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When they awarded producer Dino de Laurentiis a special Oscar a number of years ago, the editors charged with making a montage of his movies had a heck of a time finding many worth excerpting: The White Buffalo, anyone? De Laurenttis' 1968 Barbarella generated a lot of publicity, at least during production. An enthusiastic Playboy magazine article suggested that the set was a 24-7 orgy, and stories circulated in the press of Roger Vadim hosting an open house all-substances-encouraged party. Although it opened to mostly tepid reviews, Barbarella was an attractive proposition, a glitzy Technicolor visualization of a reportedly pornographic French comic strip (oo-la-la) mostly unknown in the states. Word quickly circulated that the opening credits were the sexiest ever seen.
Presumably inspired by the success of TV's reboot of Batman, De Laurentiis launched not one but two comix- oriented productions. Italy's Mario Bava was given a green light to bring the Giussani sisters' anarchist comic Diabolik to the screen. Bava stuck to his intimate, small scale production habits and used only a fraction of the budget allotted by the big-time Italian producer. The French filmmaker Roger Vadim was assigned the Futuristic Female Buck Rogers saga, which became a lavishly expensive undertaking. Vadim is of course most noted for promoting his first wife Brigitte Bardot into an international sex star. The tangled irony to this is that the original Barbarella comic strip character was supposedly based on Brigitte Bardot. The single-minded Vadim seemingly tried to mold his second and third wives Annette Stroyberg and Jane Fonda, his actress/muses post-Bardot, into Bardot's image as well!
Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is a liberated, sex-obsessed space adventuress in a fantasy future. The episodic spoof of a screenplay begins with her in deep space, accepting a mission from Earth's President Dianthus (Claude Dauphin) to proceed to the planetoid Tau Ceti to find the lost scientist Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea) and retrieve his ultimate weapon, the Positronic Ray. Barbarella discovers that the planet is ruled by The Great Tyrant, a.k.a. the Black Queen (Anita Pallenberg). Her army of Black Guards terrorizes the miserable inhabitants of The Labyrinth, a Dante-esque hellscape. The curious scientist Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau) is the wisest man in The Labyrinth. Our dauntless blonde space cadet is aided/seduced by the hairy space hermit Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi) and the clumsy revolutionary Dildano (David Hemmings). She also finds a noble ally & bedmate in Pygar, a blind angel complete with enormous feathered wings (John Phillip Law). Entering the evil city of Sogo, Barbarella is captured and subjected to erotic torture in the Excessive Machine. The insane Durand Durand then activates his Positronic Ray in a bid to overthrow the Black Queen. Trapped with Barbarella in her inviolable Chamber of Dreams, The Queen opts for an apocalyptic solution: she frees from its underground chamber a living liquid called The Mathmos, which will dissolve and destroy everything on the planet.
That synopsis indicates that Barbarella could use an extra-big helping of Star Wars- strength special effects. It gets colorful cinematography from Vadim's frequent collaborator Claude Renoir, but the otherwise stage-bound production is forced to rely mostly on flimsy theatrical effects. The presentation of Mark Hand's "ice planet" tells it all - the set that looks like an ice skating rink with a standard cyclorama background. The designs for parts of Sogo and the Labyrinth are acceptable, but the fatally unimaginative Roger Vadim has no visual plan and no editorial strategy. The farcical story doesn't even attempt the dynamism of comic strip art.
Characterizations must carry everything. Jane Fonda is spirited as Barbarella, a space-flake who comes off as Little Annie Fannie of the cosmos, complete with a series of revealing costumes. Ms. Fonda feigns concern, arousal and confusion with an open-faced innocence. Her seduction scenes are no great shakes but she does well with the off-color farce, as when the Excessive Machine, an automatic masturbation device played like a church organ, seems to be raping her. Ugo Tognazzi and Marcel Marceau aren't given much of interest to do, but David Hemmings and Fonda share an amusing sex scene. They engage in "modern" lovemaking by simply taking a pill; sitting motionless, they experience orgasms while their joined fingertips generate smoke.
The best material places Fonda with John Phillip Law's gentle, sightless Pygar, a Zenned-out guru who says things like, "An angel does not make love, an angel is love." The impossibly pure Pygar is a nice contrast with Law's concurrent Diabolik character, a stylish thief. When the time comes to fend off a horde of buzzing, ray gun firing airships, Pygar carries Barbarella aloft, so she can shoot them down.
Almost as good is Anita Pallenberg's Black Queen, the high priestess of this galactic Sodom & Gomorrah. The queen wears an eye patch and an abbreviated leather jumpsuit cut for maximum perversity. Spinning a pair of knife-weapons in her palms, she's a terrific, if grossly misogynistic, cartoon character. To augment the illusion of menace, Pallenberg is dubbed by the British actress Joan Greenwood, in a low voice somewhere between a purr and a growl: "Hello my pretty pretty."
Barbarella manages a few interesting situations, that often look better in stills than in the movie itself. Captured, Pygar is crucified with nails driven through his wings. An effort to put Barbarella in fetishistic situations sees her attacked by a group of metal-toothed dolls (not very convincing) and likewise tortured in a bubble with hundreds of pecking birds. Although some airships explode and a number of Black Guards are blasted apart, the film has no action direction to speak of. We must make do with moments like Barbarella grabbing the Black Queen and threatening to melt her face with a ray pistol.
The expensive special effects are either terrible or quaint in their artificiality, depending on viewer expectations. Experts were brought in from Hollywood and London but the only really notable quality of the space scenes, flying hardware, etc., is the color camerawork. The film has few if any standard optical shots, as continental labs were at the time not known for great work in this area. The most prominent effect in the movie are the giant pulsing psychedelic backgrounds in scenes involving the Mathmus, the Queen's Chamber of Dreams, etc. Process specialist Charles Staffell had just accomplished excellent front-projection work for Stanley Kubrick in 2001, so it is possible that these scenes, along with the flying sequences, are in-camera front projection composites. They do not look like traditional rear screen process shots. They're colorful, lively and somewhat lacking in dynamism.
Everyone talks about the opening title sequence, in which Barbarella performs what's become known as the Zero Gravity Striptease, shucking off her space helmet and suit to reveal a free-floating nude body. The animated credit titles flit about, failing completely to "censor" Ms. Fonda's nudity. Truly a space age wet dream fantasy, this sequence brought the audience of servicemen at Norton Air Force Base, where I first saw the movie, to their feet with applause. The poor guys; I wonder if lovesick soldiers in Vietnam were tormented by screenings of Barbarella.
The weightless illusion was accomplished simply by shooting downward at Jane Fonda, who did her act atop a large sheet of Plexiglas, with half of the spaceship interior behind and underneath her. The film's only truly inspired montage cutting occurs here; Vadim's imagination only seems to engage in scenes involving nudity. Helping out is Bob Crewe and Charles Fox's bouncy title tune. The rest of the score by the "Bob Crewe Generation" seems a generic substitute for a Burt Bacharach sound. Some tunes are sillier than others, but at least it's different.
Barbarella still looks better in production photos, where we can appreciate the occasionally arresting art direction and cleverly designed props, especially the weird weapons and other 'art nouveau' inspired creations. Some of Jane Fonda's costumes are appealing, with their plastic see-through breastplates and other erotic details.
Twelve years later Dino de Laurentiis committed himself to another space opera, Flash Gordon, again with mixed results. The leading man didn't measure up, but the production team created a lavish comic book look far more pleasing than the hit and miss visuals of Roger Vadim's erotic space opus.
Paramount's Blu-ray of Barbarella looks really good, which is no surprise -- this show has been bright and colorful in every format release. Flesh tones are wonderfully warm and the wide range of hues in the sharp HD image maximizes the film's visual appeal. The audio track is also fresh and scrubbed.
A trailer is included -- I never saw one theatrically so I don't know if it's an original. The cover artwork is the wretched reissue painting, a Frazetta imitation that makes Fonda look like an insipid blow-up doll. But the disc slipcover opens to reveal a double spread of the original art from 1968, which possesses a different exploitation charm. In the original release there was no subtitle reading, "Queen of the Galaxy."
Some online chat has suggested that the new Blu-ray is some kind of uncut version, with more nudity. As an international production, it figures that French or German versions might have been even racier. I could be wrong, but I don't think this encoding has more skin to offer -- unless one is referring to a slightly edited TV cut that censored glimpses of nipples, etc., through selective pan & scan (and some blurring, if I recall). In 1970s Los Angeles Barbarella was a frequent second feature or midnight show, and its content seemed the same to me -- the prints just slowly wore out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Barbarella Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.