There was a time in the distant past where Jane Fonda was not some leathery has been who made a living by appearing at Democratic fundraisers in exchange for food. She used to be one of the most talked about starlets in her day, and Barbarella was one of the many reasons behind the cult of Jane.
But many people do not know what to make of the film today. It appears on many “worst films ever” lists (including Medved’s Golden Turkeys book) but is also fondly remembered in many circles as a perfect example of how studios did not shy away from camp when the situation called for it (see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Today, the film seems to at least be remembered as something other than a terrible waste of celluloid; the recent Blu Ray release demonstrates how many fans the film can still claim.
So, Barbarella has wildly different viewpoints about its quality. I guess this is a good place for me to step in and talk about which side is correct.
The film, which takes place at some point in the future (according to IMDB, it’s set in the 41st century) follows an astronaut/secret agent named Barbarella (Jane Fonda) who is assigned by the President of the Republic of Earth to find a missing scientist named Durand Durand (not Simon Le Bon, but Milo O’Shea). This scientist has been building a “weapon,” something that the people of Earth view as savage. (They do not fight and end every conversation by saying “love.”) Barbarella does not even know how to use guns. She crash lands on a planet looking for the scientist and…after that, the premise is dropped in favor of Barbarella meeting alien angels, being nearly killed by killer dolls, discovering the mystery of penetrative sex, finding a revolutionary group that seeks to destroy the Great Tyrant, and being trapped in a machine that makes victims die of “pleasure.”
Yes, this really is a film that exists.
As one can imagine, the tone and pacing of the film vary wildly in its 98 minute running time. Barbarella mostly plays like a Jodorowsky-esque demo real of comic book surrealism. There is barely anything connecting one scene to another and the visual style is a throwback to Flash Gordon serials. I have no idea if this is indicative of the Italian comic book series, but it strangely works in the film. The most attractive aspect of the film is its visual design, not its story.
And what visual design! If the crowd at the Monterrey Pop Festival had been challenged to create a vision of the future, it would pretty closely resemble Barbarella. There is a fascination with Lava Lamps and sixties living room decor (the space ship has a shag carpet. The spaceship.) as well as fictional alien races that seem to be composed of pure groove. Characters eat and have intercourse through pills and Barbarella’s costumes are not far removed from what Goldie Hawn wore on Laugh In. Director Roger Vadim and producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted to throw every sort of visual cue of pop culture into the film. What’s amazing is how they used everything they could find, even stuff that was probably dated by the time Barbarella was originally released.
Barbarella is such a fascinating film to watch. If anyone ever needs to know what “the sixties” are, they can just watch this film and learn all there is to know. Tom Brokaw’s Boom pales in comparison to Barbarella.
But is the film good? It’s a great example of camp but no of a film. One of the problems is that the film does not address the social upheaval of the day or any sort of deep political philosophy beyond “love is my happening.”
But the largest problem with the film is Hanoi Jane herself and the character she plays. I know she is an Oscar nominee, but I’d be lying if I said her performance is not the worst part of the film. She goes through these bizarre adventures with barely a change in her facial expression. She is more of a character that things happen to, rather than a character who influences the action of the story. Granted, there are many characters like this in film, but the title of the film is Barbarella. By the end, she is just as much of a cypher she was at the start. We do not know who she is and why she acts the way she does. We know she is capable of taking off her clothes in zero gravity but that’s about all.
This might be forgivable if Fonda actually played her in a compelling way, or acted as though there was a sense of mystery to the character.but instead of playing a hyper intelligent futuristic astronaut or some sort of post feminist icon, Fonda comes across as an air headed ditz who believes rockets are those magical devices where fire comes from. This could be indicative of the culture that she comes from, but since we are never shown it, we cannot be sure what Barbarella represents. The material calls out for a Xena type character and actress in order to be a really great B-movie. Why anyone chose to portray the character as such a low watt bulb is baffling.
Barbarella is not good by any measure. But it is one of the most unique blockbusters of the 1960s. It was never boring and says quite a bit about the pop culture of the sixties. Less a film than a time capsule, Barbarella isrequired viewing for those who still feel nostalgic about hippies and Woodstock.