With a reboot of the 1968 sci-fi classic Barbarella in development, we pay homage to the original interstellar sex romp. An appreciation by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.
The next time we shoot one of those probes into space packed full of stuff intended to give whoever is out there a basic idea of what the human race is all about, we could do worse than to include a DVD of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella. While nobody is likely to proclaim this sci-fi camp classic a masterpiece, it does offer a reasonable summation of much that is noble, wonderful and silly in our civilization. For one thing, the movie, in its nutty, lo-fi way, celebrates our technological ingenuity, as well as our persistent itch to fly off into space. Other artifacts of the era tackle the same themes, of course—the original Star Trek television series, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Planet of the Apes. But none of them has an opening title sequence featuring a zero-gravity striptease in a fur-lined boudoir.
It’s possible that our notional alien scholars wouldn’t make it any further than that remarkable opening. Plenty of earthlings have never seen Barbarella but nonetheless have etched in their brains the image of Jane Fonda in boots and a Plexiglas chest plate, brandishing a ray gun, thanks to an iconic still that was published on the cover of Life magazine. Similarly, anyone who has seen all of Barbarella and forgotten most of the plot will have no trouble recalling those first few minutes, in which we see almost all of Barbarella herself.
The up-front nudity was a novelty at the time, but it’s more than the sight of Fonda, then almost 30, in the altogether that makes the sequence such a repository of cultural information. As Barbarella spins through the air, peeling off her silver astronaut suit, we take in the decor of her bachelorette space pod: the fur walls, the Venus de Milo—like statue and the reproduction of painter Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. This image of swingin’ futuristic classiness—if that’s what you’d call it—is wrapped up in what strikes the 21st century sensibility as pure retro cheese. Trippy white letters float across the frame to cover Barbarella’s naughty bits, and the soundtrack bursts into a string-heavy, wah-wah-laden song that evokes an acid trip at a Vegas lounge in the middle of a Shriners convention.
Barbarella’s production history suggests an even crazier, more florid pop mashup. Then New York Times film critic Renata Adler called the film “a special kind of mess,” and she was perhaps more correct than she knew. Based on a cult comic by Jean-Claude Forest, the movie was overseen by prolific Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, whose name adorns a few of the greatest films of the postwar era (e.g., Federico Fellini’s La Strada and Nights of Cabiria), as well as many of the trashiest. Among the authors of the script was Terry Southern, profligate bad boy of American letters and one of the film era’s great pens for hire (Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider are among his credits). Claude Renoir, nephew of a French film god, was a cinematographer. The jet-set cast includes such international stars as Ugo Tognazzi and David Hemmings, with Italian-German model (and Keith Richards consort) Anita Pallenberg playing an intergalactic dominatrix. World-famous mime Marcel Marceau is also in the movie. Hey, why not?
But above all, Barbarella is Vadim and Fonda—director and star and, at the time, husband and wife. Their marriage suggests a Henry James novel with a few modern kinks: An ambitious but somewhat naive American girl of moderate fortune and excellent pedigree falls under the spell of a cynical European adventurer who opens her eyes and ruins her life. Vadim, who had been married to Brigitte Bardot and had a child with Catherine Deneuve before he took up with Fonda, gambled away her inheritance, brought home call girls for impromptu threesomes and disappeared on epic binges. “Vadim was the first man I had ever loved,” Fonda writes in her 2005 memoir, My Life So Far. “I could write one version of my marriage to Vadim in which he would come across as a cruel, misogynistic, irresponsible wastrel. I could also write him as the most charming, lyrical, poetic, tender of men. Both versions would be true.”
It is also probably true that Vadim was better at seducing actresses than at making movies. Nonetheless, Barbarella belongs on any roster of the decade’s distinctive and durable artifacts—and not only because its hectic production could generate a sentence like the following, also from Fonda’s memoir: “One evening during a dinner party there was a loud noise, some plaster fell from the ceiling, and an owl fell onto Gore Vidal’s plate.” What I would not give to see that on YouTube.
Barbarella’s charm lies in its goofy, sexy and affectionate spirit. Its heroine starts out in a world that has banished violence and sexual inhibition—hence the striptease, which is prelude to a conversation with the president. In this utopian regime, where “neurotic irresponsibility” is a thing of the past, erotic “reciprocity” is achieved by taking a pill and touching hands with a partner. It is only when Barbarella travels to the distant planet of Tau Ceti, in search of a renegade inventor named Durand-Durand and his Positronic Ray, that she is initiated into more strenuous forms of intimacy. Her first encounter is with a bounty hunter whose pectoral toupee is a wonder of neoprimitive manscaping, and her most meaningful relationship is with a depressive, flightless angel named Pygar, who regains the use of his wings after making love with her.
“She’s the only comedienne I can think of who is sexiest when she is funniest,” Pauline Kael wrote about Fonda. This mixture of playfulness and lust lifts Barbarella out of the realm of exploitation into something much stranger and more fun. In the context of Fonda’s career, Barbarella is an oddity. (As her relationship with Vadim waned, she went on to reveal her strength as an actress, winning Oscars for Klute and Coming Home; legend has it she turned down roles in Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary’s Baby to play the space vixen.) And it is also an anomaly in the annals of cinematic science fiction, which has, for the most part, followed in the earnest, allegorical, sexless footsteps of 2001. But Barbarella herself endures—as an early action heroine, as a space-age sex symbol and above all as a reminder that the role of humanity in the cosmos is not to take ourselves too seriously.