Bizarre and gratuity indulgent, Barberella’s cult following still stands
Jane Fonda stars as Barbarella, the highly sexual heroine of a distant future. Adapting Jean Claude Forest’s erotic sci-fi comics from the early 1960s, Barbarella is sent to outer space by the President of Planet Earth to find and stop Doctor Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) from unleashing his secret weapon, the Positronic Ray, and potentially starting a war. On her journey, Barbarella encounters a number of strange and wacky characters that either want to kill her, or have sex with her—and eventually, nearly dies of pleasure.
Not surprisingly, a lot of actresses, before the film went into production, had turned down the role. Amongst them were Raquel Welch, Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, all asked to play Barbarella. Even Jane Fonda didn’t want to take the part, but married to the director at the time, Roger Vadim, she was somehow convinced. Fonda’s Barbarella is aloof, cheerful, and determined, and for a central female role, she even managed to get a Laurel Award nomination for Top Female Comedy Performance.
The script is pretty simple and at times, absurd at best, managing to bag a few laughs. Not a great deal happens in this film but it is an easy watch—enjoyable too, especially if you’re a nostalgic. Vadim seemed to be more concerned with how the film would look, putting a psychedelic spin on the tropes of erotica and sci-fi similar to those of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. And it goes with these two genres quite literally with its constant reminders of whacked-out space weapons and sex methods—did I mention the Positronic Ray is actually a sexual torture machine?
The film didn’t do very well when it was first released in 1968, but a couple of years down the line it had quite the cult following, and still resonates in pop culture today. The iconic space-age costumes, designed by Paco Rabanne, were particularly influential in ‘60s fashion, and even inspired Jean Paul Gaultier’s costumes 30 years later in The Fifth Element. Duran Duran also got their band name from this film, too.
Though the special effects aren’t really impressive (looking cheap, tacky, and almost laughable), I don’t think there’s any film out there that’s like it. And if there is, it was probably influenced in some sort of way by Barbarella. Coming from a time where attitudes towards sex and relationships started to change for both genders and different sexualities, paralleling with the sexual revolution that took place for the next few decades up to where we are now in the 21st century, I think Barbarella does best as a cult classic without being read into too much. But it certainly does well look-wise.