Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #24 – Barbarella (1968)

Posted: September 17, 2019 in Uncategorized

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

There’s a problem in the Tau Ceti sector. Who do you send? Apparently, send Barbarella. Yep, send a blonde in skintight clothes, also described as Class Five Astro-Navigatrix, and her ship, Alpha 7. Doctor Durand Durand and his Positronic Ray – gasp, a weapon! – stand no chance.

So did the filmmakers capture very much of the coolness of Jean-Claude Forest’s original comics in this adaptation? It’s hard to say, the book is on my reading list for this very reason. Even so, the film script is kind of blowfully underwritten, yet…let’s just say Barbarella succeeds the way I once heard Lou Reed and Velvet Underground described. Something that succeeds in spite of obvious and prominent flaws.

Of course, Barbarella serves as a vehicle for a young Jane Fonda to change skintight costumes right after the monster of the minute tears up the previous costume. There’s also a lot of implied sex. She shags a huntsman who still can’t fix her crashed ship. And then there’s the blind angel who needs the endorphin hit to get his flying mojo back. Oh, and the “wretched girl” breaks the Machine Excessive, a sort of organ device that kills by dishing out monster orgasms.

In an earlier draft of this review, face with suddenly looking at one of my guilty pleasure movies with an actual critical eye, I trashed it. I repeated – “I got caught looking at Jane Fonda” – with an air of many today just looking for things to hate. I don’t hate the movie that much, not even now that my blog beast wants Barbarella on the Half-Shell for dinner.

Getting caught looking at Jane Fonda is, by definition, a plus for any movie. Repeating this fact as if I’d somehow rewritten Friends, Romans, Countrymen – “But, Brutus is an honorable man” – is overkill for a movie that deep down, I still like. I needed to vomit that out. Happens.

What should’ve driven this movie into the nether depths of Cinema Hell, the writing. On the surface, the script seems appropriately dramatic in the sense of “and then we’ll put her in this bubble with these birds that eat the spandex parts of her costume!” Yes, the platoon of screenwriters, including Mr. Forest brought in towards the end, understood the idea of big moments where X attacks Barbarella and eats her costume as the basic building blocks of drama.

Nothing about what happens in between these moments (story beats long before Snyder named them so) helps the story. And that’s even with the need to consider that it is still a fifty-year-old tongue in cheek French skin movie, where possibly like out and out pornos too much good writing could get in the way.

Still, the narrative here skims over the many threads you could get out of a plot that trades on – “Barbarella! Please help! A wayward scientist built a weapon and disappeared into a galactic backwater! We have no military and I can’t spare the presidential band (only that last part appears as dialogue)!” It is my assertion that since this movie exists in the spaces between pornos and movies with more pretension towards good, that you need some good writing. It is still a story.

Barbarella is nekked getting her orders from the President of Earth and Rotating President of the Solar System. Even over the vid-link, we see the lech get caught looking. He says something about meeting her in the flesh as he closes the call.

But, Earth society is later described as moving beyond sex with pills for the blast off part and other methods for everything else. Only the very poor don’t use them…or so Barbarella assumes. Yet, El Presidente is only a panty sniff and triple vodka martini away from actually going with – “Barbarella, I have an extensive collection of etchings I would like to show you.”

Ooh! Do you see the narrative possibilities in highlighting the arrogance of a politician that feels generally immune from the mores of the society he represents and leads? I do. Perhaps this thread winds up too dark for the rest of the movie. It is after all movie that over the years has picked up the metaphorical meaning that sex is good when the woman chooses it. But, letting this corrupt president have a little narrative air to be taught something by the previously naïve Barbarella is an exploitable story thread nonetheless.

The Plot – Crash. Attacked by vicious spandex eating dolls. Sex with huntsman. Ship crashes again in Sogo’s Labyrinth. Sex with Pygar, the angel. Infiltrate city. Learn how horrible the city is. Meet the tyrant in disguise. Get attacked by the aforementioned birds. Meet the rebels. Sex with the rebel leader paying off what Earth Pill Sex Looks like (Ms. Fonda doesn’t need a hairdresser). Obtain a key to advance the plot. Meet the tyrant the second time. Dropped into the Machine Excessive. Jane Fonda gives the mother of all cinematic fake orgasms (paying attention, Ms. Ryan?). Barbarella convinces the man at the sex machine controls, revealed as Durand Durand, to change sides. Confrontation in the queen’s bedroom where All Could be Lost. Final defeat of Durand Durand and the evil city eats itself, but not Barbarella nor Pygar (both are too good).

