A few weeks back I wrote about “Tarzan, The Ape Man,” a movie directed by John Derek that was essentially an hour-and-a-half vehicle for displaying his wife Bo’s breasts in as many creative and implausible ways possible. This week’s late night abomination follows a similar pattern.
“Barbarella: Queen of The Galaxy,” is a 1968 Sci-Fi campfest that stars the lovely Jane Fonda and is directed by then-husband Roger Vadim. Like “Tarzan, The Ape Man,” “Barbarella” features a beautiful young lead, instantly hammy performances by ever actor on set, and a nonsensical plot that exists solely to move Fonda from one nude, or in most cases, semi-nude scene to another.
Full disclosure: I was 4 years old the first time I saw this movie, which means that Jane Fonda was the first nude woman I saw once I was old enough to make and preserve memories. Can you imagine the psychic toll that had to take? This wasn’t a stack a Playboys I stumbled on in my dad’s closet or a friend who’s older brother showed us movies on Cinemax, no, I got vintage Jane Fonda, peeling herself out of a vinyl space suit in a shag carpet-lined spaceship. Here’s the clip. Warning, brief nudity.
Everything needed to know about “Barbarella” is in that clip. Her ship is a birdhouse and the inside is covered entirely with shag carpet. Barbarella is an elite solider for the government of Earth, who apparently enjoys gearing up in a black vinyl space suit and floating around her own ship as a pastime. The campy music can be attributed to a band called The Glitterhouse who performed the theme song and a few other choice tracks including “Love Theme from Barbarella” and “An Angel Is Love.”
Barbarella is tasked with finding a rouge scientist named Durand-Durand. Durand-Durand has invented the Positronic Ray, a weapon that could destroy entire planets. She goes about doing this by crash landing from one planet to the next where she is assaulted both physically and sexually before she dresses up in a new scandalous outfit and moves on the next conquest/victimization.
The way sex is addressed in “Barbarella” is a women’s studies/film paper waiting to happen. In the future, people must undergo a psychocardiogram to determine whether they are compatible sexually. If they are, they then each take a special pill and touch palms for a certain duration of time. This kind of tryst only happens once in the movie, but is funny enough to warrant embedding. Note Barbarella’s torn outfit and chainmail bra. Costume designer Jacques Fonteray had way too much fun dressing Fonda in this movie.
Early on in her voyage, Barbarella learns about traditional sex, the way most people do –– from a hairy guy in the back of his space van. After that, she starts to use sex as a means to get what she wants and further her objective (She’s learning!). Before I indulge this tangent any further, I’ll just say that sex is something that is done as much at her as it is to her in the movie and that while she’s supposed to be empowered by her own discovery, traditional power dynamics take shape early (takes off monocle and liberal arts cap).
Anyway, Barbarella eventually makes it to Durand-Durand’s love palace, which looks like someone took all of the elements from the swinging ‘60s, put them into a shoebox, and shook them. There’s an orgy room. Men swim around in a giant water bong and women smoke their essence. Inflatable plastic cushions are the only furniture. The palace itself if built on top of a giant, sentient oil-on-water effect that is powered by negative vibrations.
Barbarella isn’t at the love palace long before she’s shoved into a giant birdcage where she’s to be picked apart by nefarious crows. Naturally, this results in a torn outfit and the “sex” scene embedded above.
There’s only one other scene worth discussing when talking about “Barbarella” and it’s a doozy. In the movie’s last reel, she’s captured by Durand-Durand who intends to torture her until she dies –– via a sex piano. Just like it sounds, a sex piano is a giant organ (giggle) that she has to be inserted inside. The machine then removes her clothing and produces pleasure so intense that people die from it.
Maybe that’s why Vadim cast Fonda in the first place. How could he direct any other actress to fake orgasm from a giant musical instrument she has to be inserted into? How would that conversation have gone?
Vadim: Okay, so for this scene Barbarella has been captured and inserted inside The Excessive Machine.
Actress: What’s that?
Vadim: It’s a giant choir organ that produces sexual pleasure so great that, hey wait, where are you going? Come back!
Regardless, Fonda had to kick herself for doing “Barbarella.” She reportedly turned down the role of Rosemary in “Rosemary’s Baby” and Bonnie in “Bonnie and Clyde” in favor of this 3 a.m. cult classic.