In the 2018 documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, Fonda discusses her experience filming the 1968 cult classic, Barbarella. She has gone on record previously, stating that she disliked how Barbarella shamelessly used her body and sexuality to advance her own needs, and also didn’t like how her character or the film itself, completely ignored the social and political realities of the time. In ‘Five Acts,’ Fonda also talks about how at the time, she was 30 years old, bulimic and very insecure about her body. The famous opening scene where Barbarella floats in space and strips off every piece of her space suit, was excruciating for Fonda to film. She said that she drank a bunch of vodka before filming, so that she’d work up enough liquid courage to get completely nude in front of the crew and in front of the camera. Looking back on the sequence and the film fifty years later, in ‘Five Acts,’ Fonda says now that she likes the film and how she looks, saying it is a lot of fun.
“A lot of fun” is really all one can say about Barbarella. This is not a masterpiece. This is not groundbreaking cinema. But it is a spectacle and it is a blast to watch–especially in a packed house at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, which is what my husband and I experienced this past January. Seeing Barbarella in the theater was one of the best theater experiences I’ve ever had. This movie is peak camp cinema and the audience was into it. The vibe was awesome. One audience member even cosplayed as Barbarella, despite it being a January evening in Oregon. She must have been freezing; but she looked great, and I appreciated her commitment.
Barbarella is based on Jean-Claude Forest’s 1962 French comic book of the same name. Barbarella originally appeared as a small comic strip in the French periodical, V Magazine. In 1964, these comic strips were published as a standalone comic, which caused a major scandal. Barbarella officially became the first erotic comic book, published exclusively for adults. One of the major social and cultural issues to come out of the 1960s was the sexual revolution. Despite Jane Fonda’s claims that Barbarella did not reflect the social and political realities of the time, the comic book heroine was intended to embody the modern, sexually liberated woman. After watching Barbarella, there is no doubt that Barbarella is sexually liberated. Though I suppose to Fonda’s point, it could be that Barbarella feels that she has nothing else to offer except for her body and sex. That is a whole other topic that could be researched and argued further, but that is not my intent for my entry into this blogathon.
Director Roger Vadim, Fonda’s husband at the time, was hired by producer Dino De Laurentiis after having expressed interest in comic books and science fiction. How convenient for him that De Laurentiis had just purchased the rights to the French sci-fi comic, Barbarella. Vadim’s first choices for the titular role were Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, before finally choosing his wife, Jane Fonda. Vadim was quoted by Fonda as saying “I want to do this film as though I had arrived on a strange planet with my camera directly on my shoulder–as though I was a reporter doing a newsreel.”
Strange planet indeed. Barbarella takes place in the year 40,000. At the beginning of the film, “space adventurer” Barbarella is returning to her pink spaceship, the Alpha 7. The Alpha 7 is its own character in the film. It seems to have a single room, completely covered (literal wall-to-wall) in caramel-colored shag carpeting. In one part of the room is Alphy, Barbarella’s computer that she can use via voice activation. To the right of Alphy is her video phone. The cockpit of the ship features a lot of buttons and gizmos, but Barbarella, a 5-star double-rated Astro Navigatrix, handles the flying of the ship with ease. The Alpha 7 unfortunately sustains a large amount of damage during the film, which eventually will be repaired by Professor Ping.
Barbarella receives a phone transmission from the President of Earth. He informs her that scientist Durand Durand has gone missing during a mission to the North Star and is believed to to have landed somewhere in the Tau Ceti star system. Because not much is known about this region of space, the President is concerned that Durand Durand’s invention, the positronic ray, might fall into the wrong hands. It is inferred that the positronic ray is powerful and has the potential to start an intergalactic war, should the wrong people obtain possession of it. Earth no longer has a military nor does it have police, as it has been free from conflict for centuries. It falls to Barbarella to find Durand Durand. In a funny sequence, the President electronically transmits various weapons and a device that will light-up if Durand Durand is nearby. This device also conveniently has a “tongue box” which will also translate any language so that Barbarella can communicate.
After crash landing on Tau Ceti’s 16th planet, Barbarella is knocked unconscious by two children. The children load Barbarella up onto a sled, that is pulled by a giant manta ray that glides across the ice. When she awakens, Barbarella finds herself surrounded by multiple sets of twins and blue bunnies. These children are very creepy. Making the scene even creepier, is when the children tie Barbarella up and unleash a bunch of mechanical dolls with sharp teeth and hinged jaws to attack her. The children take sadistic glee in hurting Barbarella. As she looks around her settings, Barbarella realizes she’s inside the wreckage of the Alpha 1, Durand Durand’s old ship.
