Friday, April 24, 2009

Barbarella (1968)

For some reason, while I was stuck in my new student apartment in a foreign country and without internet for over a week, this movie was the main thing I felt like watching. Based on the comic by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella chronicles the adventures of its titular character (Jane Fonda) on a savage planet, tracking down the familiarly-named mad scientist Durand-Durand (Milo O'Shea). In this version of the future, peace has enveloped the human race for centuries. They know nothing of war, weaponry, or violence. Their conception of pleasure has also changed, with food and sex boiled down to pill-form.

Loaded with her government-sponsored mission and an armful of outdated firearms, Barbarella crash-lands on Durand-Durand's planet. When a hairy-chested local comes to her aid, he seeks a form of payment. This is Barbarella's first physical sexual experience, opening her mind to the "uncivilized" way of things. She proceeds to SoGo, city of sin (like Sodom and Gomorra, get it?!), in which the scientist is said to reside. She seduces Pygar (John Phillip Law), the last of the ornithanthropes (winged men), so that he can fly her to the city center while his friend Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau, who for some reason is in this movie) fixes her spaceship.

They are both taken in by The Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg), ruler of SoGo and a smirking pleasure connoisseur. When Barbarella refuses her advances, she sentences the heroine to death by birds ("such a poetic way to die!"), but is saved by the city's underground rebel forces. After showing their leader how "civilized" earth people have sex, she's off to save Pygar and overthrow The Great Tyrant while still on the lookout for Durand-Durand. Hopefully she won't be defeated by the infamous Excessive Machine, which can kill by an overdose of pleasure. Gulp.

This movie is really, really silly, and that's what I like about it. You can tell the filmmakers were just having a lot of fun with it. Visually, it's quite impressive, as well as a testament to its time period: the sets are fanciful and detailed, with sprawling use of intense colors; Barbarella's costumes (notorious in number- it's amazing how often she is able to change outfits) are imaginative, dramatic, and highly impractical. But she always looks so good!

Barbarella is also just really funny. I'm not sure how tongue-in-cheek the comic is (it's so hard to find!), but the film fills in the gaps of its thin plot with lots of sex jokes and ludicrous dialogue. Camp heaven. The cast features a lot of European actors (it was filmed in Italy), with some voices dubbed over, but everyone worked well in their roles. Jane Fonda is quite adorable, playing it wide-eyed and innocent. I also really liked Anita Pallenberg as The Great Tyrant, though her voice was dubbed. And John Phillip Law is appropriately stoic and persistently shirtless as Pygar.

This is how civilized people have sex.To me the biggest drawback of the film is Barbarella's passivity, which often leads to helplessness. She is the heroine, but needs to be saved by someone else (usually a man) to get out of most situations. Admittedly her character has grown up in a world without violence, so I guess she can't be expected to know karate or anything, but still. I've heard that in the comics she is more capable, and that would have been nice. It could have used a little more action, anyway. If it ever is actually remade (who the hell knows what's going on with that, though), I hope they'll make the character more badass, or clever, or something. For this version it's not a huge deal though, as the film is so over the top I would not have expected any serious attempts at characterization. The fact that Barbarella is a master of her own sexuality is a good start, anyway.


Also! It's got a mad catchy theme song! And anti-gravity stripping!

Also! My original poster design for this film is available for purchase. I worked really hard on it. I think you'll like it.


  1. titular character. i see what you did there,