Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Barbarella" Psychedelia

Barbarella is a space adventuress in the distant future, played by a doe-eyed young Jane Fonda, who is sent off to find a mad scientist named Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea), inventor of a fearsome new weapon that may endanger Earth. After her shag-carpeted spaceship crashes on the planet Tau Ceti, she befriends the blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law) and another mad scientist, Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau, in a rare speaking role). Pygar accompanies her to the evil city of Sogos, which ruled over by a Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) who may be in cahoots with Durand Durand. Our heroine, despite her reputation for brilliance, isn't very good at taking care of herself, and so has a tendency to get kidnapped a lot and require rescuing. Oh, and she has sex a couple of times, though a few of those only involve engaging in various suggestive activities that are meant to stand in for sex - I think.

"Barbarella" is famous for being a naughty slice of 60s sci-fi erotica, directed by the notorious Roger Vadim and produced by Dino DeLaurentiis. It is a very European piece of work, and one gets the sense that it had to be. Hollywood at the time was simply too straight-laced to commit the amount of funds necessary to make the film look like a presentable piece of quasi-science fiction, while retaining the adult content. Forty-odd years later, the only thing that would raise any eyebrows is Barbarella's zero-G striptease during the opening credits. None of her trysts are explicit, and her encounter with an ominous sexual torture device may have once been thought of as outrageous, but it comes across as very silly now. With a few edits, the movie can easily play on broadcast television, where I vaguely remember seeing it when I was younger.

Despite its reputation, "Barbarella" is at least as much space adventure as erotica, and the film works best if you think of it as a knowing, sexed-up parody of the science fiction of that era. Well, an attempt at one anyway. The dialogue tries for wit and sophistication, but only rarely manages to be as smart as it wants to be. The instances of broader humor tends be more successful. There is a rudimentary plot as outlined above, but Barbarella mostly just meanders from one setting and set of characters to the next, until a deus ex machina or a sex scene sends her off to her next destination. Apparently in the future, you're repulsed by anyone you've just had sex with and must leave the vicinity immediately. There are some elements that have held up nicely, though. The production design is weirdly gorgeous, bizarre traps and devices are around every corner, and the psychedelic special effects are very eye-catching.

Also, several of the performances still work. Jane Fonda's Barbarella may not be a particularly effective heroine (she loses fights to a gang of children and a swarm of adorable parakeets), but she's extremely sympathetic and appealing. Barbarella is meant to be both a liberated sexual creature and yet also a naive innocent. Fonda manages to pull this off without too much self-contradiction, by making her something of a space-age Alice in a strange new Wonderland. Barbarella dutifully parrots enlightened Earth wisdoms, but finds the conventional rules don't apply on Tau Ceti. Clearly, she still has a lot to learn about the universe. You can also sense the potential for a more active, modern heroine beneath the surface, who might emerge if she got to use her fancy ray guns as often as she changes costumes.

And then there's John Phillip Law as the studly, angelic Pygar, whose impressive wingspan is one of the best effects in the film. He mostly serves as the film's damsel-in-distress, getting himself captured and rescued about as often as Barbarella does, and giving her someone to act protective towards. Occasionally he'll make such heady observations as, "An angel does not make love. An angel is love." That's about as good as the zingers in this movie get. I also liked Anita Pallenberg as the Great Tyrant, though she's not particularly threatening, and develops the amusing habit of calling Barabarella her "Pretty Pretty." I'd have rather seen a movie about her, to find out how she ended up in power in the first place, and untangle her relationship with the "mathmos," a substance of pure evil that bubbles beneath the city of Sogos. There are an awful lot of promising ideas in the story that don't get developed much.

I found "Barbarella" fascinating as a campy relic from the early days of the sexual revolution. It still retains a lot of entertainment value, but I think it's more interesting in the way that it reflects the era in which it was made. What would "Barbarella" look like today, as a modern woman? Could she reach her full potential and become both an erotic and dramatic heroine? Or even more? Several remakes have been in development for a while, and this is one of the few titles I think would actually would benefit from an update. Unfortunately, no one's had much luck getting the project made in Hollywood.

Maybe they ought to try Europe.

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