Before the scary dolls can inflict any further damage on Barbarella, a man named Mark Hand appears and saves her. He unties her from her bindings and carries her off to safety. This is where a common motif is introduced into Barbarella. Men who encounter Barbarella often want to have sex with her in the form of a payment of sorts for helping her out. Barbarella will nonchalantly agree and proceed, as if this is just a normal thing for her. However, this scene is very funny when Barbarella starts to take out her “transference pills.” She explains to Mark that on Earth, people have sex by each taking a transference pill and putting their palms against one another. Obviously overwhelmed by such a hot sounding suggestion, Mark suggests that he and Barbarella have sex on his bed the old-fashioned way. Barbarella is skeptical about engaging in such archaic traditions but agrees. Of course she agrees and the two appear to have a very satisfactory encounter underneath the sheets. Mark repairs the Alpha 7, and Barbarella is on her way.
Barbarella eventually ends up in the Labyrinth, and meets a blind angel named Pygar (John Phillip Law). He takes her to see Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau). The Professor explains that Pygar, despite having wings, does not fly. He can fly, but lacks the morale to do so. All the inhabitants of the Labyrinth are prisoners, being held there on the orders of the Great Tyrant. They apparently are not evil enough to live in Sogo, the City of Night. Wanting to restore his will to fly, Barbarella and Pygar have sex in his nest. Because their romp was a success, Pygar is more than willing to fly Barbarella to Sogo, a den of iniquity. They are captured by the Black Queen (Anita Pallenberg).
Pygar is forced to endure a mock crucifixion, while Barbarella is placed in a cage full of adorable budgies. Despite being adorable, the birds attack Barbarella, slowly pecking at her and drawing blood. She ends up being saved by Dildrano (David Hemmings), the leader of the underground, who is willing to join her pursuit to find Durand Durand. He gives Barbarella an invisible key to the Black Queen’s “Chamber of Dreams.” The plan is to sneak in while she’s asleep. The scenes of Dildrano passing the invisible key to Barbarella is pretty funny. Also, to thank Dildrano, Barbarella offers to have sex with him. At this point, Barbarella is completely into old-fashioned sex, but Dildrano is not into that at all. He prefers the new method with the transference pills. Finally, the audience gets to see what the pill and the palms method is all about. Despite not yet having exchanged psychocardiograms, Barbarella agrees. The scene of Dildrano and Barbarella having sex via their palms, is one of the funniest parts of the movie.
After sneaking out of the headquarters, via a chute that deposits her somewhere else, Barbarella is found and re-captured. In what is probably the funniest part of the movie, she is placed inside the Concierge’s (Milo O’Shea) torture device, “The Excessive Machine” which is supposed to murder its victim by giving them more sexual pleasure than the victim can handle. However, this machine is no match for Barbarella. The Concierge cannot believe his eyes when his precious machine bites the dust, and Barbarella is still alive, experiencing intense afterglow.
Eventually, Barbarella finds Durand Durand and discovers his true intentions with the positronic ray. She and the Black Queen join forces and Barbarella and Pygar eventually fly to safety.
There is surprisingly a lot of plot in Barbarella and not a lot of plot at the same time. This entire film is about the spectacle and I will say that the art director, prop, and costume departments worked overtime creating the sets for this film. The sets are absolutely insane as are the costumes. One of the highlights of Barbarella are the amount of costume changes that its heroine has throughout the film. Sometimes the costume changes make sense, such as when Barberella has no clothes and has to wear something else. Other times, her clothes are destroyed and she needs another outfit. And other times, it’s just that Barbarella decided to do a costume change. Barbarella’s costumes are amazing at one point, she wears a short costume with see-through plastic cups covering her breasts. Unlike many film productions, Barbarella utilized the skills of an actual fashion designer, versus a studio costume department. Barbarella’s costumes were designed by Jacques Fonteray. He did an extraordinary job!
I absolutely love this movie, and I’ve even seen it in the theater in 35mm no less. This film doesn’t make any sense, but it’s a great late night movie to watch when you just want to watch something frivolous. This is not a film that will make you think, unless it’s to think about either what is happening in the film or wondering what you just watched. Despite her criticisms of the film, I think Jane Fonda did a great job as Barbarella and was very believable as a “five-star double-rated Astronavigatrix.”
A tribute to Barbarella’s Costumes: