Barbarella - Jane Bond?

"The fictional character that Barbarella can most closely be said to resemble is actually Ian Fleming’s James Bond... like Bond, Barbarella is constantly jumping from one self-contained (sort-of) adventure to the next. She’s in a constant state of arousal, and like Bond, she uses her charm to bed whomever she finds the most attractive — friend and foe alike."
- Shea Hennum -
Barbarella is a campy cult 1968 science fiction film directed by Roger Vadim and based on the French comic strip created by Jean-Claude Forest for V magazine in 1962 about the colourful adventures of a scantily clad female astronaut. Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is a celebrated "astronavigatrix" in the year 40,000 AD - a time when war no longer exists and peace reigns throughout the universe. Our heroine is swiftly contacted by the President of the Republic of Earth (Claude Dauphin) to undertake an important and dangerous mission. Barbarella is ordered to search for mad missing scientist Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea) in an unknown region of space - Durand Durand having been abducted and taken to Tau Ceti while on his way to the North Star and in possession of a secret doomsday weapon known as the Positronic Ray.
After crash-landing during a magnetic storm on the rather strange planet of Lythion in her very sixties hippy spaceship known as Alpha 7, Barbarella is thrown into a series of baroque adventures involving carnivorous dolls, a blind angel, a sexual pleasure machine, sadistic children and much more besides...
There isn't a tremendously huge amount of plot to convey in any review of Barbarella which is - let's be honest - a cult film principally because of the wide-eyed and appealing presence of a young Jane Fonda in very few clothes rather than any great direction on the part of Roger Vadim or a terribly witty script. Just the opening title sequence alone would probably ensure Barbarella some sort of immortality in the annuals of cinematic history, strange or otherwise. To the strains of the fantastic psychedelic sixties pop score, Jane Fonda performs a zero gravity striptease as she dispenses with her spacesuit (with strategically placed funky credits) in the confines of her very strange spaceship - which is rather luxuriously carpeted and looks like the inside of Jason King's bachelor pad. It's an instantly iconic and visually arresting bubble strewn opening to the film.
Fonda's mixture of eroticism and general bewilderment at her surroundings is the film's biggest strength although the actress apparently later lamented the fact that she turned down Roman Polanksi's Rosemary's Baby to mooch around in France and shoot the insanely kitsch Barbarella - which is fair enough as Rosemary's Baby was obviously a much better film.
Barbarella is more of a far out experience than a coherent picture of any great description and you frequently find that you have only a vague idea as to what exactly is happening or what the characters are all going on about. As soon as Barbarella crash-lands on the icy alien planet she is - in a bizarre scene - attacked by children with snowballs ("Listen you kids, untie me or I'll call your parents!") and little dolls with metal teeth. Around this point you get the first inkling of two constants in the film. (1) Jane Fonda's extensive range of space vixen outfits tear remarkably easily and (2) she has relations with practically every single character she meets.
This is a new experience for Barbarella as this is now an artificially induced pastime on Earth - an idea that Woody Allen might have borrowed for his 1973 classic sci-fi comedy Sleeper. Although this all sounds rather risque, the film is fairly tame to modern eyes and Fonda essentially plays Barbarella as an innocent - albeit one with a shag carpet spaceship, a plexiglass bed, thigh high boots and a wardrobe that would make Katie Price blush.

Despite the fact this is supposed to be the year 40,000 AD, Barbarella is a hippy flower power child of the sixties and therefore open to new experiences and doesn't rush to judge people. She even has to learn how to use weapons from Earth's Museum Of Conflict and seems bewildered that the tranquil nature of the universe could ever be threatened when thrown into action by the President at the beginning of the film. Babs is truly shocked that anyone, anywhere "Could still be living in a primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility." As her mission progresses, Barbarella meets Pygar (John Phillip Law), a blind angel who is trapped in the city of Sogo because he can't fly anymore. "An angel does not make love," says Pygar. "An angel IS love."
Law spends the film in a loincloth and a pair of fake wings and has to suffer the faint indignity of some rather dated flying sequences. The villain of the piece is The Great Tyrant, played by Anita Pallenberg in a range of leather outfits just as skimpy as Fonda's wardrobe and David Hemmings also pops up in a comic role as Dildano, the leader of the rebel forces that oppose The Great Tyrant. "Are you typical of Earth women?" asks Didano. "I'm about average," replies Barbarella. Pallenberg camps it up as best she can with some eccentric dialogue thrown in her direction by the numerous screenwriters. "Then you're a dead duck - Guards! To the Mathmos with this winged fruitcake!"
Barbarella is frequently cited as one of the campest and cheesiest films ever made and it doesn't disappoint in this regard. The film is well aware of its high camp mature cheese factor and wallows in it with colourful sets that look like something stolen from Star Trek and spray painted by people on hallucinogenic substances. One can see the legacy of Barbarella in later camp sci-fi epics like Mike Hodges' 1980 version of Flash Gordon. The production design is alarmingly weird and knowingly staged to have a comic book sheen. Sometimes it all looks shoddy and dated but there is a vague sense of wonder created at times with the completely bonkers costumes and bright backdrops.
The visual effects are more variable and haven't really stood the test of time. Although the film is meant to be a comedy and takes itself about as seriously as a Carry On film, there is generally a distinct lack of wit in the script that is a slight disappointment on the whole. "This is a much too poetic way to die," says Barbarella in one of the better lines while being attacked by budgies or something. The film could have done with much more of this.
Barbarella is colourful nonsense but nothing awfully special in terms of its direction or screenplay. Roger Vadim seems content to merely point the camera at his spangly costumed cast and elaborate sets and wasn't exactly Stanley Kubrick on this evidence. It's a so-so sci-fi parody that relies heavily on Jane Fonda for its cult status and appeal - the actress the main reason to watch the film, frequently looking baffled but amazing in her retro futuristic surroundings and spare silver foil outfits.

