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Movie Review: How in the World Did BARBARELLA Ever Get Made?

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Paramount Pictures bankrolled Barbarella.  Paramount Pictures bankrolled Barbarella.  I mention that fact twice because I still can’t believe it, that one of Hollywood most venerated movie studios – Paramount made The Ten Commandments and The Godfather, for God’s sakes – financed what is, essentially, a test run for the kind of fare that starts running after midnight on the Cinemax Channel.  That’d be like if the Criterion Collection put out a deluxe Blu-ray edition of Lord of the G-Strings.  Does.  Not.  Compute.

Think I’m overreacting?  Maybe you assume that Barbarella possesses some degree of artistic cachet because it stars screen legend Jane Fonda.  Here’s a quick rundown of the film’s plot:

  • Apropos of nothing, Jane Fonda’s title character strips nude in her zero-G spacecraft.
  • She receives a mission from Claude Dauphin’s leering President of Earth (he leers because Barbarella communicates with him in the nude.  Again, remember: this movie begins with a five-minute-long zero-G striptease sequence) to bring back mad weapons developer Durand-Durand from the planet Lythion.
  • She crash-lands on Lythion, and some feral children sic flesh-eating robots on Barbarella that mostly just rip her already-skimpy clothing ensemble in provocative places.
  • Ugo Tognozzi’s butch Alpha Male rescues her.
  • They have sex.
  • Ugo fixes her ship, which she crash-lands again just outside of the city of Sogo.
  • A blind angel named Pygar (Danger: Diabolik‘s John Phillip Law) revives her.
  • They have sex.
  • Pygar flies her into Sogo to find Durand-Durand, and they crash-land (surprise!).
  • She meets Anita Pallenberg’s sensual Great Tyrant.
  • They don’t have sex, but it’s not for lack of trying on Pallenberg’s part.
  • Pallenberg’s right-hand man (Milo O’Shea) places Barbarella in a futuristic torture chamber, where flesh-eating birds rip her new already-skimpy clothing ensemble in provocative places.
  • She meets heroic resistance leader Dildano (David Hemmings, giving the film’s best performance).
  • They have sex, sort of (those familiar with Demolition Man should recognize their mode of copulation).
  • O’Shea captures Barbarella and tries to kill her by placing her in a machine that will orgasm her to death.
  • It doesn’t work.
  • O’Shea reveals himself to be Durand-Durand and locks away both Barbarella and the Great Tyrant.
  • Barbarella’s purity redeems the Tyrant and destroys Durand-Durand (huh?).
  • She, the Great Tyrant, and Pygar fly off into the (space) sunset together.
  • Presumably, they will all have sex, too.

I’m sorry, but unless Fonda’s naked body constitutes “artistic cachet” (and for some of you, it might), there’s just not a whole lot here of intellectual merit backing up Barbarella‘s screen fame.

Thankfully, there’s also not a lot of sleaze, which helps cut back on the potential quease factor.  Director Roger Vadim pulled off a similar feat using Brigitte Bardot in his And God Created Woman; despite the copious nudity and sexual content on display, the tone remains fairly light-hearted.  His Barbarella resembles nothing more than a cross between Forbidden Planet and the cartoons found in 1960s-era Playboy magazines: the camera cuts away before the sex starts, eschewing graphic nudity in favor of ribaldry and the picture’s hilariously dated sci-fi landscapes (I swear, every place Barbarella visits is festooned in shag carpeting).

Barbarella probably works best, in fact, during those rare moments when Vadim and co-writer Terry Southern send up the ridiculousness of their own movie.  They never seem like they’re exploiting Fonda’s bare flesh because she’s so good-humored about the whole experience; she isn’t quite the actress she would become in movies like Klute and The China Syndrome, but she still approaches the material like she’s enjoying a private joke.

Best of all is David Hemmings, who makes his Dildano a delightful study of impotence.  He has the most sexually suggestive name (think about it) but is barely attracted to the nubile young Barbarella; he purports to be the brains behind Sogo’s resistance forces, but none of his plans and inventions work; he’s the closest thing Barbarella has to a conventional hero, but he’s killed in a hilariously abrupt fashion.  Hemmings enters the movie near the end, and for about ten minutes he galvanizes it with the dry absurdity that Terry Southern brought to 1964’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Now, I still don’t think Barbarella is a good movie.  It runs on sheer ridiculousness for about forty minutes (plus, I have to give it props for casting famed mine Marcel Marceau as the most loquacious person in the movie), but once Barbarella and Pygar land in Sogo, the film is content to settle into the rhythm of sex/capture/sex/capture that I described earlier; while still interesting as a curio of the Swinging Sixties, it does not a captivating adventure make.

Yet it endures.  Say what you will about America’s prudish sexual tendencies; we made Barbarella a classic back in 1968, and Paramount is supporting it today.

Paramount’s Blu-ray looks pretty great, all things considered.  Barbarella didn’t have a huge-budget (again: pervasive shag carpeting), but the HD transfer is lush and sharp, with little distracting print defects.  The disc also has a solid DTS-HD Master Audio monaural track.

As for features, we get the trailer in HD and a fancy slipcover with pretty artwork.  That’s it.  I would have appreciated more; why is there no retrospective on Barbarella‘s strange legacy?

Truth be told, if you’re interested in buying Barbarella, you probably don’t care too much about features.  It’s a cult oddity, for sure, and fans should find lots to love about the Blu-ray’s A/V quality.

Barbarella streets on July 3rd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.