Saturday 10 September 2011

I'll destroy you with my positronic ray!

I watched Barbarella the same night I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey with a friend. It was an entirely accidental, oddly specific themed evening: the state of science fiction cinema in 1968. I suppose they're from opposite ends of the spectrum: 2001 is a hugely ambitious, deeply serious attempt to deal with the human condition and the possibility of life 'out there', told through the medium of hard sci-fi; Barbarella is 98 minutes of Jane Fonda prancing through papier-maché sets in stripper outfits.

And yet I love them both equally; and while I may one day be worthy to review 2001, Barbarella has the courtesy to be stupider than me right now. This knowing ludicrousness is not a sign of quality in itself: I loathed the equally gormless Flash Gordon, and one of the most obnoxious qualities of the Scream franchise is its postmodern winking at its own flaws. What, then, makes Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (the indescribably beautiful promotional title) a delight where these others aren't?

Well, it isn't the plot. (Which, incidentally, I had to look up.) Sometime in the far future, Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is asked by the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) to travel to the planet Tau Ceti and find the missing scientist Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea), who is in possession of a positronic ray, a dangerous weapon in an age that has left war behind. On Tau Ceti, Barbarella encounters a series of events that don't quite constitute a plot, and eventually finds she must confront the Great Tyrant of Sogo (Anita Pallenberg) with the help of the blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law) and Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau). Incoherent is putting it mildly: the various points in the story bear little relation to one another, and the ending is utterly baffling.

Which is why the producers didn't promote the plot: they instead counted on the appeal of Jane Fonda in skimpy clothing. I wouldn't normally discuss an actor's looks, but the film itself pushes Fonda's physical attributes to the front so insistently that I could not review the final product without reference to them. Well, with that lie out of the way:  Jane Fonda is extremely attractive in Barbarella: QotG, although she also looks a lot like her father, Henry Fonda. (Which, my friend remarked, is something frequently encountered in real life: your friend has a fit sister, but the family resemblance is undeniable, creating a weird situation.)

Barbarella is introduced performing an infamous zero-gravity striptease during the opening titles. Your reaction to the visuals and the music in this scene will determine your attitude to the rest of the film: is it sleazy titillation, lowest-common-denominator fluff offering cheap thrills to an assumed male audience, or a charming slice of sixties silliness and an expression of the sexual revolution? (It's both.) Throughout, Fonda slips from one revealing outfit into another. She discovers sex which, we learn, has ceased to be physical on earth, and is eventually tortured in the 'Excessive Machine', in which, the villain threatens, 'you will die... of pleasure!'. Barbarella makes the most of the fall of the Hays Code in the same year. Earlier films could get quite a lot of innuendo past the censors (see The Big Sleep); but in 1968, Dino de Laurentiis could offer you boobs.

The tongue-in-cheek attitude I mentioned earlier certainly goes a long way. In a delightful sequence, Barbarella is attacked by children and killer dolls after crash-landing on Tau Ceti; she is rescued by the Catchman (Ugo Tognazzi), who is just as hairy clad in furs as he is without them. The production design is an important part of the calculation: the producers never attempt to create realistic alien worlds, going instead for obvious plastic, rubber, papier-maché and plaster. The look is somewhat reminiscent of the obviously-fake sets of the original Star Trek series, which was on television at the time; it is certainly light-years from serious contemporary science fiction.

So why do I adore this film - this mess of over-the-top dialogue, awful sets and cheap titillation - where I actively dislike Flash Gordon? It helps that Jane Fonda, unlike the hapless Sam J. Jones, is in on the joke and an able actress. (One wonders how different Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary's Baby would have been had Fonda not turned them down in favour of filming Barbarella with then-husband Roger Vadim.) There are the hammy supporting performances: the best known may be Milo O'Shea, who gave a more earnest performance as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet the same year. And then there's the fact that Barbarella's spaceship has shag carpet on the walls. Shag carpet. On the walls.

But overall, I think it's the mind-boggling sixties-ness of the thing. The amazing psychedelic pop soundtrack by Bob Crewe and Charles Fox ('Barbarella psychedella, dazzle me with rainbow colours...') sets the mood for the film. And that's where I think Barbarella is more than a guilty pleasure. Though exploitative, its trippy camp and celebration of sex show the buoyant optimism of the flower power generation, the belief that a new age of peace and love was just around the corner. It's a vision of the future we've lost with our cyberpunk metropoleis, killer robots, and nuclear wastelands. Barbarella's future may be the least likely of our visions, but it's certainly one I wouldn't mind living in. Except for the shag carpet, of course.

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