As a special treat for Graphic Content fans, local film writer Allan Mott, who is presenting this month’s film Barbarella with us, has written a special piece to go along with the screening. Allan’s work can be found at his website Vanity Fear. Check it out!
Set in a far away distant future, Barbarella – Queen of the Galaxy is a piece of pop-art Euro-psychedelia from the not-so-distant past that is so transcendently dated it will forever feel like something exciting and new. So specifically attuned to the brief period in which it was created, it has become something timeless and irreplaceable—a fantastic document of an era of glorious artificiality.
It is a classic example of a kind of film that the auteurist ’70s tried desperately to make extinct—a spiritual heir to such oft-lamented classics like Casino Royale, What’s New Pussycat?, The President’s Analyst and Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films, where broad comedy and satire gracelessly intertwined in brazenly colourful settings that were more inspired by the period’s fashion magazines than actually based on what anyone was really wearing. Garish, bold and frequently tasteless, these films represented comic book interpretations of the zeitgeist taken to ridiculous extremes, resulting in the creation of whole new worlds unlike any seen onscreen before or since.
Based on a serialized French comic book by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella was clearly conceived by director Roger Vadim (if not producer Dino Di Laurentiis) as the perfect vehicle for his third wife. By this time, Jane Fonda had been following her famous father’s movie star footsteps for seven years in a career that had her alternating between enticing virgins, frigid harridans and the occasional whore. Having tasted recent success with Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park, but also the stinging defeat of two high profile flops with The Chase and Hurry Sundown—Barbarella not only represented an opportunity to once again collaborate with her husband (they’d previously worked together on La ronde in 1964, La curée in 1966 and his segment in the anthology film Spirits of the Dead the same year Barbarella was made), but her second chance in a title role that would allow her to take centre stage and explore unseen depths of her abundant onscreen sexuality.
Though the script would eventually be worked on by as many as eight writers, the most significant of its scenarists would be the only one who received an onscreen credit with Vadim. Terry Southern had earned his reputation as a master satirist of ’60s absurdity via his work on the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (and would eventually help usher in the ’70s revolution with his work on Easy Rider) and there’s no doubt that Barbarella’s most memorable lines (“A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming….”) had to have sprang from his pen.
Interestingly, the plot of Barbarella seems inspired as much by Voltaire’s Candide as it does the original comic. Both concern innocent naïfs sheltered by their lives in paradise who are confronted with a series of strange adventures featuring the bizarre inhabitants they come across during their journeys. But if this connection seems a bit too general and tenuous, it’s made slightly more obvious when you consider that a decade earlier Southern had co-written (with Mason Hoffenberg) a parody of Candide called Candy, which was adapted into an infamously terrible film the same year Barbarella was made. The fact that The Graduate’s Buck Henry wrote that adaptation, instead of Southern, suggests that this self-plagiarism might have been as much a matter of spite as a lack of originality. (Or, as is often the case in these matters, it’s all just a weird coincidence.)
Adding greatly to the film’s retro-mystique is its unforgettable soundtrack, which was composed by Charles Fox and supervised/performed by Bob Crewe with vocals credited only to “The Glitterhouse”. It’s a dreamy lounge-era concoction that feels hilariously out of place in a genre where we’ve come to expect the classical music of 2001, the melodramatic Mickey Mousing of Star Wars or the synthetic moodiness of Blade Runner. The film’s songs could just as easily fit on the soundtracks of those mentioned above in the second paragraph, despite their earthbound settings. It’s a wonderfully strange and delightful juxtaposition that has the feeling of inadvertent deliberateness and is the clearest hint to unwary viewers that they should not be taking a moment of the film even the slightest bit seriously.
The film was shot in Rome on the soundstages of producer De Laurentiis’ Cinematografica Studios. Its colourful set design was created by Mario Garbuglia who had previously worked on Visconti’s The Leopard, as well as such less-prestigious productions as the Mike Conners’ 1966 Bond spoof/rip-off Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die, and was filmed by Claude Renoir—Jean’s nephew—who would go on to lens French Connection II and The Spy Who Loved Me.
But as distinctive as the visuals Garbuglia and Renoir created may be, the person most responsible for Barbarella’s iconic status has to be costume designer Jacques Fonteray. When you close your eyes and think of the film, the first thing you see is the title character in your favourite of her multiple outfits—which she manages to change into with startling rapidity.
But, of course, the clothes wouldn’t work without the right cast to wear them. To surround Fonda, Vadim assembled an eccentric crew of actors to flesh out his film. As the blind angel, Pygar, he cast John Phillip Law, a gorgeous hunk of beefcake who that same year would star in an even better European comic book adaptation when he played the title role in Mario Bava’s pop masterpiece, Danger: Diabolik.
For the role of the evil, but gorgeous “Great Tyrant” he cast famed Rolling Stones muse Anita Pallenberg (who also appeared in Candy), whose voice was eventually dubbed by Kind Hearts and Coronets’ sublime Joan Greenwood. The role of Professor Ping was played by the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau—even though the part never calls for him to demonstrate his skills in that area (unlike his starring role in the bizarre 1974 William Castle horror/fairy tale Shanks).