"For days on end her rocket raced past airless, lifeless worlds..." The kitsch psychedelic and cheeky French comic strip created by Jean-Claude Forest in 1962 was collected together into a single volume a few years later and became a huge cult hit. If anything the comic is even more bonkers than the film it inspired. If Barbarella ended up running a space circus (and she does) you wouldn't be surprised. Our doe eyed heroine's main task here is (again) trying to rescue the scientist Durand Durand from the clutches of the evil Black Queen on the planet Lythion. "Barbarella recognized Lythion by its three satellites. The galactic charts showed it as being a relatively hospitable planet. Beneath the spaceship, a continent unfolded, which at first appeared to the traveler to be nothing but a volcanic desert. Suddenly, nestled in a giant crater, Crystallia, the great greenhouse, appeared..."
Once on this hippy trippy bizarre planet, Barbarella becomes mixed up in a conflict between the Crystallians, who live in a giant greenhouse, and the barbaric Orhomrs, who live in the frozen wastes. I think I'd rather live in a greenhouse. The story grows increasingly eccentric with the introduction of Pygar the Blind Angel ("the last of the ornithanthropes") and the "icy region of Yesteryear" - patterned on 19th century Earth. Anything is possible in the world of Barbarella.
This was considered to be an adult comic in its day but it feels tamer now with the passage of time - especially if you've read many modern graphic novels. It is though far more shameless than the film it inspired. The filmmakers clearly had to tone Barbarella down to get it onto the screen. At the time the comic was banned from public display when it was condensed into a single volume but it became very popular and was widely praised. The tabula rasa Barbarella, a mixture of eroticism, vulnerability, and invincibility was a hugely successful character and a genuine French comic book icon. No small part of the appeal was the fact that Forest deliberately drew Barbarella to look like Brigitte Bardot.
The style of Barbarella is free form, improvised. In other words, Forest was making it up as he went along. He wanted no constraints whatsoever on where his imagination would take him or Barbarella in this strange futuristic (and sometimes anachronistic) universe. A very obvious inspiration here is Alice in Wonderland with the anything goes twists and vignettes. One of the author's more striking flights of fancy has a group of pirates based in a jellyfish. That's a bit impractical I think (!) but pirates in jellyfish are par for the course in Barbarella. You also get nasty children who set carnivorous dolls on you and "air sharks" (an idea that Dr Who might have pilfered) who worm their way up through the labrythrines to eat you.
This is all why the famous film version of Barbarella never struck a bullyseye in the end despite capturing some of the look and essence of the comic. No one has ever looked so good in bacofoil and plastic as Jane Fonda (wonder if they asked Bardot to play the part?) but the more extravagant and outlandish gambits of the comic strip were always going to be mission impossible for the filmmakers. When Pygar the Blind Angel flies through the air with Barbarella in the comic amidst puffy white clouds the effect is almost poetic. In the film it just looked silly. Comics are always going to be greater than the films they spawn. Comics can do anything they want without worrying about special effects or people looking silly.
Barbarella is a strange comic (don't look for the story to ever make much sense) but an interesting one and very much a product of the sixties. I think the episodic nature of the book - it is a collection of comic strips - might possibly frustrate those looking for a narrative but the randomness and offbeat nature of Barbarella is a strength as much as a weakness. One thing that is noticeable here is how the comic strip Barbarella is tougher and feistier than the Jane Fonda incarnation. Not quite so much of a baffled innocent bewildered by everything around her.

Barbarella is often in a state of undress and has relations, with just about everyone she meets - including robots. "Madame is too kind. There's something a bit mechanical about my movements!" But the strips (no pun intended) are also rather quaint and charming at times. I don't know when something slides over from cheeky into vulgar but Forest flirts with this distinction. Forest regarded Barbarella to be a symbol of growing female liberation and the comic was maybe ahead of its time. It was translated into dozens of languages and drew huge critical praise.
One thing that is really clever about the comic is the way that Forest draws inspiration from vintage strips like Flash Gordon. Barbarella sometimes evokes the rocky, red hued landscapes and atmosphere of that famous serial. A very simple art style is deployed with minimal use of colour but the effect is often striking. There is some experimentation too which I find interesting. Forest is not one of those artists where all of his illustrations look exactly the same. He can do big, bold comic book and he can do minimalist. He manages to get interesting effects here from deceptively simple looking panels and backdrops that you often dwell on to enjoy and take in.
Barbarella reminded me very much of Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones so presumably that book was inspired in some way by Forest. Like Halo, Barbarella has a story arc that continues over three sections and finds her in somewhat different circumstances in each one. The art is of a similar style too. The essential difference is that Halo Jones is an ordinary woman to whom extraordinary things happen. You couldn't really describe Barbarella as an ordinary woman. This is a very far out and sixties comic and often great fun. It has a decent sense of humour and is always imaginative with inventive and effective art. It is certainly worth getting hold of if you are a fan of vintage comics.

c 2016 Alternative 007

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