Thursday, April 17, 2014

Movie Review: Jane Fonda in "Barbarella" (1968)

Jane Fonda as Barbarella, 1968.

This is the picture you find if you look up "sex kitten" in the dictionary.

Another tough day at work for director Roger Vadim.
1968’s campy sci-fi flick “Barbarella,” starring Jane Fonda at her most radiant, is one of the odder movies I’ve seen. I’d heard about the movie for a long time, in particular the famous opening scene where Fonda performs a sexy zero-gravity striptease. The opening titles cleverly scramble around to protect Fonda’s modesty as she strips naked, but we do see her breasts in several shots. And then we still see her breasts, even after she puts on clothes 10 minutes into the movie. When “Barbarella” was re-released in theaters in 1977, it was given the subtitle: “Queen of the Galaxy,” but I think a more apropos subtitle would have been: “Jane Fonda’s Boobs.” 

There’s nothing that can quite prepare you for actually watching “Barbarella,” and all of the silliness that transpires during its 98 minute running time. If you want to see a movie where famous mime Marcel Marceau actually has a speaking role, you’ve come to the right place. However, that’s not the reason most people saw “Barbarella.” The real reason is how unbelievably hot Jane Fonda was in 1968, and all the sexy costumes she’s almost wearing in the movie. 

“Barbarella” was based on a French science-fiction comic about a sexy female astronaut, and was directed by Fonda’s then-husband Roger Vadim. Vadim was most famous for directing his first wife, Brigitte Bardot, in her breakthrough performance “And God Created Woman” in 1956. Vadim earned the envy of every straight man on earth during the 1950’s and 60’s thanks to his marriages to Bardot and Fonda. Oh, and in between his marriages to Bardot and Fonda, he romanced Catherine Deneuve, which officially qualified him for the “Luckiest Bastard Ever” award. For obvious reasons, Vadim titled his 1986 autobiography “Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World.” 

The plot of “Barbarella” is really secondary, but it involves Barbarella carrying out a mission for the President of Earth. Barbarella is supposed to find the missing scientist Durand Durand, who has invented a “positronic ray.” (Yup, that’s where the 80’s British band Duran Duran got their name.) In this future setting, no one on Earth has any need for any weapons, as peace and harmony reign. The President of Earth doesn’t even have any armies or policemen. So why does he choose Barbarella for this mission? Well, because she’s a “five-star double-rated astronavigatrix,” whatever that is. And she’s performed missions for the President before; as he says that one day he hopes to meet her in person. (Probably because he keeps ogling her boobs as he talks to her through a two-way TV screen.) 

Despite being a “five-star double-rated astronavigatrix,” Barbarella actually proves to be quite incompetent, and during the film she’s often reduced to being a damsel in distress who is saved by a succession of different men. Barbarella survives innumerable death traps throughout the movie, ranging from toy dolls with gruesome sharp teeth to a deadly pleasure-inducing machine. Along the way, Barbarella discovers the pleasures of making love, as she meets the hirsute Mark Hand after her spaceship crashes in the icy plains of Weir. Hand saves Barbarella from the killer toy dolls, and when she says she doesn’t know how to thank him, he thinks of the oldest way in the book. (The future doesn’t actually seem that advanced as far as gender relations go.) When he tells Barbarella he wants to make love to her, she is puzzled and responds “What do you mean? You don’t even know my psychocardiogram!” She goes on to explain: “Well, on Earth, for centuries, people haven't made love unless their psychocardiogram readings were in perfect confluence.” Lovemaking is now achieved by taking a pill and touching hands for a minute or until “full rapport” occurs. In one of the funniest parts of the movie, Hand asks Barbarella why people no longer make love the old way. She says, “'Cause it was proved to be distracting and a danger to maximum efficiency! And… and because it was pointless to continue it when other substitutes for ego support and self-esteem were made available.” 

“Barbarella” is ultra-campy, and it thankfully has its tongue planted firmly in cheek most of the time. In addition to the lines about future sex, there are some funny moments, as when Hand takes off his fur jacket, revealing that he is just as hairy without the jacket as he is with it. Hand gives Barbarella one of his furs to wear, and it looks like a skunk, complete with long tail that gets caught in the door of Barbarella’s spaceship. 

Barbarella’s spaceship then crashes again, and she meets the blind angel Pygar, played by the statuesque John Phillip Law, and his friend Professor Ping, played by Marcel Marceau. (Marceau’s voice was dubbed.) Barbarella thanks Pygar for saving her by making love to him, and he thus regains the will to fly. (I told you this movie was campy!) Barbarella then makes her way to the city of SoGo, where she meets a concierge (Milo O’Shea and his giant eyebrows) who is an assistant to the Great Tyrant, the Black Queen, played by Keith Richards’ then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. Pallenberg also had a small role in another 1968 sex farce which was also co-written by Terry Southern, “Candy.” I reviewed “Candy” here, and the movies do have some similarities, as they tell picaresque tales of attractive young women that make every man fall in love with them. The male performances in “Candy” are better, as you get to see huge stars like Richard Burton and Marlon Brando hamming it up, but Jane Fonda is a much better actress than Ewa Aulin, the Swedish actress who played Candy. 

Meanwhile, as the plot trundles on, Barbarella has to survive another death trap, as the Black Queen captures Barbarella and puts her in a cage to be pecked to death by birds, in an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock. But Barbarella escapes down a hatch and meets the funniest character in the film, a revolutionary played by David Hemmings, fresh off his most famous role as the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” Hemmings reminded me a lot of fellow swinging 60’s British actor Terence Stamp, as they both have the same intense, heavily lidded blue eyes. Hemmings mines his small role for all the comedy it’s worth, as he stammers over his lines and insists that Barbarella make love with him in the new Earth way, by taking pills and touching palms, which literally makes your hair curl. Hemmings then gives Barbarella an invisible key to the Queen’s sleeping chambers. Yes, an invisible key. It turns out that the concierge is actually Durand Durand himself, and he uses the positronic ray to wreak havoc on the citizens of SoGo, killing just about everyone before he gets killed by his own evil invention. Oh, and there’s some subterranean sludge called the Mathmos, which makes SoGo evil, or something like that, but Barbarella’s innocence saves her and the Queen from being destroyed by it. Nope, not kidding about that.

“Barbarella” is a ridiculous movie, but it remains a fun romp because of Fonda’s knowingly humorous performance, and her amazing costumes, designed by Jacques Fonteray and Paco Rabanne. Fonda is amazingly beautiful and sexy as Barbarella, and she brings the right amount of wide-eyed innocence to the role. Barbarella is completely guileless, and doesn’t understand why all of these men are falling at her feet. Had Fonda been a less gifted actress, “Barbarella” could have doomed her to be typecast as a bimbo, but she was able to escape the sex kitten image she created in “Barbarella.” The very 60’s soundtrack is by the superbly talented Bob Crewe, who wrote and produced many hits for the Four Seasons, and is a great singer in his own right. 

“Barbarella” was fun to watch, but I think it must have been more fun to see it back in 1968, when it was shocking audiences and when its boundary breaking would have seemed fresher. But if you want to take a trip back to the swinging 60’s, watch “Barbarella.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ditto! "And God Made Woman..." kissing my fingers, also agree, there is no more beautiful Jane than "Barbarella." I didn't realize that Vadim was responsible for both films. As for Cathrine, I know I've seen her but my point is that these three women are shoulder to shoulder with Monroe and Mansfield!