Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, 1968.
Directed by Roger Vadim.
Starring Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law and Anita Pallenberg.
In the distant future a beautiful space-age heroine is tasked by the President of Earth with capturing an evil scientist who threatens universal peace.
See films differently, say Volkswagen on their adverts to promote their sponsorship of independent cinema.
I have always held a view on Barbarella which might seem as if it belonged with these quirky takes.
Barbarella's cult status seems to not come because it's good, but because it's bad. We might pause to ask what makes a film bad? Barbarella has a plot; and as required with action films, new threats continually appear. It keeps to the traditional screenwriting structure in that there is an inciting incident, something to begin to story. The strip in space opening titles certainly provide a hook and conform to the notion that the opening scene should set the tone of the film; it's silly, sexy and very 1960s. There's a climatic grand battle at the end and then the story resolves.
Its type does not suggest that thrilling tension, great acting or personal development arcs are expected or appropriate. Watching the trailer, it's clear that a kind of psychedelic saucy camp piece of fun was what was intended. I would add, profundity is also not expected – but yet I believe it is there.
Before discussing the profound, I'd like to spend a moment on the sexuality portrayed in Barbarella. It takes place in a warped world of no sunlight or plant life, often in cramped rooms. What makes Barbarella strange is that the sexuality is juxtaposed with innocence. She recalls Bettie Page in that mix. Barbarella might also be the transition of the 1950s girlhood into the swinging sixties woman. SoGo, the debauched planet she visits, sounds very much like Soho, the epicentre of London's sex industry at the time. Barbarella frequently shows body parts but covers the ones so freely shown in the French comic from which she is based. There is plenty of nudity – such as the bodies trapped in the labyrinth and in the city - but the sex is cut out. The scenes that most disturbed me are when innocence and terror mix with sexuality. Dolls symbolise childhood and yet these are turned into demons who eat at Barbarella, exposing more flesh - and then blood. Budgies are sweet birds, kept as pets, yet here they swarm and peck her – to the same result. It is also disturbing that the children enjoy preying on adults for pleasure - who are more innocent than they - as if child molesting is reversed. Now the most important segment of society, these children are wild, to be rounded up – with a hint of child labour ('servicable age'). It recalls the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, also of the 1960s, and Philip Pullman's Golden Compass. But the child catcher in Barbarella is not the villain and our sympathies not with the children, and nor is this written for children.
Barbarella's innocence and naiveté is what wins her the day. Her willingness to step into a chute that leads her into the bird torture or to allow the children to capture her - expecting the best – means she is always rescued from the various near deaths. Her resignation to rather than relish of sexual encounters hardly makes her the predatory nymphomaniac that some commentators have made her.
To Barbarella, sex opens eyes as some have suggested of the Garden of Eden. She has hers opened by a man, but then opens another's – not literally, for Pygar remains the blind angel – but his will to fly returns. A form of what the Hindus call Shakti – feminine force – helps her to better the orgasmatron machine and ruffle the hair of a revolutionary. Interesting she uses both forms of making love – the way that earth rejected and the way it is now done with pills.
Her comment – only the poor do it the old way – shows that sex is a money industry and that even that came be something which has economic ramifications. The Pill of the cartoon cleans up the messy, distracting act into a few moments hand touching. It involves charts and measurement – the psychocardiogram – and official sanction, though it does also imply compatibility and foreknowledge - none of which Barbarella's encounters involve. Barbarella's last encounter is not with a person but a machine – a hint to self sufficient sexuality. Reproduction is not mentioned and in citing why earth gave up physical love, it is about self esteem and reliable pleasure.
Academics have discussed how Grace Kelly and Kate Winslet have been action heroines, saving men. Jane Fonda is saved by men but she also saves – Pygar whom she then guides in flight, and it is her sent to rescue Durand Durand, alone, representing earth. The men – and Queen – want sexual favours but Barbarella's first thought is always to offer money from the government as a reward.
The magma under the city feeds on evil. Law of Attraction believers say that the universe feeds on our thoughts and therefore Barbarella's purity means she escapes the fate of Durand Durand because he is given over to the force of the planet while Barbarella resists it. Pygar says more than once that an angel doesn't make love; an angel is love – as if love is something you are rather than something you do. It is often asserted that the Highest Being is Love, personified. And the last line of the film (and first comic) is when for once Barbarella questions why an evil person is treated in a way they don't deserve. Pygar's reply: "An angel has no memory." The wedding speech passage of the Bible, 1 Cor 13 states that "love keeps no record of wrongs." Margaret Attwood's book on debt, Payback, says that for a debt to continue, a memory of what is owed (in the widest sense) is needed. The ultimate act of mercy is to wipe not only what is owed but the record that such obligation and shortfall ever existed.
As the three fly over the Sodom and Gomorrah like city as it destroys itself, there is also a hint of Cold War/ning, a world destroyed by greed but reclaimed by free love – the dual themes of that decade. Thus Barbarella ends on Liberty and forgiveness – and in all its dystopian silliness, the film becomes a worthy one after all.
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