Barbarella/Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy (1968) **
We’ve spoken before about the central importance of sexy space ladies in 1960’s sci-fi. We’ve ogled Luciana Paluzzi in The Green Slime; drooled over Lisa Gastoni, Obretti Colli, and Halina Zalewska in Antonio Margheriti’s Gamma 1 tetralogy; entertained unclean thoughts about Kumi Mizuno in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. And if I did series television, we could spend ages picking and choosing among the 79 episodes’ worth of diaphanously gowned, short-term lust-interests on “Star Trek” (to say nothing of Nichelle Nichols in the galaxy’s tiniest mini-dress). Well now we’re going to take a look at what is generally considered to be the ultimate 1960’s sexy space lady flick: Roger Vadim’s Barbarella. Once again, I’m afraid I can’t get with the program here. Yes, Jane Fonda was desperately hot in 1968, and heaven knows the costumers here went to great lengths to make sure we all knew it. Yes, there’s a zero-g striptease during the opening credits, as the title character floats about the shag-carpeted cockpit of her swingin’ spaceship. And yes, this movie has the Excessive Machine. Doesn’t matter. Maybe I’d feel differently if I were not acquainted with Jean Claude Forest’s Barbarella comic strip, from which this movie derives, but I can’t watch Vadim’s film version without thinking back to the ink-and-paper original and sighing resignedly over all the squandered opportunities. You may find this hard to believe, but Vadim toned things down. Rather a lot, in fact. And in his handling of the title character, he did her (and the actress playing her) a conspicuous injustice.
After that tone-setting zero-g strip aboard the Alpha 7 (which sets the tone not least by managing not to show anything, thanks to a few strategically placed lines of credit text), Barbarella (Jane Fonda— Vadim’s wife at the time, whom he had just finished directing in Spirits of the Dead) receives a transmission from the President of Earth (Phantom of the Rue Morgue’s Claude Dauphin), charging her with a vital mission. A brilliant scientist named Durand Durand has gone missing, taking with him the plans for his newly invented positronic ray. What makes this so worrisome is that Durand’s destination seems to have been somewhere in the Tau-Ceti system, a primitive corner of the galaxy where the inhabitants still follow outmoded practices such as competition, violence, oppression, and even war. In their hands, the positronic ray would be much more than a technological curiosity; it would be a weapon enabling them to loose a tide of bloodshed and destruction all over the universe. The president wants Barbarella to set off at once for Tau-Ceti, and to bring Durand Durand back home. He’s even arranged for her to borrow some weaponry from the Museum of Conflict in order to keep the assignment from turning into a suicide mission. Barbarella embarks as soon as the equipment has been teleported to her ship.
Once inside the Tau-Ceti system, the Alpha 7 encounters some kind of magnetic disturbance, which knocks out all navigational equipment. Alfie the computer is unable to handle the scrambled input, and Barbarella crash-lands on the icy surface of Tau-Ceti 16. There, she encounters a pair of young children whose language appears to be unknown to her universal translator (or “tongue box,” as it’s called colloquially), and who respond to her attempts at communication by beaming her in the head with a stone-cored snowball and dragging her off to their settlement. By a remarkable coincidence, the children and their fellows (all of them twins, incidentally) make their homes in the wreckage of Durand Durand’s ship, the Alpha 1, but they either don’t know or don’t care to tell what became of its original owner. Instead of cooperating with Barbarella in any way, the kids tie her up and sic their vampiric clockwork dolls on her. Luckily for her, however, Mark Hand the Catchman (Ugo Tognazzi, from The Beach Hut and The Career of a Chambermaid) swings by to round up the bloody-minded moppets before the killer dolls have done much more than to chew off most of Barbarella’s clothes. As Hand explains, all children on Tau-Ceti 16 must live on the inhospitable surface of the planet until they reach “a serviceable age,” at which point he captures them and sends them down to the subterranean city of Sogo to take their place in what passes for society there. Hand is less helpful regarding the questions of the mangled spacecraft and the whereabouts of its erstwhile pilot, but he does at least offer to get the Alpha 7 patched up so that Barbarella can resume her mission. All he asks in exchange is that Barbarella make love to him— but no, not the way’s she’s thinking. On Earth, you see, people choose their sex partners by comparing psychocardiograph readings in order to establish compatibility, and then kneel in front of each other touching palms after taking ecstasy transference pills. Mark Hand wants none of that. He’s an old-fashioned guy, and he insists upon doing Barbarella in the old-fashioned manner. Barbarella, for her part, agrees afterward that there are indeed some areas of life in which the old ways are best— although she certainly sees what her ancestors meant when they abandoned sexuality as we know it on the grounds that it was “too distracting.”