On the surface, the above should result in a great script that acknowledges the sexy and fun intended campiness while still telling a story. What is actually on screen only covers the surface. I mentioned that you could do the thing about the Earth President possibly having real sex with specially initiated young ladies likely to keep their mouths shut as a good idea for a different movie named Barbarella. There are other dropped threads.

Barbarella meets the Black Queen several times, the first time she’s doing a Henry the Fifth Night Before Battle moment. We come to learn that Sogo the City of Night is fueled by the Matmos that induces evil thoughts and deeds among the citizens under its care in order to feed. But, nothing about how Barbarella interacts with either the Black Queen or the Matmos ever gives us pause that our plucky sex positive heroine could just say “screw it I’ll join the Dark Side (apologies for the mixed film metaphors)!”

Durand Durand, likely already nuts when he left Earth with his weapon, succumbed to the Matmos. As seen in the evil glee he has playing an organ sonata, while Barbarella blows up in all kinds of ways. But, shouldn’t we have a moment where the same forces tug at Barbarella’s admittedly micro skirts and spandex tights?

A moment likely to include the Black Queen making a pitch for Evil – “Join me, Luke. Together we can end this destructive conflict and rule the galaxy together as father and son (again I keep mixing my film metaphors)!” Especially, when there is no way this moment isn’t married to a lesbian seduction scene between the Black Queen and Barbarella. Oh, the hindsight of a man that once produced a stylistic copy of Barbarella, a story for another day.

Realistically, it’s an open question how tolerant Franco-Italian society of 1967 (the shooting year) was towards lesbian sex scenes that would shock, but also make the story less dependent on the obvious assets. However, the movie needed something to make Barbarella more vulnerable with greater obstacles. Story 101 that, even before the creation of the helpful screenwriting manuals, the best writers understood.

And Durand Durand just needed a better Villain Self-Justification Speech.

So what is so good about this movie that I still like it despite the above?

One, intention counts. Letting Barbarella be a voice for “sex is good when it’s the woman’s idea” is refreshing. It allows the rest of us to enjoy things that are goofy, silly and rooted in the bad old days. Of course, I’m possibly imputing things that didn’t even cross the filmmakers’s minds at the time. Still, it’s just fun to see people just making movies, music, paintings and books just because it’s the story they had to tell instead of submitting things to the grand censorship committee that only wants to say No.

Two, hiring Jane Fonda as the eye candy has all kinds of unexpected benefits. She has always been a phenomenal actress. Which means that when handed a script requiring lots of spandex ripped just so, she’s going to bust out quite a few facial expressions meant to trick the audience that there is in fact a well thought out story arc, when there isn’t.

She expressed fear, wonder, the naïveté and the enjoyment of sex as she discovers old ways are sometimes good. All in places that make narrative sense despite I don’t think they were in the script. The irony here is if we don’t get caught looking because the filmmakers chickened out and put Barbarella in a boring Earth Space Force flight suit, maybe we don’t see what Ms. Fonda brought. And I wish I could take some time to praise the rest of the cast, all having fun.

Three, even fifty years later, the Machine Excessive (aka the Orgasmatron) scene is just the kind of clever set piece that will recommend the movie forever. The villain sticks the heroine in the device and plays a sonata. She breaks the machine because a good woman getting her freak on can’t be killed with sex. And it packs the most plot service of any scene in this underwritten movie.

One quibble, the music starts with a few bars of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, the organ arrangement, before launching into music that fits the rest of the soundtrack, orchestra and modern instruments. I would’ve just used the Bach for this moment. Ironically, I listened to the orchestral version just before typing this draft; yep, I’m getting better at figuring out music (a post for another day). And, yes, let a public domain classic carry the weight for a scene that lets us see a great fake Big-O and is supposed to kill her.

Four, I can’t speak highly enough about the production design of this movie. Other movies of the era have wild sets, but this one should’ve won the Oscar. Even with most of the spaceship viewer screen shots being close ups of lava lamps and ink dropped into water, the interiors of the City of Sogo are the kind encourage getting caught looking (unless Barbarella needs to change costumes).

A city of glass walls. Glass medallions and pendulums. An interesting color palette for which I might not even have the full vocabulary. A candy apple red starship that looks like a hand-vac mated with a condom rack…never mind. Lots of semi-opaque plastic for certain silhouettes to tease and somehow still get a PG out of the MPAA (huh?). Plants placed just so. The way cooler evil liquid oil slick than the one that later killed Tasha Yar. An all around work of art.

Let’s do the Egyptian afterlife thing, weigh the feather (the good stuff) against the heavier bad stuff. Barbarella is still an out and out fun movie with lots to recommend it played out against a script that while it should never even aspire to be The Scottish Play, is still vastly underwritten for the genre. Well, I guess I’m the guy that just likes fun movies.

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