Monday, March 3, 2014

Barbarella (1968): Love in Space, Euro-Style

Barbarella (1968)
dir: Roger Vadim

Any viewer of fine camp classics knows the name Barbarella. It has three things that make up the movie: 1) Jane Fonda in and out of a lot of awesomely 60s costumes; 2) Jane Fonda doing a zero-gravity striptease with some very frisky credits; 3) Gloriously 60s modernist psychedelic sets. 

Yet, that hardly touches the glorious camp efforts of Barbarella, the oversexed space heroine who goes tramping around the galaxy to rescue Durand Durand, an agent who may have been kidnapped by the Great Tyrant for his weapon, the Positronic Ray. Along the way she does battle with evil bitey dolls, hooks up with rough trade and blind angels, and defeats Durand Durand's death by orgasm machine. And, that's just a touch of the gloriously silly trampiness that is in Barbarella.

Barbarella was actually adapted from a French erotic comic of the same name from the early 1960s. It was a comic associated with the swinging '60s and the feminist-driven sexual revolution that also came around with the pill. It was a male fantasy of an empowered woman who felt free to have sex with anybody she chose, with no real consequences. While totally couched in male fantasy, Barbarella also served as an early example of men trying to give women actual agency. It's quite telling that the only ones chastising Barbarella for her libido are the villains of the movie, namely Durand Durand after she breaks his pleasure organ.

Roger Vadim, as a director, had made his breakthrough a decade earlier with the French movie, ...And God Created Woman, which was his first calling for liberation of sexual mores, even though he laced it with conservative moral underpinnings in order to make it palatable for that earlier time. Barbarella has no such hang-ups, and sheds all of the conservative morals that pinned down ...And God Created Woman.

Vadim has a particular love affair with the female body, and it shows in Barbarella, in which he leers and lusts after Jane Fonda. From the fantastic and iconic zero-gravity striptease, to her frequently mussed hair after numerous courtships, to any number of her skin tight outfits of fabulousness, the camera is always making sure we know this is an attractive woman who welcomes most attention to her. And, so, the audience is invited to leer over Barbarella's body, just as Vadim did.

In the current feminist culture obsessed with desexualizing men and women, instead of owning the sexuality inherent in the human body, both male and female, Barbarella has become something of a male fantasy demon. But, in a culture where sex is seen as a healthy, zesty, and fun part of human life, Barbarella marks a point where women and men both are leered at and lusted after. This is marked by John Phillip Law's blind angel, who wears nothing but a diaper and a pair of wings. He is considered the height of beauty, and if you're into the slim but muscled blond type, he is. Vadim actually lets the audience lust after Law when he's on screen as well.

Of course, all of these politics are just extra-textual threads interweaved into the fun romp of a sci-fi sexploitation tale of a woman in outer space who has a fantastic wardrobe. Really, Barbarella isn't even a sleazy sexploitation movie, and instead just has fun with the scenarios that constantly pop up. Originally, due to the nudity in the credits, Barbarella was R-rated, but a later reissue with altered credits received a PG-rating. Vadim achieves a fun-for-the-whole-family feeling in Barbarella that undercuts any of the nasty feelings one might have towards the movie. As such, Barbarella is required viewing, if only for the fabulous sets, costumes, and creepy dolls.

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