|Directed by||Roger Vadim|
by Jean-Claude Forest
|Produced by||Dino De Laurentiis|
|Edited by||Victoria Mercanton|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$5.5 million (North American rentals)|
Barbarella[a] is a 1968 science fiction film directed by Roger Vadim, based on the French comic series of the same name by Jean-Claude Forest. The film stars Jane Fonda as the title character, a space-traveller and representative of the United Earth government sent to find scientist Durand Durand, who has created a weapon that could destroy humanity. The cast also includes John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, Milo O'Shea, Marcel Marceau, David Hemmings, Ugo Tognazzi and Claude Dauphin.
Having expressed an interest in comics and science fiction, Vadim was hired to direct Barbarella after producer Dino De Laurentiis purchased the film rights to the comic series. Vadim attempted to cast several actresses in the title role (including Virna Lisi, Brigitte Bardot, and Sophia Loren) before choosing Fonda, his then-wife. A friend of Vadim's, Terry Southern, wrote the initial screenplay, which changed considerably during filming and led to seven other writers credited in the final release, including Vadim and Forest, the latter of whom also worked on the film's production design. The film began shooting immediately following the completion of another De Laurentiis comic adaptation, Danger: Diabolik, with both films sharing several cast and crew members.
The film was particularly popular in the United Kingdom, where it was the year's second-highest-grossing film. Contemporary film critics praised Barbarella's visuals and cinematography, but found its storyline weak after the first few scenes. Although several attempts at sequels, remakes, and other adaptations have been planned, none of these have entered production.
In an unspecified future,[b] space adventurer Barbarella is assigned by the President of Earth to retrieve Dr. Durand Durand from the Tau Ceti planetary system. Durand is the inventor of the laser powered super weapon called the positronic ray which Earth leaders fear will fall into the wrong hands. Barbarella crash-lands on Tau Ceti's 16th planet[c] and is knocked unconscious by two children. They bring her into the wreckage of a spaceship where she is bound and attacked by several dolls with razor-sharp teeth. Barbarella is rescued by Mark Hand, the Catchman who patrols the ice looking for errant children. Hand tells her that Durand is in the city of Sogo, and she expresses her appreciation by having sexual intercourse with him, a practice now done on Earth by taking pills. Hand suggests having sex without pills, which Barbarella is initially sceptical of, but she discovers that she enjoys it.
Barbarella leaves the planet and crashes into a labyrinth inhabited by outcasts from Sogo. She is found by Pygar, a blind angel who has lost the will to fly. Pygar introduces her to Professor Ping, who offers to repair Barbarella's ship. Pygar flies her to Sogo after she restores his will to fly with sexual intercourse. When they arrive, Pygar and Barbarella are captured by Sogo's Black Queen and her concierge. The concierge describes the Matmos: living energy in liquid form, powered by evil thoughts and used as an energy source in Sogo. Pygar endures a mock crucifixion and Barbarella is placed in a cage, where hundreds of birds prepare to attack her. She is rescued by Dildano, leader of the local underground, who joins in her pursuit of Durand. Dildano offers her an invisible key to a chamber of dreams where the Queen sleeps, and sends her back to Sogo.
Barbarella is promptly recaptured by the concierge; he places her in an excessive-pleasure machine, which induces fatal sexual pleasure. She outlasts the machine, which shuts down. The concierge, shocked at its destruction, is revealed as Durand (who has aged 30 years due to the Matmos). He wants to become Sogo's new leader and overthrow the Black Queen, which requires his positronic ray and access to the chamber of dreams. Durand takes Barbarella to the chamber, locking her inside with the invisible key. She meets the Queen, who says that if two people are in the chamber, the Matmos will devour them. Durand seizes control of Sogo, as Dildano and his rebels begin their attack on the city. The Black Queen retaliates, releasing the Matmos to destroy Sogo. Protected by what the Black Queen calls Barbarella's innocence, they escape the Matmos and find Pygar; the angel clutches them in his arms and flies off. When Barbarella asks Pygar why he saved a tyrant, he replies: "An angel has no memory."
