Roger Vadim is one of cinema’s horniest filmmakers, and he brings that energy to his only foray into sci-fi.
Vadim spent his career making movies to showcase the allure of the women he was involved with, and in 1968 he was married to Jane Fonda, whom he’d already directed in two previous erotic dramas. So he placed Fonda at the center of a playful, sexually liberated sci-fi movie — the polar opposite of the same year’s sci-fi juggernaut 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Both 2001 and Vadim’s Barbarella are psychedelic head trips, but Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is chillier and more cerebral, taking itself very seriously even when swirling through abstract mindscapes. Barbarella announces its fundamental silliness right from the start, with Fonda’s title character floating in zero gravity, performing a sort of intergalactic burlesque routine as she strips off her bulky spacesuit one piece at a time.
The interior of Barbarella’s spaceship is covered in wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting, with a blowup of Georges Surat’s famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte on the airlock door. It looks like the sort of swinging bachelor pad where Austin Powers might show up at any minute.
Based on a comic book series by French writer and artist Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella takes place in a far-flung future when the galaxy has been united in love and war has ceased to exist. Barbarella is some sort of interstellar explorer and an official representative of the government of Earth.
Right after she strips off her spacesuit, Barbarella receives an urgent call from the President of Earth, which she of course answers in the nude. He assigns her to travel to the Tau Ceti system and locate a scientist named Durand Durand, who has disappeared with a dangerous weapon he created.
“Why would anyone want to invent a weapon?” Barbarella asks in her charming combination of naivete and intellectual curiosity. To protect herself from the potentially savage inhabitants of her destination, Barbarella is sent vintage weapons from the Museum of Conflict (the only place on Earth where such items can be found).
After crash-landing on the planet where Durand is hiding, Barbarella goes on an expansive journey in the manner of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, only with a lot more sex. She’s first kidnapped by a band of creepy children, who whisk her away to their headquarters across an icy landscape via giant skis tied to a stingray-like creature. “But I haven’t skied in ages!” Barbarella objects reasonably. She’s rescued from the children’s clutches by a burly outdoorsman known as the Catchman (Ugo Tognazzi).
Barbarella offers him anything he wants as repayment for saving her life, and he requests that she have sex with him. Sex on Earth has evolved to encompass simply taking a pill and matching something called “psychocardiograms,” but the Catchman wants to do it the old-fashioned way so Barbarella happily obliges.
She’s not coerced or manipulated, and her attitude toward sex is a sort of breezy openness that fits both the era’s free-love mentality and Vadim’s more prurient erotica sensibilities. Barbarella discovers that she loves making love, and so she keeps doing it.
When she meets the almost childlike blind angel called Pygar (John Phillip Law), she cures him of his inability to fly by making love to him in what appears to be his nest. “Interesting therapy,” comments the mechanic and resistance leader Professor Ping (legendary mime Marcel Marceau). Pygar and Ping then help Barbarella enter the sinister city of Sogo, where Durand is possibly being held hostage by the Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg).
The plot of Barbarella is almost impressionistic, and her mission to find Durand takes many detours, only to culminate in a bizarre anticlimax. But the pleasures of watching Barbarella don’t come from its sophisticated sci-fi story or intricate world-building.
Watching Barbarella feels like taking an acid trip without actually taking any acid. Vadim constantly bombards viewers with bizarre, garish set designs, and costumes that are both patently fake-looking and gloriously immersive. Barbarella’s world is completely convincing in part because it’s so artificial; no matter how much danger Barbarella is in, she can be counted on to change into a new fabulous outfit every couple of scenes.
Vadim may have been primarily interested in how gorgeous Fonda looked (and she does look gorgeous), but she also gives a fantastic performance with just the right balance of sensual and ridiculous. There are eight credited screenwriters on Barbarella (including the original comic book creator Forest and renowned satirist Terry Southern), which may account for the incoherent plotting. But between them, they came up with some sublimely absurd dialogue.
Barbarella is consistently funny, thanks in part to Fonda’s deadpan delivery of lines like “A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming” and “This is really much too poetic a way to die,” uttered when Barbarella is trapped in a chamber full of colorful birds attempting to peck her to death.
David Hemmings shows up late in the movie as a rebel commander wearing tiny shorts (named, of course, Dildano), and his fussing around with his malfunctioning electronic equipment is a masterpiece of slapstick.
Barbarella’s big showdown with the ultimate villain involves him trapping her in a machine meant to kill her by overloading her with sexual pleasure. But she proves too much woman for it, and the machine itself overloads instead.
“It couldn’t keep up with you!” the villain exclaims. “What kind of girl are you?” She’s Barbarella, and there’s no one like her.
Barbarella is streaming for free on Pluto TV in the U.S.