It begins with a veritable gravity defying striptease, one piece of clothing after another being excised and left to float in space. The spectacle takes place on a discernibly vintage shag carpet while an exotic music score plays and the opening credits adorn the act in progress. These suggestive and sensual characteristics are all a portents of things to come in Barbarella, the movie that brought the sexual revolution of the 60’s to science fiction cinema.
Before she became a political activist, hopped around in leotards and leggings to create and dominate the entire Workout Video industry and even winning a few Oscars, Jane Fonda (or “Hanoi Jane” as she would soon be known as) delivered the starring role as space faring sex-kitten Barbarella in one of the strangest science fiction comic adaptations to hit the screen.
The mindless plot begins with the President of Earth calling on the services of Barbarella to rescue prodigious scientist Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) from the Tau Ceti space system worried that an invention of his, the Positronic Ray, may fall into the wrong hands. Arriving in the system Barbarella crashes into an ice planet and is soon captured by kids that unleash dolls with razor teeth. “The Catchman” (Ugo Tognazzi) whose job is to trap the kids rescues her, sailing off in a Wile E. Coyote inspired, self propelled sleigh. As he brings her back to her spaceship she agrees to his request to ‘get shagged’ the old-fashioned way and not with her customary use of exaltation-transference pills, which she surprisingly enjoys.
Before long, her ship is sucked into some subterranean core where she meets the blind, angel-winged, bronze bodied Pygar (John Phillip Law) and with the help of Professor Ping (legendary mime artist Marcel Marceau in a speaking role) she ends up in the land of Sogo, ruled by an Evil Tyrant who is aided by a Concierge (who is really Durand Durand). It’s all quite complicated (overly so) but Barbarella is first left to die being picked by birds (an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), meets a bumbling sex-obsessed Dildano (David Hemmings) and is eventually tortured by an excessive sex machine.
Add in blue dyed rabbits, plexiglass and bubble sets, psychedelic liquid light show backdrops, greeting of “Love” and you may begin to understand the absurdity of this movie. Fact is, aside from the visual feast comprised of kaleidoscopic sets, lavish costumes and nubile bodies, it’s really a terrible film with an atrocious, nearly incomprehensible script, gaudy score and lame attempts at comedy.
When the characters or the annoying ‘computer’ aren’t spewing technobabble we get to hear Barbarella talking to herself aloud, usually uttering cringe inducing puns as she screws her way through the galaxy. While the entire cast looks like they’ve just come from a fashion show on a Paris catwalk sporting revealing gold lamé and feathered garments, Barbarella herself has more wardrobe changes than a bride at a Vietnamese wedding.
If the point hasn’t been understood yet this movie featuring place names that include Palace of Pleasure, Labyrinth of Love, Chamber of Dreams is all about one thing: sex.
Directed by Fonda’s then husband Roger Vadim and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, the man who would later give us two budget King Kong movies, the ill fated Dune adaptation, and the similar veined Flash Gordon, this bawdy romp encapsulate the sillier aspects of the 60’s.
But it did have quite a lasting effect in other ways. The name Durand Durand was later adopted by the musical group “Duran Duran” because they used to play in a nightclub named after the movie, while the name Barbarella has itself been adopted by many a ‘gentleman’s club’ (commonly known as strip joints to the uncultured) around the world including one right here in my home city. The concept of the Excessive Machine was used by auteur Woody Allen in Sleeper where he called it the Orgasmostron, which was the name used in the French version of this movie.
I have to confess that while I usually prefer to seek out images of original movie posters to include with my blogs in this case I opted for the magnificent Boris Vallejo painting that was used for the 1977 re-release.