Barbarella started as an adult comic serialized in a French magazine. Six years later, Roger Vadim cast his wife, Jane Fonda, in the lead of the movie. Given its source material, there’s no surprise that there is plenty of nudity and “sexual situations,” as the rating boards often put it. Perhaps it will come as a surprise, though, that the movie carries a very mild PG rating in the United States. Depending on how you feel about nudity and sex, that’s probably appropriate.
In a far-flung future, famous scientist Dr. Durand Durand (spelled with terminal ‘Ds’ but pronounced like the band) has gone missing. This is a Bad Thing because Durand has invented a weapon called the “positronic ray” that can wipe out all life. Fearing the knowledge will fall into the wrong hands, the President of Earth sends his agent Barbarella to retrieve Dr. Durand. He sends only Barbarella because the Earth has been in a state of enlightened peace for so many years there is no police force, let alone military. So Barbarella hops in her bizarre little spaceship, covered floor, ceiling, and walls with brown shag carpet, and hustles off to Tau Ceti.
There she is attacked by dolls with razor-sharp teeth, learns about “old-fashioned sex” from the Catchman; flies (in several senses of the word) an angel named Pygar; teams up with Dildano, the leader of a revolutionary political group; and absolutely ruins an “excessive-pleasure machine.” She also has an honest-to-god conversation with the mime Marcel Marceau in his first-ever speaking role. He says speaking was a challenging experience. “It’s a different way of making what’s inside come out,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1967. “It goes from the brain to the vocal cords, and not directly to the body.”
Fortunately for Marceau, there’s not an enormous amount of acting in Barbarella anyway. Jane Fonda as Barbarella is not that much different from Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou, a role she had three years earlier. Barbarella may be less clothed, but she is no less innocent or earnest. Everyone else plays very flat, stylized characters. The movie bears considerable resemblance to Doctor Who episodes from the 70s and 80s. So, too, the art direction. The colors are bright, the story is simple, the acting is broad.
Barbarella is frequently called “camp,” but that has overtones these days of being intentionally or ironically “bad,” and I don’t think that’s what this movie is striving for. If there’s such a thing as “earnest camp,” this is probably it. Sister film Danger: Diabolik is very similar, and so is the 1980’s Flash Gordon. Both of these were Dino De Laurentiis productions, incidentally. Cheap, colorful, and silly was something his movies tended to do very well.
The music deserves special mention. It’s full of swelling strings and muted jazzy horns. I am told this is “lounge,” and it complements the on-screen action perfectly. It’s credited to the “Bob Crewe Generation Orchestra.” I had to go look him up, but I knew a lot of Bob Crewe’s work already: “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” (for the Four Seasons) and “Lady Marmalade” (for Labelle) were just a handful of his hits. The vocal pieces are done by the New York psychedelic band Glitterhouse and are bizarre little pop artifacts.
This brings us, finally, to the movie’s nudity and eroticism. The notoriously unpredictable MPAA rated Barbarella “PG.” Internationally, this seems to have been an outlier. But I can kind of see the sense of it.
Like the rest of the movie, the eroticism is cheerful, silly, and — I almost hesitate to say it — innocent. This is by design, at least according to Jane Fonda, who wanted to portray Barbarella as belonging to a society that was over the idea that nudity is shameful.
The sex they seem to be somewhat more confused about. This allows Barbarella to experience an awaking of sorts. Earth sex has become very chaste and chemical, just as Sting feared it would. But on Tau Ceti they still do things the old-fashioned way.
If the intent was to present a wholesome, optimistic approach towards sexuality, I think they succeed, although there’s certainly some wiggle room for disagreement. I am trying to think of any movie that does it better, and I really can’t.
Ultimately, Barbarella is a light-hearted, fun, stylized movie. I have no doubt people watch it ironically, which is a shame. If the only way you can derive joy from this movie is to watch it with a sneer, I feel awful for you. It seems to me that Roger Vadim and his then-wife Jane Fonda set out to create a (literally) fluffy entertainment that reflected a relaxed, comfortable attitude towards sex. Barbarella is precisely that and no more, which in my book makes it a roaring success. Except for those horrible dolls.