Weird Old Sci-Fi: “Barbarella”
by Kyle Anderson on May 29, 2013
The ’60s must have been an interesting time for Henry Fonda. He was one of the most wholesome actors in America, playing such stalwart heroes as Wyatt Earp, Tom Joad, and Abraham Lincoln, and his kids went all counterculture on his ass. His son, Peter, became the poster boy for the drug and biker rebel movement with 1967’s The Trip and 1969’s Easy Rider, and right in the middle, his daughter Jane decided to become the face, among other bits, of the sexual revolution by starring in the psychedelic space fantasy Barbarella, wherein Jane wears skimpy outfits, has sex with aliens, and gets put into a torture device that pleasures women to death. Oh, poor Henry.
Barbarella has Swingin’ 60s Eurotrash written all over it. It was produced by Italian uber-producer Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Frenchman Roger Vadim, the man behind a number of saucy Brigitte Bardot films in his native land. Vadim was also Jane Fonda’s husband at the time. Barbarella was based on a French comic book and has no fewer than seven credited screenwriters from all over the world. Take Italian film’s penchant for bright colors, weird makeup, and less-than-convincing model shots and add a French sensibility and attitude toward promiscuity and you have one of the weirdest, trippiest movies I’ve ever seen. Why hadn’t I seen this earlier?
Pre-exercise-tapes Jane Fonda stars as the titular heroine and is introduced in the film’s opening frames via a zero-gravity spacesuit striptease. If the weightlessness looks really weird, it’s because she’s actually lying on the floor and they used movie trickery. After the bombastic opening credits wherein a naked Jane floats around her fur-covered ship’s interior, we get the beginning of the plot. The President of Earth calls to ask Barbarella to find a missing scientist named Durand-Durand (yes, that’s where Duran Duran got their name) because he has invented the Positronic Ray, a weapon that the now-peaceful Earth would like to keep out of the wrong hands. They know he was last seen in the Tau Ceti, but that’s outside of Earth’s jurisdiction, I guess, so he sends Barbarella and her rotating-door of revealing silver outfits to retrieve him.
It’s nice of movies to tell you the plot at the very beginning; that way, when they only barely refer to it later, the audience will at least have a basic idea of what’s going on. Barbarella finds Tau Ceti, a planet covered in ice and snow, and sees Durand-Durand’s spaceship. She lands and finds the ship to be abandoned, save for a bunch of weird little kids she can’t understand. They’re creepy kids, unfortunately, and tie Barbarella up and unleash wind-up dolls with sharp teeth on her to attack and bite her. Nightmare fuel? Yes. She is saved by a big, swarthy man named Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), who is “The Catchman,” meaning he catches all the wild, evil children. When she gratefully offers to repay him, he requests that they make love. You know, like normal people do. She agrees and begins to ready herself for the way people make love on Earth now: with pills and hand-touching. The Catchman says he wants to do it “the old-fashioned way” and Barbarella says only poor people do it that way. She does agree, however, and finds that she quite likes the old-fashioned way.
She gets back in her ship and crashes through the planet’s crust into an underground city controlled by The Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg). There’s a giant labyrinth surrounding the city where the slaves are made to shamble around and eat orchids. There Barbarella finds Pygar (John Phillip Law), a blind, winged man who is basically an angel. Since her ship is screwed up, she wants Pygar to fly her to the Tyrant’s castle, but Pygar doesn’t have the spirit to fly anymore. Barbarella knows how to get it back… We never actually see Barbarella have sex with people, save the one time she does it the new-fashioned way, but we certainly see her in afterglow.
The Great Tyrant catches them immediately, pins Pygar up by his wings, and basically wants to have Barbarella all to herself. She asks him what it’s like to make love to Barbarella, to which he replies, “Angels don’t make love; they are love.” The Great Tyrant’s concierge (Milo O’Shea) subjects Barbarella to a number of torture methods, including putting her in a tiny, see-through box and filling it with parakeets. Eventually, he puts her in his most dastardly device ever: The Excessive Machine. This is something he plays like an *ahem* organ which causes Barbarella to experience ever-mounting pleasures, which would eventually lead to her death by orgasm. Little does he know that her pleasure threshold is higher than anyone in the universe and his machine can’t handle it.
There’s more plot I could talk about, but there’s really not a lot of point. This movie isn’t about plot; it’s about the weirdest art decoration you’ve ever seen coupled with single-entendres and Jane Fonda being a space trollop. And it’s kind of a lot of fun, despite being ridiculous. If you’ve seen any other Italian-produced science fiction of the ’60s and ’70s (like my favorite garbage space adventure Starcrash), you’ll probably recognize the style of the backgrounds and sets, as they were very common. You can’t really call Barbarella “science fiction,” but symbolically, it is. The music in it is utterly fantastic, being something akin to Tom Jones being backed by Strawberry Alarm Clock.
I’d always heard about Barbarella and knew basically what it was about, but it really must be seen to be believed.