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Campy Barbarella still glows

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 6, 2012 at 3:09 a.m.


Jane Fonda, impersonating a female, stars in the high camp sci-fi cult classic Barbarella, from 1968.

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— Jane Fonda suddenly seems to be everywhere.

There she was, looking terrific at 74 years old, as the hippy grandmother in the otherwise ordinary Peace, Love & Misunderstanding.

She’s due to show up on the much-talked about (if not exactly controversial) HBO series The Newsroom. Her 2011 memoir/self help book Prime Time has just been released in paperback and last month she appeared on CBS’ Sunday Morning to, among other things, express regret over her infamous trip to Hanoi in 1972 when she posed athwart a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun.

“I made a terrible mistake, unwittingly, sitting on that gun - it was a terrible thing,” she told CBS correspondent Lee Cowan.

“The appearance was that I was against my country and my soldiers ... that is a regret I will never get over.”

While I doubt those disinclined to forgive Fonda will be moved by her apology, perhaps it will at least give me cover to discuss what has become probably the signal movie of her Hollywood career - the 1968 sci-fi sex farce Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, which has just been released on Blu-ray by Paramount (list price $29.95 - and the transfer is gorgeous, by the way).

While Fonda won Oscars for her performances in Klute (1971) and Coming Home (1978), if you ask most people to name a Jane Fonda movie, most of them will probably mention Barbarella (or a workout video). In the CBS Sunday Morning report, Fonda says that, 44 years after the movie was released, more than half of her fan mail references it.

To her credit, she doesn’t seem disheartened by this, though you imagine that she’d rather be known for her more serious work. She once said that doing the film made her “feel like a female impersonator” and that she did the movie while in the thrall of her first husband, director Roger Vadim. (She says she turned down starring roles in Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary’s Baby to stay in France and make Barbarella with Vadim.)

And by any objective measure, Barbarella is a profoundly silly movie, one of those ill-advised ’60s camp exercises that was rightfully panned at the time. (In The New York Times, Renata Adler pronounced it “a special kind of mess,” while Variety said: “Despite a certain amount of production dash and polish and a few silly-funny lines of dialogue, Barbarella isn’t very much of a film ... flawed with a cast that is not particularly adept at comedy, a flat script, and direction which can’t get this beached whale afloat.”)

Yet, like a lot of truly terrible things from the ’60s, Barbarella has acquired the patina of the cult classic, which means that as the cultural context has changed we are able to enjoy it for reasons other than those intended by the filmmakers. Vadim may well have intended the film as a vehicle to launch his second wife as an international sex symbol (as he had his first, Brigitte Bardot, in his 1956 film And God Created Woman), but the script consisted mainly of opportunities for Fonda to divest herself of her skimpy futuristic costumes.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Anyway, the movie opens with a now iconic scene of Fonda undressing in zero gravity, stripping off her space suit while a hysterically inane lounge singer croons, “Barbarella, psychedella/ There’s a kind of cockleshell about you ....”

Then, nude for the first, but hardly last, time, she takes a phone call from the President of Earth, who charges her with the mission of finding the mad scientist Durand-Durand (yes, that’s where the pop band got its name) and stopping him from using his “Positronic Ray” to harshen the mellow of a pacified universe. For a while, most of the cosmos has melted into mutual respect and admiration (“Love” is used by denizens of the known universe in the same way English speakers use the Hawaiian word “aloha”). Durand-Durand has landed in the Tau Seti system, an unknown region where the natives might “still be in a primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility.”

Barbarella goes after him,in part because there’s no police or army to send. So she proceeds to Tau Seti and is attacked and kidnapped by creepy twins who sic tiny dolls on Barb, further ripping her skimpy costume to shreds. She has sex with a bunch of people and encounters the Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) who crucifies an angel (John Phillip Law).

Barbarella escapes and meets a revolutionary leader named Dildano (David Hemmings) and the Concierge (Milo O’Shea), who tries to kill her by pleasuring her to death. But - oh, never mind, I can’t think of a movie where the plot is as irrelevant as it is here.

The real point of watching Barbarella these days is to catch a whiff of what it kind of really was like back in the late ’60s, when it felt like things could fly apart at any minute. Sure, everyone in the cast is in on the joke, but the sort of Zen dippiness that permeates the movie was a genuine phenomenon. Hippies were real! Ask your grandmother!

And it is amusing to see Fonda - who would go on to do some good, serious work - caught up in something as misbegotten and weird as Barbarella. It’s kind of like looking back at the fashions in your high school yearbook - things were stranger in those days, and we didn’t even know it.

Anyway, I love Barbarella, even as I recognize it’s horrible. That’s what kitsch is - something terrible that has been transformed by nostalgia into something veritably enjoyable.


MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 07/06/2012

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