Sadly, Mark Hand proves to be not nearly as capable a mechanic as he is a lover. He’s got the Alpha 7’s stabilizers wired up backwards, and Barbarella’s attempt to take off results instead in her ship burrowing its way through Tau-Ceti 16’s crust, into the vast subterranean cavity where the fabled Sogo stands at the center of a labyrinth rather resembling Hell as conceived of by Jose Mojica Marins. Barbarella’s first encounter in this underground world is with Pygar, the last of the Ornithanthropes (John Phillip Law, from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Eyes Behind the Walls)— for all practical purposes, an angel. You might ask what an angel would be doing in a place like this, but Pygar explains that he was shot down in the skies over Tau-Ceti 16, captured by the Great Tyrant, blinded, and then turned loose in the labyrinth, to which all beings insufficiently evil to reside in the city proper are exiled. Is it any wonder Pygar has lost his will to fly? The angel doesn’t know a thing about starship repair, but he offers to take Barbarella to his friend, Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau— yeah, that one), who is just about the smartest and most resourceful person in the whole labyrinth. The professor agrees to have a look at the Alpha 7, and while he’s doing that, Barbarella accompanies Pygar to his nest and fucks the will to fly back into him. Ping also mentions that Durand Durand was reportedly taken into the city, so Barbarella convinces her newly airworthy friend to fly her into Sogo for a little reconnaissance while the professor works on her damaged ship. Their incursion attracts the notice of the Great Tyrant’s air patrol, however, and Barbarella and Pygar quickly find themselves surrounded by a swarm of extremely weird two-man flying machines. Pygar proves to be remarkably adept at evasive maneuvering for a blind guy, while Barbarella demonstrates extraordinary marksmanship for a woman who’s never before handled a firearm.
It is when Barbarella arrives in the city that the film really begins showing its origins as a short-form serial comic strip; “episodic” barely begins to cover it. Basically, Barbarella and/or Pygar will spend the rest of the film falling into or attempting to rescue each other from assorted species of captivity, confronting a vast and varied array of really daffy deathtraps while they’re at it. There are suicide chambers, sadistic mobs, execution booths in which the condemned are nibbled to death by finches and parakeets, an organ-like contraption designed to bring its victims to fatal orgasm, and throughout it all, the looming threats of Durand Durand’s positronic ray on the one hand, and the Matmos on the other. What’s a Matmos, you ask? Oh, nothing much— just the liquid lifeforce of concentrated evil that bubbles and churns beneath the foundations of Sogo, powering the city with its emanations and feeding off the viciousness of the citizens in turn. And along the way, Barbarella acquires an unwanted admirer in the form of the Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg, with the overdubbed voice of Mysterious Island’s Joan Greenwood), gets mixed up with a revolutionary movement led by the hapless Dildano (David Hemmings, from Eye of the Devil and Deep Red), and winds up having sex with practically everybody. She does indeed locate Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea, of Journey into Darkness and Theater of Blood) eventually, but it puts something of a kink in her mission plan when she discovers that he has taken a job as the Great Tyrant’s concierge, and now entertains ambitions of supplanting her to become the galaxy’s last great dictator.
Fans of the comics will begin to suspect what’s wrong with Barbarella the moment they see what rating it was given in US release. The M-rating didn’t last very long, but it was 1968’s antecessor to the later GP and PG certificates, and Barbarella has carried the latter rating since its 1977 re-release. Yes, a PG went farther in those days (and an M went a tad farther still), but a faithful adaptation of Forest’s comic strip would have straddled (and I use the term advisedly) the original boundary between R and X. The Barbarella strips I’ve read are shameless, and since a large part of the point is that the whole concept of shame is outmoded in Forest’s vision of the future, a coy and winking adaptation like Vadim’s has to be considered a willful misreading of the source material at best, or an utter failure at worst. It’s a bit difficult to decide which at this late remove, however, because there seems to be little agreement on the extent to which the Barbarella we have today reflects the movie Vadim set out to make. Reports are rampant to the effect that Barbarella was edited extensively for its post-Star Wars reissue, but I have been unable to track down any concrete enumeration of what was supposed to have been removed. Nor can I detect any significant difference between the modern DVD edition, the 80’s-vintage VHS version, or the 35mm print that was screened at B-Fest 2008. The situation is made murkier yet by the existence of a dozen or so production stills depicting a (fully clothed) lesbian scene between Barbarella and the Great Tyrant. These photos apparently ran originally in a 1968 issue of Penthouse which featured an article on the film, but opinion looks more or less evenly divided over whether this scene was actually shot, or merely staged and photographed for promotional purposes. I have yet to see anyone contend that it ever appeared in American or Commonwealth release, but it may have been included in prints struck for exhibition in Continental Europe. Again, nobody seems to know. Note, however, that even the Penthouse pictures are far tamer than the comics, and given the source, it’s hard to believe that the scene, if it ever really existed, got any hotter than those stills. Esquire ran racier pinups in the early 40’s, and Bob Guccione has never exactly been in the restraint business. What little evidence exists suggests that even a hypothetical “hot” European version would have represented only a slight advance upon And God Created Woman.
Now that’s irritating, but Barbarella does at least sell the sizzle pretty efficiently most of the time. The shot of a nude Barbarella crawling through the translucent plastic concertina tube at the front of Mark Hand’s icemobile goes some way toward making up for the immediately preceding sex scene, which takes the contemptible form of an aerial shot of the vehicle turning wide, erratic circles due to its occupants being too busy to attend to the steering gear. What really hurts the movie is Vadim’s insistence upon treating Barbarella as a mostly inept damsel in distress. Forest’s Barbarella gets shit done. She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s witty, she’s competent, and she pulls it all off without compromising in the slightest her credentials as a fantasy sex-object. But except for the dogfight against the Sogo air patrol and one solid attempt to bluff her way to Pygar’s rescue with a burned-out raygun (“De-crucify the angel, or I’ll melt your face!”), Vadim’s Barbarella is pretty much helpless in any situation she can’t fuck her way out of (off-screen). This is made doubly frustrating by the very effective performance Fonda gives on those rare occasions when a bit of the Forest Barbarella is allowed to show through. In those moments, you realize that she really was perfect for the part, and with this weirdly stylish school of sci-fi already well on its way to camp obsolescence by the time Barbarella was made, there wasn’t going to be another chance to get it right.