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'Barbarella' - the Film

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Barbarella - Queen of the Galaxy is a science fiction B-movie released in 1968 by Paramount Pictures. The cult classic with hippie leanings is dismissed as cheesy pap by some, and cherished by others for its strong female lead and sex-positive message. The movie is based on Jean-Claude Forest's French graphic novel of the same name.

The First Five Minutes

Barbarella psychedella,
There's a kind of cockleshell about you.
Dazzle me with rainbow colour;
Fade away the duller shade of living.

The audience is introduced to the movie's main character through a slow strip-tease. What begins with a typical space-suited astronaut ends with a naked doe-eyed blonde. The letters composing the movie's opening credits cover Barbarella's unmentionables where necessary. Meanwhile, the theme music introduces Barbarella as a woman who inspires wonder. When the ship finally turns its gravity back on and Barbarella flops onto the shag carpet of the ship's interior, the viewer is either amused or aghast. Or both.

Most people know whether they will enjoy Barbarella after watching the first five minutes.

The Characters

An angel doesn't make love. An angel is love.

Barbarella, played by Jane Fonda, is presented as an ideal woman comfortable with both her career and her sexuality. Barbarella is competent and levelheaded. Yet, she comes from a non-violent society and remains intensely innocent. The free love hippie movement allowed Barbarella to engage in numerous sex acts without losing her credibility among the era's young intended audience.

There are two main villains in the movie. The first, Durand Durand, is a mad scientist who has invented a weapon capable of destroying entire planets. He has fled to Tau Ceti with his invention, and Barbarella is sent to find him and make sure the weapon isn't used. The other villain is the Great Tyrant, also known as the Black Queen. She rules the dark pleasure city of Sogo, where Barbarella must go in her quest to find Durand Durand.

An argument can also be made that there is a third villain, the Matmos. The Matmos is a semi-intelligent lake of 'pure evil' that sits beneath Sogo. It feeds on 'negative energy' ranging from despair to debauchery. Outsiders from the nearby labyrinth believe the Matmos is manipulating the minds of Sogo's residents to fulfil its appetites.

At the start of the movie, Barbarella has only her artificially intelligent ship Alpha Seven (Alphie) to keep her company. But she soon discovers numerous friends at Tau Ceti to aid her on her quest. The first is Mark Hand, the ultra-hairy Catchman who finds Barbarella while collecting young children for extradition to Sogo. Then there are Professor Ping and Pygar from the labyrinth, a prison colony where all good people are banished. Pygar, a blind angel, agrees to accompany Barbarella to Sogo and becomes a major character. The last helper is Dildano, the leader of a resistance force within Sogo.

The Costumes

The costumes in the movie are quite unusual. Barbarella's startling ensembles, based on the sci-fi fetish wear featured in the comic book, become a running gag in the film. It seems that Barbarella can't avoid situations where she must change into a yet more ridiculous and/or revealing ensemble.

The Black Queen, meanwhile, is resplendent in a wardrobe that manages to reek of royalty while looking like nothing so much as lingerie. And lest the women worry, men like Pygar and Dildano also wear revealing and fetish-like outfits. Particularly funny is the Catchman's costume (basically a gorilla outfit without the head on) which he peels off to reveal a chest that is almost as hairy.

The movie's costumes really bring home the movie's winking tribute to Dominance and submission. Sogo (short for Sodom and Gomorrah) is very like a BDSM (Bondage and Discipline / Domination/submission and Sadomasochism) fetish club, as evidenced by the citizens' kinky costumes. The labyrinth, meanwhile, is full of submissives in poor and revealing garments. Especially interesting in this context are the Black Guards, mindless minions without souls who are outfitted with black full-body leather armour and whips. They might even be likened interestingly to the Stormtroopers in Star Wars.

