Ultra Swank - Retro Adventures

Thoughts on Barbarella

Written by Jesse Kowalski • June 18th, 2010
Thoughts on Barbarella

The first memory I have of Jane Fonda is from watching my mother’s copy of Jane Fonda’s 1982 exercise video, aptly titled “Workout,” based on Fonda‘s even more aptly titled LP “Jane Fonda‘s Workout Record.“ Hot off the heels of early ‘80s HBO mainstays “Nine to Five” and “On Golden Pond,” Fonda appeared on the video box in leg warmers and promised music by REO Speedwagon, Billy Ocean, and Boz Scaggs.

Based on her dowdy appearance in “Nine to Five” and her whiny semi-autobiographical role in “On Golden Pond,” I hadn’t realized Fonda had been a sex symbol until years later when I rented a copy of Barbarella on VHS.

It is the year 40,000 and Barbarella is hot on the trail of Durand Durand and his missing Positronic Ray. Follow along and I’ll answer such questions as: Can Barbarella rescue Durand Durand before the Black Queen destroys him? Will Barbarella out-pleasure the Excessive Machine? Have STDs been cured 38,000 years from now or does Barbarella just have really low self-esteem?

The saga opens with Barbarella (Jane Fonda) stripping out of her silver astronaut duds and into, well, nothing. The President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) skypes in on her view screen to tell her of Durand Durand (Milo O‘Shea), ogling her all the while. He explains that Durand Durand, a scientist from Earth who illegally created the Positronic Ray, has vanished. He sends her on a mission to recover Durand Durand and the Positronic Ray to “preserve the security of the stars.” After explaining that the Positronic Ray is bad because the universe has been “pacified for centuries,” the President of Earth supplies Barbarella with several guns. Go figure.

After getting dressed, Barbarella takes off in her flying boudoir with help from her ship’s computer, Alfie. To understand what Alfie’s voice is like, imagine a talking British computer that likes showtunes, dresses well, and has lots of female friends. I can assure you that Alfie is the only character with whom Barbarella will not end up in bed.

Unfortunately for Barbarella, Alfie gets a little chatty about an AbFab episode or something and crash lands onto Planet 16 in the Tau Ceti system. Costume change. Upon exiting the spaceship, a group of feral children throw snowballs at Barbarella. They take her aboard a magical manta ray sled and groove along the Planet 16 surface to some great music supplied by The Bob Crewe Generation Orchestra. They all end up at Durand Durand’s ship, which is inhabited by more wild kids and some blue rabbits. The children activate little vampire dolls with metal teeth which start attacking Barbarella.

Mark Hand, who is out collecting kids of a “serviceable age,” whatever that means, crashes the gore fest and whisks Barbarella back to his wind ship. In exchange for saving her, Barbarella offers Mr. Hand compensation. He wants to make love the old-fashioned way. She protests, not because it’s icky, but because their psychocardiograms don’t match up. He really wants the good stuff. She relents and Bob Crewe’s Generation Orchestra provides an aural backdrop as Barbarella compensates Mark. Costume change.

Mark, feeling generous, fixes Barbarella spaceship, tells her to go to the city of Sogo where Durand Durand may be, and leaves her for more child kidnappings. Barbarella takes off in her ship and changes costumes, while Alfie crashes the ship.

Barbarella is woken up as an angel named Pygar (John Philip Law) fondles her. Pygar tells Barbarella she is in the Labyrinth of the City of Night. He is blind and has lost the will to fly, but don’t think that turns off Barbarella. Barbarella explains her plight and Pygar suggests they seek out Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau). Professor Ping says he can repair Barbarella’s ship, but it will take time. He suggests they all go back to his place for some light refreshments. However, on the way to Ping’s place, Barbarella is abducted by a Leatherman. Pygar grabs Barbarella’s gun and shoots the Leatherman. Pygar and Barbarella have sex. After a slow fade out, Pygar can now fly again. Costume change.

Given new vitality, Pygar suggests he can fly Barbarella out of the Labyrinth and into Sogo. During the flight, a Leatherman fires lasers and hits Pygar, though they land safely in Sogo. The next several minutes consists of someone capturing Barbarella and threatening sex and Pygar getting captured. Then Barbarella rescues Pygar. Rinse and repeat.

Flash forward to Barbarella in a glass cage being terrorized by multi-colored parakeets. A man calling himself Dildano (David Hemmings) opens an escape hatch allowing Barbarella to fall out of the bottom of the cage. Barbarella offers herself to Dildano as compensation. Dildano says he prefers the pills, “like on Earth.” Barbarella argues in favor of intercourse, but Dildano resists and Barbarella relents. Barbarella asks Dildano how he got the pills and he explains that Durand Durand gave them to him before being captured by the Black Queen. Costume change.

Dildano and Barbarella make a plan to strike the Black Queen while she is vulnerable in the Secret Chamber of Dreams. Barbarella is captured and placed in the Excessive Machine. The Excessive Machine is similar to waterboarding, except you receive a life ending orgasm instead of hard time in a military prison. All does not go according to plan as Barbarella out-orgasms the Excessive Machine, which begins smoking and explodes. Costume change.

I won’t spoil the plot for the rest of the film, but I will tell you it ends in a three-way.

Because the filmmakers beat the viewer senseless with over-the-top sexual hijinks, I initially thought the film was a testament against 1960s free love. There are so many naked breasts, sex scenes, attempted rapes, and orgasms that seem to mock the attitude of the time. However, given that the film was directed by Roger Vadim, Fonda’s husband at the time, it becomes obvious that the commentary is pro-“sexual liberation.” Years after this film was released, Fonda confessed that during their marriage Vadim had forced her into sexual situations involving multiple partners, prostitutes, orgies, etc., as well as humiliation and other mental abuse.

Unfortunately, it appears that a much anticipated remake to be directed by Robert Rodriguez of “Planet Terror” fame and starring one-time girlfriend Rose McGowan has been postponed and will be instead be helmed by the director of “Legally Blonde.” Be still my heart, thou hast known worse than this – Homer.

Jesse Kowalski

Jesse Kowalski grew up watching B-movies on a Zenith console in his parents' basement. Has a soft spot for beach movies, lounge music, and Jerry Lewis.

Find out more about Jesse Kowalski

  • Sean

    I think your comments on the dark sexual politics of Vadim & his movie are right on. And it's a shame, because it's such a great looking movie, and it could have been so much fun.

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