AKA Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy
There’s a kind of cockleshell about you…”
–Lyrics from Barbarella‘s theme song
DIRECTED BY: Roger Vadim
PLOT: A wide-eyed aviatrix known as Barbarella must travel to the outer reaches of the peaceful galaxy to stop rebellious scientist Durand-Durand from unleashing his weapon, the Positronic Ray. She is rescued from a gang of dolls with razor-sharp metal teeth by a man who teaches her the ways of physical love, then befriends a blind angel. Her search leads her into conflict with the Grand Tyrant in a sinful city of the future.
- Based on the French comic series of the same name, Barbarella‘s screenplay features her creator Jean-Claude Forest among its many credits, as well as novelist Terry Southern (who also worked on the scripts for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, among others).
- The entire film was shot on a soundstage in Italy, meaning that the wondrous, complex sets were built from scratch for every scene. An oil wheel projector was used to create the trippy, amorphous backgrounds that visually expanded the limited space into larger territory. Several of the Italian actors are dubbed in English.
- Among the many cut sequences from the final product is a titillating love scene between Jane Fonda and Anita Pallenberg. Publicity stills of the scene exist but it was never actually filmed.
- At the time Barbarella was shot, star Jane Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim, known as the man who discovered (and married/divorced) the young Brigitte Bardot.
- The bands Duran Duran and Matmos took their names from this film.
- Barbarella was a flop on release. It was re-released in 1977 to cash in on the space opera craze started by Star Wars, with most of the nudity removed to create a PG rated version entitled Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Fonda’s titillating anti-gravity striptease over the opening credits is the highlight, or her sweaty orgasmic torture under the deadly Excessive Machine. For me the most remarkable visual moment is the Great Tyrant’s Chamber of Dreams, wherein Barbarella runs around in confusion, backed by fantastic lava-lamp patterns and floating bubbles as a rambling xylophone score tinkles over the action.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Merging elements of sex-romp comedy, ludicrous science fiction, and death-defying action-adventure with memorably psychedelic imagery, Barbarella is a series of disjointed sequences that get stranger and stranger as the story progresses. The wild costumes, over-saturated color schemes, goofy dialogue, and sly winks to the audience are punctuated with weird little details, from deadly animatronic dolls to a hair-raising futuristic sex scene with minimal physical contact.
Original trailer from Barbarella (1968)
COMMENTS: Set in a wildly distant future where war and violence no longer exist, everyone has big hair, and sexual pleasure is achieved through drug intake, Barbarella’s 1960s origins are extremely obvious. To give you an idea of just how 1960s it is, Barbarella’s spaceship is lined floor-to-ceiling with brown shag carpet. The character herself is a grown-up Alice in Wonderland, innocently passed from one strange encounter to another as she attempts to understand a society unlike her own. She has no idea how guns work, or how lovers can do it with their clothes off, or why anyone would make weapons of mass destruction. One would assume this naiveté makes her a target, and in many ways it does, but once her eyes are opened to the ways of “savages” she becomes more aggressive; it’s basically a sci-fi advertisement for free love. Her so-called mission and various expository discussions are very much secondary to her episodic love connections and costume changes. Fonda plays it straight with great success, sexy and funny as the hapless but determined heroine, and most of her costars do the same, albeit with slight knowing smiles.
The film is set up like a broad space action/adventure tale but plays more as a campy sex comedy that’s high on camp and low on actual sex. Aside from Barbarella’s brief nipple pop during her opening credit striptease, there isn’t much in the way of scandalous nudity, and Vadim instead chooses to hint playfully through visual innuendo and a few wink-wink, nudge-nudge jokes. (“Yes, I must admit ‘it’ was rather interesting… Still, I see what they mean by saying it’s distracting.”) The script is goofy and often tongue-in-cheek, with several hilarious throwaway lines that aren’t easy to catch on the first viewing. In fact, Barbarella generally benefits from multiple viewings, peppered as it is with strange background details and numerous supporting characters. Charles Fox’s lounge-rock score bops its way over the proceedings, maintaining a mood of fun and wonder.
While the silly jokes and ridiculous storyline are weird enough, it’s really the visuals that make this film incredibly memorable and bizarre. The candy-colored landscapes, the kaleidoscopic backdrops, the over-complicated costumes, and the fairly impressive (if dated) special effects are truly breathtaking, a fitting representation of the era’s trippy and excessive nature. In the Labyrinth outside of the evil city of SoGo, men and women dope themselves with orchids while their bodies become affixed to the walls with meshy webbing. A blind angel flies through a turbulent orange sky carrying our heroine, who blasts oncoming battle ships with her space gun. A group of scantily-clad women lounge around a large water tank holding a helpless figure, who provides “Essence of Man” for them to smoke through a hookah. Even the humor is often presented in the form of visual gags, from the Catchman removing his dark fur coat to reveal an equally hairy chest, to the sex-by-pill scene that curls participants’ hair to signify orgasm.
Yes, the plot does drag, and yes, its soft-core leanings are both preposterous and remarkably chaste by today’s standards, but Barbarella remains a cult classic with good reason. Its weirdness lies in its ambitious visuals, cluttered storytelling, and hodgepodge of genres. The actors (rightly) take nothing that’s happening onscreen seriously, yet the production betrays a very talented crew who worked hard to create something unique. I can think of few other films like it, besides followers like Starcrash and the 1980 version of Flash Gordon that clearly drew inspiration from it. Its imagination and originality far outweigh its narrative hang-ups, resulting in a wonderfully strange and all-around fun adventure that I’ve had the pleasure of viewing again and again.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Vadim’s film is something of a relic, but it has extreme kitsch appeal. Everyone is in on the joke of Barbarella‘s high camp: it’s so bad, it’s good, with production design that’s incredibly, colorfully weird.” –Peter Canavese, Groucho Reviews (Blu-ray)
IMDB LINK: Barbarella (1968)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Black Hole Reviews: Barbarella (1968), the Ultimate Guide – a great overview of the film for its 40th anniversary
Barbarella’s Shagpile Cockpit – a general Barbarella blog from the writer above, which includes some of the same info plus news updates
Jane Fonda * Barbarella * Sci-Fi film by Roger Vadim 1968 – this Italian site hosts a gallery of sexy promotional photos featuring Fonda as Barbarella
Jean-Claude Forest’s home page – the official site for comic writer Jean-Claude Forest has information on the character as well as his other comic works
DVD INFO:Paramount put out a Barbarella DVD (buy) in 1999; although it was released under the Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy alternate title, the print is the original uncut version with nudity intact. There are no special features other than the trailer.
The 2012 Blu-ray (buy) is stunning to look at (it’s a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.35:1), but sadly there is not much in the way of special features, aside from lovely pull-out cover illustration and the theatrical trailer in HD.
Barbarella is also available to rent or download digitally (download Barbarella). The Amazon page lists the PG rating, but also lists the full 98 minute running time; this is likely to be the uncut version, but buyer beware.