Other Important Movie Elements

Stage props surpass their usual function in Barbarella. It is difficult to explain exactly why dolls with metal teeth represent rebellious children, or why women inhaling from hookahs that lead to transparent vats containing floating men represent corrupt laziness. But such things do seem to make sense within the context of the movie. On further reflection, it seems that almost every prop has a thematic purpose.

Another major element of the movie is its score. In particular, several songs written by Charles Fox and sung by the Glitterhouse band enrich the film's sense of camp and, arguably, its charm. These feature rich harmonies, idealistic lyrics, and endlessly kitschy brass accompaniments. Many bear a striking resemblance to the overall sound of 'Up, Up and Away! My Beautiful Balloon', by the Fifth Dimension. The songs' lyrics serve to relate internal strength with one's ability to love.

The special effects in Barbarella are, of course, meager by today's standards. But they were reasonably good for the late '60s, especially the elaborate labyrinth scene that displays people in various states of disappearing or transforming into pieces of the local rock. In the Queen's bedroom, a projection screen and glass walls are used to quite good effect. Probably the worst scene is the one portraying ordinary parakeets as dangerously carnivorous. In general, special effects are used sparingly in Barbarella to highlight the dramatic tension.

If the special effects are sub-par by today's standards, the acting was terrible even for 1968. The majority of the actors seem to exhibit wooden acting and pregnant pauses of the useless variety. John Phillip Law's Pygar is the probably the worst, though the character's apparent lack of interest in his surroundings could be charitably dismissed as the result of his blindness and general naivety. The exception to this problem seems to be Anita Pallenberg's1 Black Queen, which is only slightly stilted and shows a lot of spirit.

Pseudo Science in Barbarella

Wait for one minute, or until full rapport is achieved. (Instructions for the Exaltation Transference Pellets)

Much of Barbarella's camp comes from its use of pseudo science. The movie doesn't even pretend to offer plausible scientific underpinnings for the things that happen on-screen. Rather, the impossibility of the action is hyped with flagrantly outrageous (and sometimes self-contradictory) technobabble. This practice stems from the original comic book, as the author has likened his use of language to that within Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland.

Here are some examples:

  • Pills taken during Temporal Space Travel put the 'astromatic atrix' (Barbarella) into a state of hibernation.

  • Durand Durand's Positronic Ray destroys things by putting them 'into the fourth dimension'.

  • A Portable Brainwave Detector will alert Barbarella to the evil scientist's presence when she finds him.

  • Mark Hand's icecraft is nothing so much as a giant sled powered by the wind, which it apparently generates itself.

  • Barbarella must struggle to configure the portable Tongue Box she uses to translate the languages of Tau Ceti.

  • Phallic-looking energy weapons are rendered embarrassingly useless when their power packs run out.

  • On Barbarella's future Earth, Psychocardiograms are a must before forming even temporary relationships.

  • Exaltation Transference Pellets are used to attain an orgasm without the messiness of physical contact.

  • The Queen's Secret Chamber of Dreams is surrounded by an invisible energy wall and opened by secret keys. While the keys are invisible, they are detected easily enough by their bell-like clinking sounds. Unfortunately, the keyhole is all but impossible to find.

Sex in Barbarella

It was distracting and proved to be a danger to maximum efficiency. (On physical sex)

When Barbarella first came out in the theatres, it earned an R (adults only) rating. However, it was edited and re-released in 1977 with a PG rating. The movie can therefore be seen as an interesting challenge to the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system. More cynically, the movie can be seen as using cheap tricks to maximise both its prurient value and the audience size. It includes numerous cleverly staged representations of sex.

For instance, Barbarella's sex scene with the Catchman is assumed to take place, but all the viewer sees is their agreement to make love followed by his ice craft travelling without guidance in big lazy circles. The sex scene with Dildano uses clever pseudo science to allow the actors to comically simulate orgasms while hardly touching each other, and with clothes fully on to boot. And between scenes, Barbarella does something pleasurable (presumably sex) with Pygar that ends with his renewed self-confidence and her possession of one of his feathers. Interestingly, Pygar later refuses the Black Queen.