Development and writing
Having bought the film rights to Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella comics, producer Dino De Laurentiis secured a distribution deal in the United States between France's Marianne Productions and Paramount Pictures. He planned to film Danger: Diabolik, a less-expensive feature, to help cover production costs. In 1966 Roger Vadim expressed an admiration for comics (particularly Peanuts), saying that he liked "the wild humor and impossible exaggeration of comic strips" and wanted to "do something in that style myself in my next film, Barbarella." Vadim saw the film as a chance to "depict a new futuristic morality ... Barbarella has [no] guilt about her body. I want to make something beautiful out of eroticism." His wife, actress Jane Fonda, noted that Vadim was a fan of science fiction; according to the director, "In science fiction, technology is everything ... The characters are so boring—they have no psychology. I want to do this film as though I had arrived on a strange planet with my camera directly on my shoulder—as though I was a reporter doing a newsreel."
After Terry Southern finished writing Peter Sellers' dialogue for Casino Royale, he flew to Paris to meet Vadim and Fonda. Southern, who had known Vadim in Paris during the early 1950s, saw writing a science-fiction comedy based on a comic book as a new challenge. He enjoyed writing the script, particularly the opening striptease and the scenes with tiny robotic toys pursuing Barbarella to bite her. Southern enjoyed working with Vadim and Fonda, but he felt that De Laurentiis was intent only on making a cheap film that was not necessarily good. Southern said later, "Vadim wasn't particularly interested in the script, but he was a lot of fun, with a discerning eye for the erotic, grotesque, and the absurd. And Jane Fonda was super in all regards." Southern was surprised to see his screenplay credited to Vadim and several Italian screenwriters in addition to himself. Credited screenwriters included Claude Brulé, Vittorio Bonicelli, Clement Biddle Wood, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates, and Forest; Degas and Gates were hired by De Lautentiis after he was impressed with their work on Danger: Diabolik. Charles B. Griffith later said that he had done uncredited work on the script; the production team "hired fourteen other writers" after Southern "before they got to me. I didn't get credit because I was the last one." According to Griffith, he "rewrote about a quarter of the film that was shot, then re-shot, and I added the concept that there had been thousands of years since violence existed, so that Barbarella was very clumsy all through the picture. She shoots herself in the foot and everything. It was pretty ludicrous. The stuff with Claude Dauphin and the suicide room were also part of my contribution to the film."
Pre-production and casting
|John Phillip Law||Pygar|
Joan Greenwood (voice)
|The Black Queen, Great Tyrant of Sogo|
|Marcel Marceau||Professor Ping|
|Ugo Tognazzi||Mark Hand|
|Claude Dauphin||The President of Earth|
|Véronique Vendell||Captain Moon|
|Serge Marquand||Captain Sun|
|Giancarlo Cobelli||The Revolutionary|
Several actresses were approached before Jane Fonda was cast as Barbarella. De Laurentiis' first choice was Virna Lisi; his second was Brigitte Bardot, who was not interested in a sexualized role. His third choice was Sophia Loren, who was pregnant and felt that she would not fit the role. Fonda was uncertain about the film, but Vadim convinced her by saying that science fiction was a rapidly-evolving genre. Before filming Barbarella, she was the subject of two sex scandals: the first when her nude body was displayed across an eight-story billboard promoting the premiere of Circle of Love in 1965, and the second when several candid nude photos from Vadim's closed set for The Game Is Over were sold to Playboy the following year. According to biographer Thomas Kiernan, the billboard incident made her a sex symbol in the United States. Vadim said he did not want the actress to play Barbarella "tongue in cheek", and he saw the character as "just a lovely, average girl with a terrific space record and a lovely body. I am not going to intellectualise her. Although there is going to be a bit of satire about our morals and our ethics, the picture is going to be more of a spectacle than a cerebral exercise for a few way-out intellectuals." Fonda felt her first priority for Barbarella was to "keep her innocent"; the character "is not a vamp and her sexuality is not measured by the rules of our society. She is not being promiscuous, but she follows the natural reaction of another type of upbringing. She is not a so-called 'sexually liberated woman' either. That would mean rebellion against something. She is different. She was born free."
Fonda personally recommended John Phillip Law as Pygar to Vadim following their work on Hurry Sundown; for the duration of his stay in Rome, the actor lived with Fonda, Vadim and Forest in their rented villa on Appian Way. Law, an avid comic book reader since childhood, read the Forest comics and studied the DC Comics character Hawkman for inspiration. The delayed pre-production of Barbarella allowed Law to film two roles before committing to the film: as Bill Meceita in the Spaghetti Western Death Rides a Horse, and as the title character in Danger: Diabolik. For the role of the Black Queen, Southern recommended model Anita Pallenberg, the then-girlfriend of The Rolling Stones member Brian Jones; Southern had befriended her while working with the band on an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. On the English-language prints of the film, Pallenberg's voice was dubbed by English actress Joan Greenwood.
