Barbarella (1968) is campy ’60s madness – hilariously dirty, adorably silly and oddly captivating. In the far future, humanity has moved past sex, war and jealousy and created a universal harmony of love – developing with it a lack of shame and anxiety. Earth’s government fears though that the mad scientist Durand Durand plans to use his ‘positronic ray’ to destroy the universe entirely – so they send Barbarella to save the day.
In the credits, we’re already prepared for something totally new and very odd. Barbarella is a science fiction primarily, though it might be mistaken for a relatively high-budget adult film with the obligatory sex scenes censored out; its plot jerks along like some twisted version of Alice in Wonderland, except Barbarella’s encounters usually end in sexual gratification. In her breakthrough role, Jane Fonda spends pretty much the entire film naked, though the few skimpy costumes were designed by Paco Rabanne. As Barbarella first appears, floating in zero gravity in her strange ‘futuristic’ ’60s apartment, she is clad in a familiar oversized ‘space suit’, made from what is presumably heating-vent tubing. To Maurice Jarre’s stunning elevator jazz track, Barbarella strips off, piece by piece, to reveal her screen goddess figure and flowing hair – she is beautiful, and reclines back against her fur-lined bed to receive a call from the President. Barbarella is not your average sci-fi flick.
Fonda herself is funny, winningly innocent and increasingly stands as a decisive and intensely sexual character. Of course, from a feminist point of view, this isn’t so much offensive as bizarre – Barbarella’s sexuality is both a commentary on the discovery of women and their attractions and needs that were largely treated as mythical until the few decades leading up to Barbarella. Yet Fonda is shot in compromising positions and outfits by an entirely male production team that was directed by her then-husband. She is naïve and unprepared for the mission, without even the vaguest understanding of the mechanics of her own ship (pretty much every deal made in the entire film, including sexual, is in return for a man repairing her ship for her). But honestly, Barbarella is a creature of its own. It’s not really possible to know what to make of her relationship with Pygar, the alien/angel who loses the will to fly until Barbarella has sex with him in gratitude for him saving her from the Queen’s guards. This is either a potent metaphor for puberty, the male ego or yet more evidence that Roger Vadim would rather have been making adult films all along. In a time, however, when a female lead was about as likely as a pencil getting top billing, let alone for her journey and agency to dominate the plot of the film, it’s still an important feature of women’s cinema.
Based on Jean-Claude Forest’s French comic series of the same name, Barbarella is a bizarre meeting-point between American, French and Italian filmmaking, and their varied attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Part abstract screensaver, part cobbled-together sci-fi adventure and part tongue-in-cheek sexual journey, Barbarella is a psychedelic departure from the cold and dreary futures of classic dystopian fiction. The dystopian world is in fact the colony planet of Tau Ceti, Earth having long since proclaimed itself a utopia of love as its citizens spread freely across the sky. Yet neither are truly perfect or imperfect worlds; earth may be ‘harmonious’ but at the cost of social mobility and individual pleasures. In the underbelly of the 16th planet in the Tau Ceti system, where violence, stagnation and grief encircle the evil Queen’s beautiful palace, Barbarella is shocked by the treatment of the people. Yet, she forgets her own admission that no humans have participated in penetrative intercourse for thousands of years (instead ingesting ‘exultation transference pills’ and placing their palms together to achieve cerebral connection), “except the very poor, who can’t afford the pills”. Harmony and equality, harmony and fulfilment, harmony and variety are decidedly not the same things, and Barbarella’s experiences throw her certainty about how an individual should act within their society into disarray.
Re-released in 1977, the film garnered new attention from audiences who were having their minds blown just a little. It’s a relic, really, of a time where sexuality suddenly became a cultural rather than a moral social issue. What was female sexuality at this point? Is it titillation or exploration we are watching here, as Fonda rewards her rescuer by “letting [him] make love to her” and discovers a whole new world that she’s rather fond of? It’s not a sensitive portrayal, but a completely silly one and perhaps is what a film about sex should happily be: sex should be pleasurable, not tied up in fear, shame and the all too familiar ‘I said no and I’m crying, but secretly I’m enjoying it’ narratives that run through works from Belle du Jour to Fifty Shades of Grey with alarming ease. Sex should be fun, as with Barbarella. The ultimate punishment in this world is the excessive machine – a giant organ that when played through the keyboard drives the victim to excessive, excruciating and fatal pleasure. Naturally, this is nothing Barbarella can’t handle.
What is perhaps just as interesting as Barbarella’s sexual experiences are her near-death ones: tied up and eaten by mechanical dolls, placed in a cage to be pecked by birds, forced to experience sexual pleasure in the excessive machine – which all point to a great awareness of the literary metaphors associated with restricted and repressed female sexuality. In short, to be deprived of the chance to explore and control one’s sexual experiences with an individual rate of adult growth and experimentation. However, they underestimate Barbarella’s power, agency and determination, as well as her sexual appetite, time and time again. Barbarella, as a character, is not transgressive or promiscuous, but an innocent who has grown up in a world that does not shame her actions or her body, and these evils are a reminder of those forces that would destroy the free world she was born into. The world we might model a little of our own on.