“Decrucify the angel, or else I’ll melt your face!”
I’m not sure why Barbarella exists, but I am so glad it does. Roger Vadim, never quite considered the authority on niche subjects like “subtlety”, “decency” or “logical storytelling”, managed to make a film that somehow went from nothing more than a cheap exploitation film about a skimpily-dressed woman to a very expensive exploitation film about a skimpily-dressed woman who just so happens to be an intergalactic agent. Featuring Jane Fonda in one of her formative roles, and perhaps the part that lead her to actually abandon these low-brow films and pursue work that actually made use of her talents (thus, allowing some good to come out of this film), and a story pulled straight from the back pages of the cheapest science fiction rag, Barbarella is a fascinating cultural touchstone, a moment in film history that preserves everything that made mid-century science fiction so memorable – ludicrous premises, gaudy production design and a view of the future that not even the most deranged speculation writer could have ever put together. It’s a work that traverses genre, convention and expectation to become truly a fascinating film – not a good one by any means, but certainly one of the most unforgettable experiences one can have with this kind of film. Barbarella is the perfect time-capsule of a more simple time in science fiction, when hideous production design, awful acting and the most inane storylines were accepted as being worthwhile forms of entertainment for some reason or another.
The quote at the outset of this review is the perfect embodiment of precisely why Barbarella is such magnificent garbage. Vadim seemed to be inadvertently crafting one of the most sublime exercises in camp storytelling, putting together a cinematic experience of theatrical proportions. The only element that prevents Barbarella from becoming a true disaster is that the fact its executed with such flippant disregard for any kind of decency, it had to be intentional, or else we are truly existing in a world where someone believed what they were making here was truly capable of standing alongside many of the great science fiction features that were so clearly influences on this gloriously demented work of beautifully ill-conceived speculative drama. The very definition of a memorable space opera (especially if we find a space to epenthesize the word “soap” into there somehow), and composed with the conviction of a cast and crew that managed to venture as far from rationality as humanly possible, Barbarella is truly something extraordinary, keeping me captivated for each garish, excruciatingly tasteless moment, and reminding me precisely of why I love cinema, by way of making me ponder all the films I could’ve been watching instead of this.
Perhaps a synopsis of the plot would help clarify the extraordinary ineptitude of Barbarella – mainly because no one involved in the making of it seemed to actually be able to provide one. Barbarella is a secret agent from Planet Earth who spends her time in a trendy spacecraft (she got the one with the shag carpeting, apparently), which occupies most of her time between missions, which appear to be increasingly rare since she is hopelessly inadept at doing anything that can be considered even remotely accurate. This launches her to a desert planet, where the inhabitants are all taken aback by her, and fall hopelessly in love with this mysterious earthling who is there on a flimsy premise of finding the elusive Dr Duran Duran, returning him back to his home-planet for undisclosed reasons. From there, it’s anyone’s guess – she meets a blind angel, who insists repeatedly that “an angel can’t make love…it is love” (which becomes the central theme of the film as a whole, for some reason), and a variety of primitive beings that are either trying to destroy Barbarella or convince her to have some private time with them because besides her extraordinary inability to execute even the most simple plan, her one defining feature is that every male she encounters falls hopelessly in love with her – a trait that she is too oblivious to even using to her advantage in terms of accomplishing what is very clearly a very easy mission.
Barbarella is not a frustrating film, because despite being almost entirely void of any narrative or creative merit, it becomes a truly unforgettable work of unhinged banality, a work of unrestrained camp brilliance, it never fails to leave the viewer utterly exhilarated, especially those of us that can appreciate this kind of lurid, lowbrow entertainment. This is the rare kind of film that is made with complete sincerity but accidentally becomes an excellent satire, particularly through the lens of the modern tendency to reevaluate unique genre films through retrospective means. However, as much as Barbarella is a film that benefits from any kind of viewing, there’s not a scholar alive that can assert any form of serious praise on this film – in many ways, Vadim has made the quintessential camp masterpiece, mainly because Barbarella features the one quality that even the most effective camp auteurs are unable to capture – the complete lack of self-awareness. The clear belief on the part of everyone involved that what they were making was worthwhile becomes quite endearing, and embodies the rare but admirable characteristic of a complete dismissal of logic and intelligence becoming a truly charming aspect of the film. Those who find themselves frustrated by this film are themselves at fault, because they set their expectations far too high, in actually having expectations at all.
Part of what makes the schadenfreude we experience from watching this film more acceptable is the retrospect of knowing that no one here really found themselves at a disadvantage as a result of this awful film. We know that Jane Fonda was only a few months away from acquiring her role in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which would prove that she was an actress that was capable of depth and nuance, rather than just depending on the male gaze to make her a star. She certainly does her best to bolster a character that is not much more than just the embodiment of lust and a vessel for which the male characters in this film can assert their desires, which is conveyed either as pivotal to the progression of the non-existent plot or as comedic relief to a film that truly did not need it. The film does have some elements of more progressive discourse in terms of the portrayal of men as subservient to an omnipotent female dictator, but still had a long way to go before actually being considered an earnest attempt to be more inclusive. Fonda does defy the odds by rising above an incredibly one-note character, bringing charm and elegance to a role that was written without it entirely. Barbarella teeters on the strength of the work she does her, and while its only logical to expect her to falter under the unbearable weight of this atrocious story, she comes out of it unscathed, and perhaps even more motivated to do better work.
Barbarella is quite a film – whether it be the atrocious performances from everyone other than Fonda (with John Phillip Law in particular delivering an unforgettably bad portrayal of the supposedly dashing hero), or the complete lack of any logic from beginning to end – the fact that someone genuinely believed placing the main character in a cage of budgerigar was a feasible form of execution – it’s a fascinating experiment. We can accuse Vadim of many narrative misdemeanours in terms of this film and how he tells a story that was already very flimsy to begin with, but they’re all forgivable, since the way he conveys them is so entertaining, albeit far from intentional. Barbarella was proposed as being a film that seamlessly blended the excitement of science fiction with the allure of softcore erotica, and the result is an unmitigated disaster on both ends, but a truly unforgettable one at that, which only increases the merits embedded in this film. If Barbarella proves anything, its that commitment is sometimes the best way to conceal a lack of talent, because effort never really goes unrewarded – the film may be poorly-written, ill-conceived and composed of a series of disjointed scenes that all centre around an already nonsensical plot, but it can at least boast complete dedication to whatever absurd intentions it had to begin with. It’s about as empty as it is gauche, which is truly saying something since everything about this film appears to be the pinnacle of pure, unadulterated garbage, and I loved every minute of it.