French mime Marcel Marceau had his first speaking role in the film as Professor Ping. Comparing Ping to his stage persona Bip the Clown and Harpo Marx, he said that he did not "forget the lines, but I have trouble organising them. It's a different way of making what's inside come out. It goes from the brain to the vocal chords, and not directly to the body."
All costumes in the film, including Fonda's, were designed by French costume designer Jacques Fonteray and manufactured by Sartoria Farani, with Barbarella's costume in the final scenes being, as the credits put it, "inspired by ideas of" fashion designer Paco Rabanne. Barbarella's outfits were Fonteray's interpretation of Forest's vision, combining Orientalist and medieval aesthetics with samurai armors. Forest also worked on the film's production design, and was credited in the film as its "artistic consultant". In a 1985 interview, he said that during production he did not care about his original comic strip and was more interested in the film industry: "The Italian artists were incredible; they could build anything in an extremely short time. I saw all the daily rushes, an incredible amount of film. The choices that were made for the final cut from those images were not the ones I would have liked, but I was not the director. It wasn't my affair."
According to Law, Barbarella began shooting after production on Danger: Diabolik ended on 18 June 1967; sets such as Valmont's night club in Danger: Diabolik were used in both films. Barbarella was shot at Cinecittà in Rome. To film the striptease titles sequence, Fonda said that the set was turned upward to face the ceiling of the soundstage. A pane of thick glass was laid across the opening of the set, with the camera hung from the rafters above it. Fonda then climbed onto the glass to perform the scene. Other scenes involved hanging Fonda upside down in an enormous vat of oil and dry ice, and her stomach being skinned when being shot through a plastic tube. For the scenes involving the Excessive Pleasure Machine, Fonda and Milo O'Shea were not told of explosions that would happen on set since the prop was rigged with flares and smoke bombs. Fonda explained that "Vadim wanted us to look natural, so he didn't tell us what a big explosion there would be. When the machine blew up, flames and smoke were everywhere, and sparks were running up and down the wires. I was frightened to death, and poor Milo was convinced something had really gone wrong and I was being electrocuted."
For the scene involving Barbarella being attacked by hummingbirds, wrens and lovebirds were used as it was illegal to ship hummingbirds overseas. The birds were not behaving as Vadim had expected, which led to him employing a large fan to blow them at Fonda, who had birdseed in her costume. Film critic Roger Ebert, after visiting the set, wrote that the fan led to birds "losing control over natural body functions, so it was all a little messy". Ebert concluded that "After two weeks of this, [Fonda] got a fever and was hospitalized. I can't reveal here how they finally did the scene".
The actress later described her discomfort on the film's set. In her autobiography, Fonda said that Vadim began drinking during lunch; his words slurred, and "his decisions about how to shoot scenes often seemed ill-considered". Fonda was bulimic and, at the time, was "a young woman who hated her body...playing a scantily clad, sometimes-naked sexual heroine". Photographer David Hurn echoed Fonda, noting that she was insecure about her appearance during the production's photo shoots. The actress took sick days so the film's insurance policy would cover the cost of a shutdown while the script was edited. Vadim would later state in his memoir that Fonda "didn't enjoy shooting Barbarella", specifically that she "disliked the central character for her lack of principle, her shameless exploitation of her sexuality and her irrelevance to contemporary social and political realities."
Michel Magne was commissioned to score Barbarella, but his effort was discarded. The film's soundtrack, completed by composer-producers Bob Crewe and Charles Fox, has been described as lounge or exotica. Crewe was known for composing 1960s songs such as the Four Seasons' "Big Girls Don't Cry". Some of the music is credited to the Bob Crewe Generation, a group of session musicians who contributed to the soundtrack. Crewe invited the New York-based group the Glitterhouse, whom he knew through his production work, to provide vocals for the songs. He reflected on the soundtrack in his autobiography, saying that it "clearly needed to have a fun and futuristic approach to it, with sixties-music sensibility".
