Cult Classics: Barbarella

3 Dec

A couple of days ago we began a three part retrospective in the “Cult Classics” section.  We were going to be looking at Danger: Diabolik, Barbarella, and CQ.  The first two are from the sixties, while the third was a 2001 attempt to emulate the others.  Today, we move on to the second film.  Barbarella is a 1968 science fiction film directed by Roger Vadim and based on the French comic books by Jean-Claude Forest.  And it is a very bizarre movie.  It’s almost like the filmmakers looked at all the things that worked in Danger: Diabolik, and decided to movie in the opposite direction.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  Maybe Danger: Diabolik learned what not to do from watching Barbarella.  Both came out in 1968, so we may never know.  But we do know that all the things that helped Danger: Diabolik be such a fantastic movie are not in Barbarella.

Barbarella is the story of a space adventurer who has the same name as the film.  She is sent to look for the inventor Durand Durand by the President of the Republic of Earth.  Dr. Durand apparently invented a very powerful weapon and then disappeared.  After following his trail to an unexplored planet where evil is the natural order of things, she meets the last of a race of angels, learns all about physical sex, and explores a futuristic Sodom and Gomorrah.  There’s some other stuff about man-eating baby dolls, but none of it really makes sense, or has anything to do with what little plot there is.

Before we go any further, I want to say that I love Barbarella.  I think it’s a fascinating film.  But I am under no illusions that it is actually a good movie.  There are an incredible amount of problems with it.  I’ll simply list my biggest issues with it.

  1. Unlike Danger: Diabolik, Barbarella is very static.  It’s almost like Vadim decided that since the film is based on a comic book with panels, he couldn’t move the camera at all.  Danger: Diabolik recognized that comic books are all about giving you a sense of movement.  Vadim totally missed that somehow.
  2. Jane Fonda never fully commits to this being a comedy, but she doesn’t completely give it up either.  So we’re left with this performance that jumps back and forth and we’re left wondering if she’s trying to be funny or she’s just really bad.  I realize it’s not all her fault.  Vadim did the entire movie in the same manner, with one scene being a comedy and the next being a drama, but it’s most obvious in Fonda’s Barbarella.
  3. There are an incredible number of things introduced and then just left with no explanation whatsoever.  Why are all the children on this planet twins, but none of the adults?  How did children living in wilderness get a ton of man-eating babydolls?  Why is Pygar, the angel, the last of his kind?  Why are all the people in the Labyrinth slowly being incased in rock?  It’s really kind of ridiculous.
  4. You can’t help but wonder if the only reason Roger Vadim made this movie was to show everyone else in the world how hot his wife was.  I’m not denying that Jane Fonda was extremely beautiful when this movie was made.  But it just seems ridiculous how many times Vadim has her change into another skimpy outfit, or simply lose the outfit she has on altogether.

Once again, I must insist that I really do love this movie.  I just also happen to know how many problems it has.  I do love it, though.

I love all the supporting actors.  John Phillip Law, who I’m sure you’ll remember, played Diabolik, is wonderful as the blind angel Pygar.  He somehow comes off as innocent and wise, despite the fact that he is one of Barbarella’s lovers and most of his wise sayings make no sense at all.  “An angel doesn’t make love, an angel is love” and “Angels have no memory” are my two favorites.  Anita Pallenberg, who most will remember as the occult obsessed girlfriend of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, also stands out as the Great Tyrant/Black Queen/One-Eyed Knife Girl.

However, my true love for this movie is found in the style.  Everything in Barbarella looks awesome.  The costumes are exotic and outrageous, but totally fantastic at the same time.  The interior of Barbarella’s spaceship is completely covered in orange shag carpet.  The main decoration in SoGo, the city of evil, appears to be giant plastic bags.  Pygar’s wings are the coolest looking wings I’ve ever seen in a movie, and they even match his feather loincloth.  When we catch a glimpse of space through the front window of Barbarella’s ship there is no blackness, no stars; instead it looks like inkblots, or neon colored oils dropped into a Petri dish.

The plot, most of the acting, the cinematography, the pacing, all of the things we normally associate with good movies, aren’t so good here.  But all of the little things are fantastic:  the costumes, the sets, the props, the art direction, all of these things make Barbarella enjoyable.  And I recommend watching it specifically for those things.

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