Barbarella begins in the fur-lined cockpit of a space-faring starcraft, fabulously appointed with a statue of a moon goddess and, inexplicably, what looks to be a full-sized replica of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. Despite the high-flown frivolity of its conception and the infectiously groovy theme song, this tableau does not represent the most quintessentially with-it of all possible sci-fi worlds. That changes when the astronaut who has floated into view starts pulling off the different panels of her moon-suit to reveal, underneath the shapeless layers of scuba-like gear, a naked strawberry-blonde with slender, delicate fingers and legs that don’t quit.
This is Jane Fonda, appearing nude on screen in the opening moments of the first movie she made with then-husband Roger Vadim. (Their portmanteau film Spirits of the Dead was released first, but shot after Barbarella wrapped.) Vadim had a history with sex symbols–his first wife was Brigitte Bardot, whose star-making role was in Vadim’s directorial debut, …And God Created Woman–and Fonda’s striptease is an indelible artifact of the swinging 1960s. It’s no coy bait-and-switch, either: Barbarella is visibly starkers beneath the opening titles, whose letters dance around as though trying unsuccesfully to obscure our heroine’s bathing-suit areas. It’s cinema as titillation, and Barbarella is emblematic of that era in which movie ratings were just being introduced, opening the doors for ostensibly adult content in the mainstream.
Barbarella, an irreverent intergalactic romp inspired by a series of French space-fantasy comic books, marries the garish visual style of any number of 1960s SF opuses to the more pituitary sensibilities of Playboy magazine. In a landscape replete with phallic symbols, bushy he-men, and effeminate sexual sadists, it agitates for physical pleasure as a pushback against cold, unfeeling technology. If its increasingly cheesy, low-stakes adult situations eventually grow wearying through repetition and blandness of execution, its key images endure. There’s naked Jane, yes, but there’s also a magnificent, half-dressed angel (John Philip Law) with enormous feathered wings who slow-flaps his way across the Cinemascope screen like a boss. Naturally, he ends up crucified, and when the voraciously horny Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) demands that he make love to her, he responds, laconically, “An angel does not make love. An angel is love.”
That’s a lot to take in if you’re one of the pubescent boys who discovered Barbarella on TV–especially HBO, which screened it aggressively in the mornings and mid-afternoons to take advantage of a PG rating that was comically incongruous with the movie’s content. I think of Fonda’s striptease as part of the drama of the “M” rating—Barbarella was originally released right before the more familiar G/GP/R/X MPAA ratings system went into effect and seemed to be positively dizzy with the possibilities. A somewhat more strait-laced reissue received a PG in 1977, but by all accounts, this version was edited for the rating—the opening-credits nudity finally was obscured, for starters. I saw that version on broadcast TV in the early 1980s; HBO did not air it, nor has Paramount released it on DVD or Blu-ray. While the ratings were certainly more lenient back then, it’s very difficult to imagine an uncut Barbarella getting anything but an R, even in the go-go days of the late-1970s. It’s not clear whether Paramount, in clinging to the PG rating while reverting back to the earlier cut, is ignorant of the ratings issue or simply playing dumb, and it’s less clear still whether any schoolchildren have been ruined for ordinary lives by their unwitting witnessing of Barbarella’s dishabille. In any event, we’re lucky–a never-nude Barbarella would be like Manhattan without Gershwin, or Citizen Kane without “News on the March.”
From that opening five-minute salvo of skin, Barbarella slips quickly into satirical mode. Our heroine reports for duty to a live video feed from the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin), who warns her about the evil Durand Durand (yes, there is a rock band named after the villain from Barbarella) and his Positronic Ray. Barbarella laughs at the absurdity of it: “The universe has been pacified for centuries,” she observes, noting that if Durand has invented a weapon, he “could still be living in a primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility.” I attribute witty lines like that to Dr. Strangelove scribe Terry Southern, credited as co-screenwriter with Vadim, and there are quite a few of them. I found Barbarella’s overly prim “A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming” to be no less an eye-roller when I was 12, but a zinger like “Wait, let me adjust my tongue box” would be a cheerfully filthy double-entendre even if it wasn’t, in context, a funny gag about language-translating technology. And Fonda’s performance is a terrific bit of comedy: she is totally in on the joke, never not fun to watch and never not sexy. As a teenager, she was both a dance teacher and a fashion model–and, boy, does that show here.
