Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
Released at the tail end of the time period affectionately known as Swinging London, 1968’s Barbarella captures just a bit of the tone and feel of that era. While not doing terribly well in the United States, it was the second-largest film in the United Kingdom that year. Only in Barbarella will you find a spaceship decked out in shag carpeting along with a facsimile of the Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon On the Island of La Grande Jatte. It’s a stylistic choice that immediately sets the mood for the film we are about to watch. That and the slow striptease of Barbarella getting out of her space suit. This is a film that celebrates the sexuality and innocence of the main character all at the same time. Its weirdly contrasting ideas work for the mood of the film and the ideas of Swinging London.
There is a plot that hangs on the film, but it’s almost inconsequential. Barbarella is tasked by the president of the Earth to find a lost scientist Durand Durand (yes, the band took their name from him), and the rest of the film hinges on episodes that get her a little closer to her goal and allow her to change costumes. If you’re even a little bit costume obsessed, this is another one of those films that will have you going gaga over the sights. Barbarella changes outfits about 20 times in the film, all into incredibly inappropriate choices that aren’t very practical for her mission. Unless her mission is sex.
Coming out of the free-love movement, Barbarella is unencumbered by strict morality. Once she experiences real sex for the first time (at this point in the universe humans have moved past physical intimacy) she chalks it up to a nice pleasure and moves on to different encounters. She even breaks out of a torture device that is built to kill by doling out extreme pleasure. She actually breaks it down more than breaks out of it. The machine can’t keep up with her need for pleasure and proceeds to smoke and fall apart. There’s definitely a semblance of a thought in the film as to what they are trying to convey, but they don’t actually follow up with it and just leave the idea lying there like the broken down Excessive Machine—more commonly referred to as the Orgasmotron, which in itself could be a blatant metaphor.
Barbarella thrust Jane Fonda into the stratosphere of Hollywood and she followed this film up with a number of Oscar-nominated performances. She was in a few films before this, but both literally and metaphorically, Barbarella turned out to be her coming-out party. With John Phillip Law as the blind angel Pygar and a rare speaking performance by Marcel Marceau as Professor Ping rounding out the odd cast of irregulars, it hinges on Fonda’s performance and the camera loves following her.
Directed by Fonda’s then-current husband, Roger Vadim, you get the feeling that he just threw stuff on screen that he thought might look cool. With a random slug creature as an alien version of a Husky sled team, grunting kids who use dolls with sharp teeth to kill, and even people being slowly changed into a labyrinth, Vadim doesn’t skimp on the crazy ideas.
There are some pew-pew-pew laser moments and some very stiff flying in front of projections that definitely make this a B movie. The awkward humor falls a little flat some of the time, but a standout moment for me is Barbarella having problems with a fox-tail costume and how she solves her wardrobe malfunction. Most of the time, however, the intentional comedy doesn’t work and you end up laughing more at the unintentional moments.
Having grown up with this film on VHS and suffering through the pan and scan, I recently picked up the Blu-ray version and it adds immensely to the depths of the colors and looks even more gorgeous. There’s a strong reason this is a cult film and has survived in the pop-culture conscious for so many years. It’s a fun film that doesn’t take itself or its messages too seriously. Like Barbarella discovering physical sex, it enjoys the moment of fun and then moves on to something else. Plus, I admit, I think the opening striptease is sexy.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.