the Cold-War-fuelled ‘Space Race’ inspiring film-makers to revisit a genre oft-devalued by pulpier fare. But for every 2001 or Planet of the Apes, there’s a movie like Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy…
Think of it as the cinematic Universe course-correcting itself…
French Director Roger Vadim was inspired by the original comic, written by compatriot J.C. Forest, so when legendary producer Dino de Laurentiis acquired the property, Vadim was soon on-board, along with his friend, Terry Southern, who’d adapt it for the screen, which left but one question: Who’d play the lead? Given that Vadim was then already married to Jane Fonda, was there really any doubt? Well, yes, actually. De Laurentiis had already sought first Brigitte Bardot, then Sofia Loren for the role, accepting Fonda, only after learning that a few minor scandals involving nude publicity shots, had boosted her reputation as a sex symbol in the ‘States: the film’s likely biggest market. Welcome to the movie business…
The film itself starts with what’s become an iconic scene – one of many, as it turns out. Barbarella (‘B’) is peeling-off a cheesy, tin-foil-like spacesuit in a cheesy simulation of zero-gravity, as an even cheesier title song (by a group called The Glitterhouse) accompanies her. A variety of strategically-placed titles swoosh and careen over the screen to hide (most) of B’s modesty, but there are flashes enough to reinforce – and build – Fonda’s legend forever more. I wasn’t there myself, but I can imagine what watching this did to a vulnerable generation of teenage boys…
As to the décor of her ship – Alpha 7 – it reminds me of a Sixties incarnation of a sex-maniac’s dungeon, c/w wall-to-wall fake brown fur, a voyeuristic ‘communication screen’ and little else. I might not be the sharpest tool in the box, but even I have seen enough by this point, to realise that I’m not watching Sci-Fi; given there’s, err, not much Sci to speak of. Instead, this is panning-out as a fantasy, that just happens to be on an alien world; it’s a trick that De Laurentiis would repeat in 1980, with the narratively more successful (though equally kitsch) Flash Gordon.
‘The President of Earth’ (Claude Dauphin) calls B on her big screen, whilst she’s still nude and, after ogling her, asks her to undertake a ‘secret mission’, thus indirectly relaying to us, the audience, that B is some kind of ‘agent’, though that’s never clarified, like so much else in this picture. The mission itself – find esteemed scientist Durand Durand before his ‘Positronic Ray’ ends-up in the wrong hands (or Simon LeBon discovers pop music) is as clunky as it gets and the film almost apologises for it. Almost.
Soon after getting underway (and now dressed in the first of many costumes by Paco Rabanne), B encounters ‘magnetic disturbances’ that cause Alpha 7 to crash-land on an alien world. After evaluating the damage, B is ‘captured’ by twin girls and accompanies them on skis, across a frozen lake, towed by a Manta-Ray with cute eyelashes (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever write).
Now held captive in another, crashed spaceship, by an entire gang of twins, B is subjected to a slo-mo attack by doll-sized robots with steel teeth, who nip at – and tear revealing holes in – her costume, in an amateurish stab at S&M theatricals but, by this point, I’m past caring. Shoddy production values and Southern’s knowingly camp script, have combined to strip the picture of any cinematic merit it might’ve been aiming for, so what we’re left with, is a series of visually creative sets and costumes, with nothing to string it all together; certainly no narrative worthy of that description.
The ice-sled looks great, but serves no purpose other than to get B to ‘the Labyrinth of the City of the Night’. Its owner – Mark Hand – is a one-note bear of a man, who corrupts B forever more, to appreciate making love without her familiar pills & routine: yes, but to what narrative purpose? I guess we’re about to find out…
In the Labyrinth, B meets Pygar (John Phillip Law); an angel, complete with wings, but who’s lost the will to fly and escape. Oh, and he’s blind as well, which leaves him dependant on the aid of the labyrinth’s other denizens, led by the enigmatic Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau, in his first-ever speaking role). The irony is that, being blind, Pygar’s innocence can’t be corrupted by what’s going on around him: a challenge that newly-liberated B sets herself to overturn: she’s obviously successful, as when next we see her, she’s luxuriating in Pygar’s nest, while the bird-man’s off flying in joyous exultation… Ping explains the situation: the labyrinth sits below the city of Sogo (short for ‘Sodom and Gomorrah, I think) and its inhabitants are all those without ’evil’: as Sogo’s ‘dedicated to Evil’, they have no place there. Sounds, err, logical?
In a fit of post-coital madness, Pygar agrees to carry B out to Sogo, so that she can continue her mission, while the cuckoo-brained Ping agrees to fix her ship, though what he’s getting out of it, isn’t clear: sanity?
