"What's that screaming? A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming..."
The death of John Phillip Law last week, as well as ominous reports of a remake being in the works, got me to thinking about BARBARELLA for the first time in quite a while, and those thoughts were very pleasant indeed.
Back in the days when VCRs were not common to just about every household and DVD didn’t even exist, it wasn’t so easy to see certain cult films unless you were lucky enough to have a movie theater near you that ran such fare on a regular basis, and luckily for me I lived a town over from Norwalk, Connecticut’s legendary Sono Cinema (“Sono” being short for “South Norwalk”). Many a night of my high school and college years were spent in the dark there, experiencing classic and not-so-classic motion pictures on a dinky screen in a smallish setting that brought to mind the intimacy of a homemade, basement screening room, each celluloid treasure accented with often hilarious commentary from the audience and the inevitable contact high achieved from the simple act of breathing the theater's atmosphere. More often than not, the films were run as double or triple features, usually in genre groupings of horror films, rockumentaries — there was a particularly amusing evening featuring THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME that’s great fodder for a post of its own —, and sci-fi flicks, and the oft-run sci-fi sets were guaranteed to feature at least one of the following films: THE ROAD WARRIOR, A BOY AND HIS DOG, DEATH RACE 2000, and BARBARELLA, each with a loyal following that guaranteed a sizable crowd. Being a regular attendee of these shows I saw all of those films several times, but these days the only one I keep going back to when I need a “feel good” movie is BARBARELLA.
Barbarella, as seen in the 1962 source comics. Unfortunately, her romp with Diktor the robot doesn't make the transition to the movie.
One of the weirdest variations on Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey template and based on a 1962 French comic book by Jean-Claude Forest, the 1968 adaptation of BARBARELLA is very much a product of its time, being a campy and lysergic live-action cartoon, a WIZARD OF OZ-style quest story for grownups that revels in the “free love” ethos of the late 1960’s.
Jane Fonda as Barbarella: ready and waiting for her next close encounter.
A thirty-year-old and painfully hot Jane Fonda stars as Barbarella, a more-or-less space-cop of the year 40,000, on assignment to locate missing scientist Durand Durand (pronounced “Duran Duran,” and yes, it’s where the ‘80’s pop group got their name) on the mysterious and balls-out bizarre planet Lythion. But after crash-landing her cheesy-looking birdhouse/party balloon spaceship on the strange world, our heroine finds herself bounced from one crazy and perilous situation to another, running afoul of homicidal children, hollow soldiers made from leather, and a lesbian/dominatrix queen of a city that makes Mos Eisley seem wholesome in comparison.
Along the way she also discovers the joys of flesh-to-flesh sexual encounters, a form of contact lost centuries ago in favor of palm-to-palm transference/psychic melding with the aid of pills, and Barbarella takes to Osh-Osh like a duck to water, eagerly jumping at every chance to get her hump on with various available males.
It’s the sex angle that really earned BARBARELLA its place in film history and in the hearts of moviegoers everywhere, but don’t think for a second that it’s pornographic or prurient in any way; Barbarella herself is a capable woman who happens to be an innocent whose elation upon her sexual awakening is a joyous thing that she’s happy to share as often as possible, and there’s something charmingly sweet about that. She’s definitely a male fantasy of a kindly and beautiful sex goddess, pure of soul and utterly unashamed of her frequent states of nudity and partial undress, rounded with a goofily cartoonish, wide-eyed quality that’s positively endearing, and I honestly can’t think of anyone other than Jane Fonda who could have made her work. People tend to make note of Fonda’s more serious work, but when she’s given a solid comedic role she always makes to most of it — even in the horrendous MONSTER-IN-LAW — and she’s seldom been funnier than in her played-totally-straight turn as Barbarella. But while there’s skin on display, there are no “pickle and donut” shots, making for one of the most sexuality-friendly films ever made. One never feels there’s “dirty” intent in the film — even though some overly-sensitive and PC souls might find the film a bit exploitative — but the fact that it’s Jane Fonda in the part, and clearly in on the joke, elevates the material above its Euro-nudie brethren. Sexy? Hell, yeah! Dirty? I've seen dirtier episodes of TWO AND A HALF MEN, and that show follows nearly forty years after BARBARELLA.
A disappointed Barbarella, just after burning out a torture device designed to kill its victims via orgasms. No, seriously.
The film’s attitude is tongue-in-cheek from the first frame to the last, with not a trace of seriousness in its head, coming off as a slightly risqué parody of the Buster Crabbe FLASH GORDON serials, and its sweet-faced, fun-filled vibe brings a smile to my face every time I see it. I enjoy all of the characters, and the movie is chock-a-block with memorable sequences featuring wild costumes and strange sets, kind of like the insane, knockabout LOST IN SPACE television series if it had somewhat of a budget and weren’t geared toward the kiddies, but had been crafted specifically for hippie stoners instead of merely being enjoyed by them. I mean, check out these images from Barbarella's dreamy-eyed zero-G striptease as the animated opening credits join her in her floating undulations (click on the images to enlarge):
BARBARELLA could almost be described as an underground comic book brought to life, only thankfully minus the off-putting misogynistic rape and violence found in many such works, and director Roger Vadim should be congratulated for making what could easily have been a complete mess work as well as it does, with the contributions of Fonda — whom he married during shooting — being impossible to overestimate. It’s by no means a “great” film, but it’s definitely worth checking out at least once and as anyone who’s seen it can tell you, it has a way of ensnaring you again and again if it turns up on cable. It’s a film that radiates positive feelings, and I’ll take as much of that as I can get.
Poster from the post-STAR WARS re-release, painted by famed fantasy illustrator Boris Vallejo. Question: why is Pygar the angel, the guy in the diaper with a gun, depicted without his wings?
Oh, and here's a bonus for you fellow Barbarella die-hards out there:
From the 1977 graphic novel BARBARELLA AND THE MOON CHILD, Barb and her son, Little Foxy. Hey, with all the "sharing" Barbarella got up to, a kid was inevitable.
And two designs by Jean-Claude Forest from the proposed 1980's Nelvana animated series that never got off the ground: