Daniel M. Kimmel
The current debate over so-called “cancel culture” misses the point. Of course, different generations will experience and reinterpret art through their own experiences and understanding of subsequent times. To pick just one example, the work of Pierrre-August Renoir, Claude Monet, and other Impressionist artists were highly controversial in their day for both their subject matter and their style. Today they are considered revered masterpieces. On the other hand, the Civil War epic “Gone with the Wind” – which in constant dollars (i.e., adjusted for inflation) remains the most
successful movie of all time – has faced a backlash for its stereotypical characters and casual acceptance of slavery. Fashions change, attitudes change. It’s not a secret plot if one generation rejects what was accepted by another, although one should acknowledge that different perspective in trying to understand how a given work succeeded or failed in the context of its original time.
Which brings us to a fresh look at “Barbarella,” a 1968 comic book fantasy that is nobody’s idea of a classic – the way that year’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes” are – yet one that can both amuse and appall when looked at more than fifty years later. Based on what we now would call a “graphic novel” by Jean Claude Forest, it is both a science fiction spoof and sex fantasy. As a spoof, it was pretty weak even at the time, owing much to the serials of the 1930s, with its largely episodic “peril/escape” structure. (A more explicit – literally – take-off of the serials would occur a few years later with the sexploitation “Flesh Gordon.”)
The plot has Barbarella (Jane Fonda) asked by the president of Earth (Claude Dauphin) to rescue scientist Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) before his newly developed “positronic way” can be turned into a weapon. (And, yes, the rock band Duran Duran has acknowledged the character as the source of their name.) She lands on a planet in the Tau Ceti system and goes through a series of adventures and meets a variety of strange characters, before finally vanquishing Durand – who has turned evil – and escaping through the help of the blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law). Although Barbarella bravely faces dangerous situations, her primary attributes are
her essential goodness and her innocent embrace of her sexuality. It is the latter, as well as the film’s imaginative art direction and cinematography, that has ensured its continuing influence.
The film’s memorable opening has Barbarella slowly stripping off her space suit in zero gravity. Feminist critics have talked about the “male gaze”
being a defining element of many movies and whether one agrees with that or not, there’s no question that that’s what’s going on here. The film
was directed by Fonda’s then-husband, Roger Vadim, who carefully makes the sequence as titillating as possible. (American viewers in 1968 saw a slightly different version that wasn’t quite as revealing.) Not only is the scene likely to bring out the fifteen-year-old boy in any male viewer, but the joke of the ensuing scene with the Earth president appearing on a view screen is that he’s very much enjoying getting an eyeful of the nude Barbarella.
The film’s attitude towards sex ranges from the lusty to the fetishistic, with no coherent point of view. That’s not surprising given the film’s eight credited screenwriters, including Vadim, Forest, and Terry Southern. In her first adventure, she is attacked by a group of weird twin children who tie her up and then let loose a bunch of automated dolls with razor sharp teeth. The assault leaves her bleeding with her clothes in tatters before she can be
rescued by the Catchman (Ugo Tognazzi). She uses a device called a “tongue box” in order to understand his language, and when she asks how she can express her gratitude he replies, “You could let me make love to you.” She’s reticent not out of a sense of shyness but because she lacks the pills required for Earth people to engage in sex. He said he prefers the more traditional way, and we cut to a nude and post-coital Barbarella wrapped in furs, obviously pleased by the experience. When they go their separate ways, she tells him, “Thanks again… for everything.”
Her next adventure is in a maze, where refugees from the evil and decadent city of Sogo are trapped. There she meets Pygar and Dr. Ping (renown mime Marcel Marceau in a speaking part). The buff Pygar is nude except for a loin cloth and his wings, but he claims to have lost the will to fly. Yet after a roll in his nest with Barbarella he discovers he can fly again. Not for the last time Barbarella’s libido is seen from a mostly male perspective. She may find it pleasurable, but it’s a reward for the men.
Their arrival in Sogo leads to some of the film’s most bizarre moments, including being rescued from a near-rape by the evil and overtly bisexual queen (Anita Pallenberg). When Barbarella passes on her invitation, the queen has Pygar crucified while Barbarella is trapped in a cage with numerous birds who begin pecking at her. Once again Barbarella escapes
bleeding and with her clothes in shreds, only to stumble into the secret lair of Dildano (David Hemmings), leader of the resistance. They, too, have sex but they do it the Earth way by taking the sex pill and then touching hands. It is clearly a moving experience for both of them with Dildano – somewhat nerdy and ineffective – being yet another man who benefits from Barbarella’s favors.
In return she is given an invisible key to enter the queen’s sealed chamber of dreams. On her way she sees a man trapped in a giant hookah, with woman languidly taking puffs of what they say is “essence of man.” She is captured by the queen’s concierge who now reveals himself to be Durand Durand, much aged by the evil force that powers Sogo. He plans to use his positronic ray to depose the queen and install himself as dictator. First, though, he must deal with Barbarella. He locks her in a giant organ with only her head and shoulders visible as he plays the musical instrument. It proceeds to eject her clothing and then subject her to stimulation so
intense that Durand says it will kill her. Instead, after we see Barbarella writhing and moaning in ecstasy, the machine explodes, unable to keep up with her capacity for sexual gratification.
At this point the story has spun out of control to such a degree that all that’s left is a climactic showdown in which Durand is killed, most of the population seem to have been sent to Fourth Dimension by his positronic ray, and Pygar is left to rescue both Barbarella and the queen. When Barbarella asks him why he’s rescued the tyrant who tried to kill him, he vacantly explains, “An angel has no memory.”
So, what are we to make of this movie half a century later? In some ways – indeed, in most ways– it’s irredeemably sexist. Is that enough for us to toss it on the trash heap of cinematic history? For some that will be the case and, if so, it’s not the point of this essay to convince you otherwise. However, for those wanting to see and even enjoy the film, it requires another approach. Can we hold something from the past to today’s standards? Certainly we can judge it, but should we condemn the filmmakers for failing to anticipate what the actual future world would be like rather than the imaginary cartoonish one they created on screen? That would imply that we have achieved the pinnacle of enlightenment and none of our unexamined assumptions will ever be questioned by our descendants. We ought to know better than that.
Instead, take “Barbarella” as a trip in a time machine, to a time when
depicting a heroine who unashamedly embraced her sexuality was a big deal, and which posited an Earth so at peace that the weapons Barbarella would need for her mission had to be exhumed from a museum. Likewise, place it in a larger context so that we can accept Barbarella as a step forward for science fiction films from the screaming female victims of too many earlier stories. It might even be said to anticipate the more acceptable modern role models of the genre, from Princess Leia to the latest incarnation of Wonder Woman.
“Barbarella,” the movie, would never be made now or if it was it would look very different. To watch it today is to be reminded of the title of author
Frederik Pohl’s memoir: it’s the way the future was.