No matter, for soon our heroes land in the city and are soon attacked by those same disciples of evil that Ping warned us about. Trouble is, they resemble a clean-shaven, sweet-smelling chapter of the Mad Max Re-Enactment Society! Even when cornered by a pair of these rascals with rape in their minds, everything’s left unsaid and undeveloped. Yes, a Sixties audience (and censor) wouldn’t have allowed anything more at this certification level, which begs the question: Why have it there at all? As B herself puts it: ‘A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming!’ Indeed, which leads to her saving Pygar from a taunting mob (they might’ve plucked a feather or two from here or there, but ‘evil’? I don’t think so.)
Still, for all their punches-pulled, the mob still herds our two heroes into ‘The Chamber of Ultimate Solution’: a suicide chamber offering three distinct deaths or, should you not feel up to making a decision, your sacrifice to ‘the Mathmos’: a primordial, sentient gloop that lives under the City and ‘feeds’ on man’s evil thought energy: hence why all the do-gooders have been banished to the Labyrinth of Sanctimony. We’re told all this, by Concierge to the Great Tyrant (Milo O’Shea) who appears in the nick of time, to deliver them to his boss.
Except he doesn’t: Pygar’s separated from B who’s then pushed down a slide and into a ‘royal court’ populated by Sixties hipsters, high on hookah, hookers and playing hookey behind the Tyrant’s back (played by Anita Pallenberg, a lady for whom, I sense, such tomfoolery was hum-drum). Anyhow, The Great Tyrant (‘TGT’ – do keep up) reveals Pygar, who’s now being crucified (quick work, everyone). B pulls a gun from Pygar’s loincloth and utters the immortal line: ‘De-Crucify the Angel or I’ll melt your face!’
They don’t write ‘em like that anymore… Still, it gets them nowhere. Pygar’s now forced to bed TGT (complaining ‘An Angel does not make love. An Angel IS love’), whilst Concierge begins a series of torments against B, beginning with a glass aviary filled with budgies, into which she’s now placed.
Still with me? If you are, then you’ll likely be as dizzy as David Hemmings’ interpretation of Dildano, ‘Head of the Revolutionary Forces’. We meet him, thanks to a trapdoor in the floor of the budgies’ cage and, boy, does he look uncomfortable… It’s as though he regretted not asking his taxi driver to wait for him at Cinecitta’s main gate and had to hang-around a week until his return flight.
Then it’s blah blah, ‘Essence of Man’, blah blah, Concierge revealed to be Durand Durand, blah blah, the Excessive Machine, blah blah, invisible key to get into Tyrant’s bedroom, blah blah, Apocalypse and use of Positronic Ray, blah blah – oh, and then the Mathmos eats everything and everyone, but not before Pygar flies to safety, carrying both B and TGT, leaving a smoking ruin and countless (evil) dead in their wake.
Pygar’s last words, that close-out the picture? ‘An Angel has no memory’. Spare me.
The film reflects the emergent social upheavals of the Sixties counter-culture: it imagines an Eden of granted permissions, in which Mankind has conquered war and sex forever (but NOT evil? Come, come). The further B gets from her comfort zone, the more she realises how straight-laced her own, liberal society has become. Beyond the boundaries of ‘acceptable Government’, life continues to be Harsh, Brutal and Short for everyone else: it’s the old Elite vs Minions story we’ve seen in everything from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, through to, yes, Mad Max and all-points in-between.
As a result, I read this film (if not the source comic) as a metaphor for young, wholesome Americans venturing out into an indifferent wider world: and ‘Nam in particular (because, Sixties). Beyond that, I came to see the film as it actually might be: a dandelion clock of a film, whose idea-seeds are poised to scatter on the winds and leave us marvelling at what we’ve just seen. Barbarella is as flimsy. As transient. As shallow. As beautiful. As simple. There’s nothing deeper to see or learn.
The trio of Southern, Vadim and de Laurentiis, created a slice of camp kitsch as out-of-step with its cultural peers today, as it was on release fifty years ago. That’s why it has endured and continues to generate trickles of revenue: it hasn’t dated. It’s a cinematic artefact; a vibrant anomaly amongst its nominal genre. And, like all notable relics, it will attract an audience of devotees (and malleable schoolboys) as long as they’re aware of its existence – and all searching for meanings that just aren’t there: Barbarella just is.
It’s an art director’s show-reel, that’s as titivating as an end-of-the-pier gala and as deep as the shallows beneath.
Just in time; my energy box is completely dead!.