Still fresh off of the international success of Blow-Up, David Hemmings is clearly in on the joke as Dildano, the leader of the planet’s small band of revolutionaries. And Irish theater actor Milo O’Shea took on the eyebrows necessary for the part of Durand-Durand, the earthling inventor whose disappearance sets Barbarella’s mission in motion.
As a protagonist, Barbarella isn’t quite the strong female ass-kicker we might prefer to see today. She is, instead, closer to a perpetual victim who escapes her predicaments more often by direct male intervention than her own ingenuity. Still, she does have a handful of moments of empowerment, such as when she threateningly bluffs to melt the face of the Great Tyrant to protect Pygar, and—most notably—when Durand-Durand’s attempt to orgasm her into a state of mindless oblivion is undone by her insatiability, which proves more than his machine can handle.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a small piece of feminist enlightenment to be found in the film, especially when you consider the time when it was made. The fact that the film actively celebrates Barbarella’s open sexuality as a virtue even feels slightly groundbreaking today. This is most notable in the scene between her and Ugo Tognazzi’s hairy ice barbarian.
Having just rescued her from a gang of feral children armed with carnivorous dolls, he gives her a lift on his ice craft and she asks if there is a way for her to repay him. He suggests that they make love, which to Barbarella means taking pills and sharing a moment of psychic connection. When he tells her he prefers the old-fashioned way, she’s shocked (on Earth that’s strictly for poor people), but relents.
The punchline, of course, is that she ends up vastly preferring the old-fashioned way to the new. When we return to them after their tryst has ended we see her humming/singing to herself as she lays naked in his bed. It’s a joke we see again just a few minutes later, when she meets up with Pygar, who insists he’s lost the ability to fly. This lasts until he takes her to the nest he calls home, which we then cut to her lounging and singing in as she did before, while he soars in the sky above her—renewed with fresh confidence. When it comes time for her to make love to Dildano, she enthusiastically consents, but is disappointed to learn he wants to do it the Earth way.
While in different hands this could easily feel sexist and exploitative, Fonda’s performance and the script elevates it to something far more charming and enlightened. Barbarella doesn’t fear sex or see it as anything particularly virtuous. If anything it’s just an enjoyable way to pass the time. This might seem to make her character a clear male fantasy of the gorgeous willing submissive, but once she learns just how much she likes sex, she becomes an enthusiastic participant—to the point that her level of desire is such that it overcomes Durand-Durand’s nefarious machine, which is designed to turn pleasure into torture.
A character who loves sex and seeks out multiple partners without any drama or guilt is still pretty rare in today’s pop culture—unless they’re a dude named Bond—and though a present-day interpretation of the character would likely demand that she show a much greater sense of self-sufficiency and urgency, I think there’s a good reason that the famously politically-minded Fonda has never expressed a second’s worth of regret over playing her.
Like many cult films, Barbarella wasn’t particularly successful after its initial release. Instead, Fonda’s true breakout roles came next in the bleak depression-era drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and her Oscar-winning turn as an endangered prostitute in the thriller, Klute. She divorced Vadim in 1973, after he directed another classic of the era, Pretty Maids All In a Row—a film written by Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry about a serial killer/guidance counselor that is so brazen in its depiction of teacher/student sexual relations that it could never get made today.
It would actually take the success of another film for Barbarella to reach the cult status it has earned today. In 1977, Star Wars was breaking so many box office records that every studio started raiding their vaults for any space tales they might have at hand. Re-released that year with a great new poster featuring what was now one of the most famous and celebrated movie stars in the world, it was only then that audiences clued in on just how special the film is. Despite only nine years having passed, it was a true document of the past—one that had dated itself into something both accidentally and deliberately hilarious, a perfect mixture of the campy and the canny.
When Italian filmmaker Luigi Cozzi was charged with the task of ripping off Star Wars ASAP, it’s no surprise that the film that resulted—1978s Starcrash—owed much more to Vadim’s film than Lucas’. Caroline Munro’s Stella Starr being a slightly more confident and ass-kicky version of Barbarella with just as memorable costumes (which probably explains why I actually like it more than the film it was intended to capitalize from).
A sequel with Fonda was planned, but it fell through when she moved on to larger and more prestigious projects. Vadim once suggested he’d be willing to make a second film with Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn in the title role and for a time Drew Barrymore planned to remake it via her Flower Films production company, before deciding to make Charlie’s Angels instead.
More recently a $70 million remake starring Rose McGowan to be directed by Robert Rodriguez was halted when he decided he couldn’t spend the time away from his children the production would require (see also Red Sonja, which would have also paired the actress and director together).
Currently the latest attempt to bring Barbarella back to life is reportedly coming from Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn, who is said to be working on a TV adaption based on the character.
Whether we ever see another version of Barbarella ever again is beside the point, though, since we have every reason to be happy with the one we got. It’s a film whose flaws have been turned into attributes through time—one that you can laugh at and with in equal measure, as you delight in sights that are so of that one particular moment that they could never be truly recreated in a way that doesn’t immediately reek of imitation.
Barbarella – Queen of the Galaxy has all of the pleasures you could want in a “bad” film, while also featuring all of the hints of an actually great one. It may not be the future we’re getting, but it definitely seems like the one we would be lucky to have.
Thanks again to Allan for the wonderful piece, and we hope to see you all come out to the Metro Cinema on Tuesday, November 19th for the screening!