The most outrageous sex scene by far is the one with Barbarella and Durand Durand. The evil scientist has captured Barbarella and forces her into a giant organ (the musical kind, luckily). While Durand Durand plays his 'Sonata for Executioner and Various Young Women', the organ strips Barbarella and fondles her sexually. Of course, all the viewer sees is Barbarella's clothes sliding out of the organ down a metal chute and the increasingly funny expressions of both characters.

Durand Durand's plan is that the ever-increasing pleasure will eventually kill Barbarella. In the end, though, she foils the scientist by breaking his Excessive Machine. It catches on fire and sparks nastily. The disappointed Barbarella must ask for yet another change of clothes to be handed into the broken machine, after which she climbs out triumphant.

While Barbarella never engages in a homosexual act, the Great Tyrant makes several offers that receive something less than outright refusal. Of course, it is always a bad time for Barbarella to engage the Queen and she's one of the baddies anyway. But at the end of the movie, the Black Queen seems capable of reformation. One of the final images is of Pygar flying Barbarella and the Great Tyrant away from Sogo, one held in each arm while they glance shyly at one another.

Interesting Movie Trivia

Barbarella shares a strange relationship with another hippie cult phenomenon, the lava lamp. The lava lamp was first sold in 1963 by the Crestworth Company. Barbarella, released five years later, shamelessly imitated the lamp's psychedelic effects to represent various difficult concepts like faster-than-light space travel and a visual projection of the Queen's dreams.

The lava lamp effects were used most effectively to portray the Matmos. When Craven Walker, the lava lamp's inventor, saw Barbarella he decided to rename the Crestworth Company as Mathmos Corporation. The British lava lamp manufacturer remains so named to this day.

Also interesting, Marcel Marceau played Professor Ping in his first ever speaking role. The famous French mime has quite a nice speaking voice, it turns out. His acting is even less wooden than you would expect. And no, he doesn't do anything even remotely mime-like in the movie.

An interesting legacy arose in the 1980s. The British pop band Duran Duran named itself after the evil scientist who threatened to destroy peace in Barbarella's galaxy. Unfortunately, the sad result of their tribute was that most American radio DJs mispronounced the band's name until after it began to lose its popularity. Nevertheless, Duran Duran was famous for its manufactured pop sound and the scantily clad women in its videos.

An animated Barbarella cartoon series got into the planning stages before being aborted in 1994. Jean Claude Forest got as far as developing various character designs for the series. In general, the characters' appearances were less risqué but still maintained a fetish element. Barbarella's guns and the wrenches of a female sidekick mechanic were just as absurdly phallic as the guns in the movie.

Barbarella may yet rise again. Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox (at the time of writing) have agreed to co-finance a new Barbarella movie starring Drew Barrymore. The new movie will also be based on Jean Claude Forest's comics, particularly Le Semble Lune (The False Moon) and Le Miroir au TempĂȘtes (The Mirror of Storms).

Many people wonder where the secret word used in Dildano's headquarters came from. It is actually the name of a small town in Wales, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Understandably, the local citizens often shorten the word to Llanfair. But you can learn how to pronounce the full version at the town's web site.

The Cast

  • Barbarella - Jane Fonda
  • The Black Queen (or Great Tyrant) - Anita Pallenberg
  • Durand Durand (Evil Scientist) - Milo O'Shea
  • Mark Hand (Ultra-hairy Catchman) - Ugo Tohnazzi
  • Dildano (Resistance Movement Leader) - David Hemmings
  • Pygar (Male Angel or Ornithothrope) - John Phillip Law
  • Professor Ping - Marcel Marceau
  • Director - Roger Vadim (Jane Fonda's husband at the time)
  • Producer - Dino de Laurentiis
1Anita Pallenberg also famously starred in the film Performance and was one-time girlfriend of both Brian Jones and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

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