Barbarella isn’t dumb by a long shot, but it does flag quickly as it settles into an episodic groove that takes Barbarella from locale to planetary locale, meeting horny dude after horny dude. There’s no actual sex, goodness knows. We see only the happy aftermath of her physical encounter with the supremely hairy Marc Hand (Ugo Tognazzi) as she tickles herself with a feather and, hilariously, hums her own theme song. Her hair-curling palm-to-palm tryst with the whimsically named Dildano (David Hemmings) is amusingly twitchy but far from explicit. The most nettlesome scene of the entire film has Durand Durand himself (Milo O’Shea) imprisoning Barbarella in the “Excessive Machine,” a clear predecessor of the Orgasmatron from Sleeper that has Durand pounding on the keys of a piano-like instrument like the Phantom of the Opera playing a church organ to induce yelps of surprise and pleasure from his captive as bits of her clothing are jettisoned from a blowhole on the side of the machine. The execution is pretty chaste–the gentle, undulating motion of the contraption’s slats really do look kind of pleasing–but the implication of an overgrown sex toy that will screw Barbarella to death is a teensy bit distasteful in our enlightened age.
Barbarella emerges from the machine no worse for wear–testimony to her general power and goodness, etc. You can imagine that she survives because she’s some super sexpot, though I prefer to interpret her strength as being derived from recent experience on the intergalactic road. She functions as a good solider, and her loving encounters with wild-haired revolutionaries, furry bear-men, and a gentle beefcake angel have given her the fortitude required to shrug off any threat as gauche as a mere sex machine. With this reading, Barbarella becomes a message movie about good galactic citizenship. Maybe it is appropriate to show to schoolchildren, after all; when the teachers cued up a 16mm print of Night of the Living Dead (unrated) at my middle school, no one batted an eye.
Barbarella does not have an enduring legacy as a good movie, exactly, yet so fierce is its grip on the global pop consciousness that it has remained in some demand as a franchise to this day. Robert Rodriguez swore he was going to remake Barbarella with his beloved Rose McGowan in the lead, but when that relationship went south, so did the project. At the moment, Nicolas Winding Refn of Drive and Pusher fame is said to be developing it as a television property, taking a producer credit alongside Martha De Laurentiis with the backing of Euro-production giant Gaumont. I take that last bit as a sign that the character’s bona fides as a sex kitten may remain intact. With the French footing the bill, Barbarella may well go nude again.
Paramount’s Blu-ray release of Barbarella is marvellous. Film grain is abundant, but in a good way. Every image is finely detailed–you can clearly see the unavoidable generation loss in shots that were subjected to an optical effect, mainly the opening titles. The rest looks pretty much like it was scanned from the original negative, which is the best of all possible worlds. The 1999 DVD actually wasn’t bad by the standards of the day, although it didn’t resolve any of the grain or the fine detail, and this HD/1080p upgrade doesn’t screw with the colour-grading compared to that benchmark. It does, however, add a significant amount of information to the bottom and right-hand edges of the 2.35:1 frame, noticeably improving the composition of shots. The DVD transfer is dirty, too, with lots of dust and even thick bits of hair clearly visible on screen in the opening moments (the source material was probably an internegative), and none of that nonsense is visible on the BD. There is some damage, but it’s so light that you really have to be looking for it to notice. The average bitrate here is a generous 36.2 Mbps, teetering the film over the capacity limit that necessitates a dual-layer disc. Thanks, Paramount!
There’s not much to grouse about when it comes to audio, either. Although the mono Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is spread out across the two front channels, it sounds great at full volume, certainly obviating any need to buy a CD version of the earworm “Barbarella Psychedella” theme song–which you will be stuck humming for a week after watching this movie. If dialogue can occasionally sound a little muffled, I’m sure that’s a limitation of the original recordings, not the Blu-ray itself.
This disc is classy from top to bottom. The most I can find to squawk about is the decided lack of extras (there’s just a 1080p theatrical trailer seemingly transferred from a soft release print)—but then again, Roger Vadim is dead and Jane Fonda probably doesn’t want to talk about it, so there’s a limit to what could be done even if Paramount had the will. This is still a great HD version of a film that most viewers would say doesn’t deserve the treatment, and for that I’m grateful.