Barbarella (1968)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Barbarella</strong> (1968)

(In French, On TV, March 2018) It seems to me that Barbarella was a cultural reference when I was much younger, but it has since then waned in popularity and influence. Oh well; merely being reminded of it was enough to get me watching, especially given how it played late at night on a French “classic TV & movies” channel. While I’m normally a strong advocate for watching movies in their original language, Barbarella does have a certain flavour in dubbed French—Jane Fonda’s Barbarella has a lovely slight English accent, and the French dialogue does remind us that the film was directed by French writer/director Roger Vadim. It certainly starts with a bang, as Fonda disrobes during a groovy credit sequence and, disrobed, receives mission instructions from the president of Earth. None of what you’ll see in the movie looks like anything else: Barbarella sure looks like peak sixties with surreal imagery in service of a nominally science-fictional story. It barely makes sense either on a narrative or a visual level, but it sure does have atmosphere to spare. Unfortunately, the lack of an engaging plot, cohesive visuals or anything approaching craft of execution does mean that the film becomes less and less interesting as it goes on. While the initial appeal of a science-fiction erotic comedy is good enough for a hook, the film never exceeds the results of its opening sequence. It’s curiously restrained for a French film of the sixties, further contributing to the film not fulfilling its opening promises. Sure, it’s interesting to see Marcel Marceau in a speaking role, or watch Anita Pallenberg vamp it up as an evil queen … but the film does very little with what it has to play with, and the result turns from promising to dull to annoying as the film goes on. Even at 98 minutes, it feels long and disconnected. Fonda does act and look fantastic as the titular heroine, the music is interesting (witness the origins for Duran Duran’s band title) and the shoestring-budget acid-trip production design is still worth a look. (There’s a straight line from Barbarella to The Fifth Element in terms of costume design, and it shows.)  There are a few quick laughs (the tail thing getting stuck in a door), some of them guilty (Barbarella overloading the orgasmatron.) But the film hasn’t survived particularly well—to say that’s dominated by the male gaze is a strong understatement, and I suspect that the film is now more embarrassing than exhilarating to older audiences. I’m reasonably happy that I have finally seen Barbarella … but I can’t bring myself to recommend it.

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