Barbarella opened in New York on 11 October 1968 and earned $2.5 million in North American theaters that year. It was the second-most-popular film in general release in the United Kingdom in 1968, after The Jungle Book. The film was shown in Paris that month, and was released in Italy on 18 October. It was released on 25 October throughout France, where it was distributed by Paramount. Barbarella received a "condemned" rating from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, which called the film a "sick, heavy-handed fantasy with nudity and graphic representations of sadism" and criticized the Production Code Administration for approving it. Following the success of Star Wars, Paramount theatrically re-released the film in 1977; for this release, which was referred to in promotional materials as Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, the scenes of nudity were removed.
Despite frequently using the Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy title and promotional art, home media releases of the film have been of the uncut 1968 version rather than the edited 1977 version. In 1994, the film's LaserDisc presented it in widescreen for the first time on home video. Reviewing this release for Video Watchdog, Tim Lucas noted that the film was presented with an incorrect aspect ratio of 2.47:1, resulting in the cropping of visual information that was present in the earlier pan and scan VHS releases, but noted that "many of Claude Renoir's "psychedelia" images work on video only in this widescreen setting".
Barbarella was released on DVD on 22 June 1999, and on Blu-ray in July 2012, with the 1968 theatrical trailer the disc's only bonus feature. According to Charles Taylor of The New York Times, home media releases of the film before the Blu-ray version were "murky". Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly), Sean Axmaker (Video Librarian) and Glenn Erickson (DVD Talk) called Barbarella's Blu-ray transfer "breathtaking", "superb-looking" and "really good", respectively.
Some contemporary publications reported that the film's first scenes were enjoyable, but its quality declined thereafter. According to Wendy Michener's review in The Globe and Mail, after the striptease scene "we are plunged back into the mundane, not to say inane world, of the spy thriller with a dreary overlay of futuristic science-fiction" and it "just lies there, with all its psychedelic plastic settings". Barbarella's script and humor were criticized; a reviewer in Variety described the writing as "flat" with only "a few silly-funny lines of dialog" for a "cast that is not particularly adept at comedy". Dan Bates wrote in Film Quarterly that "sharp satiric moments ... are welcome and refreshing but are rather infrequent", and Renata Adler of The New York Times noted that "there is the assumption that just mentioning a thing (sex, politics, religion) makes it funny".
Critics praised the film's design and cinematography. Variety's mainly negative review noted "a certain amount of production dash and polish" and, according to Derek Malcolm of The Guardian, "Claude Renoir's limpid colour photography and August Lohman's eye-catching special effects are what save the movie time and again". A Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer wrote that Barbarella's decor is "remarkably faithful to Jean-Claude Forest's originals", noting a "major contribution of Claude Renoir as director of photography" and "Jacques Fonterary's and Paco Rabanne's fantastic costumes". James Price (Sight & Sound) agreed, citing "the inventiveness of the decors and the richness of Claude Renoir's photography".
Malcolm and Lohman criticized Barbarella's nature, themes and tone, with Malcolm calling it a "nasty kind of film", "modish to the core" and "essentially just a shrewd piece of exploitation". Lohman suggested the film's humor was "not jokes, but hard-breathing, sadistic thrashings, mainly at the expense of Barbarella, and of women." Bates called it "pure sub-adolescent junk" and "bereft of redeeming social or artistic importance".
Michener praised Barbarella as part of "the first female sci-fi". Its shaggy gold rugs, impressionist paintings and spaceship were "unquestionably female in design compared with any of today's projectiles"; Barbarella is "no man-challenging superwoman, but a sweet soft creature who's always willing to please a man who's king to her". According to Price, "There is a real fascination in its basic idea, which is a happy belief in the survival of sexuality... The idea fascinates, but the execution somehow disappoints (how often one has to say that about Vadim)." Bates' review concluded, "In the year that Stanley Kubrick and Franklin Schaffner finally elevated the science-fiction movie beyond the abyss of the kiddie show, Roger Vadim has knocked it right back down."
Numerous retrospective reviews have discussed Barbarella's plot and design. While noting that Barbarella "hardly ranks with Blood and Roses or Charlotte as one of Vadim's best", Lucas noted that "Whatever charm the film still holds is entirely due to its visual imagination and highly over-done, Felliniesque artifice". According to The A.V. Club's Keith Phipps, "Mario Garbuglia keeps throwing inventive visuals and remarkable sets at the heroine" but "the journey itself is an unrelenting trudge". Sean Axmaker of Video Librarian called the film's "set design and wild color triumphing over story and character". Taylor noted a lack of "plot impetus", suggesting that Vadim may have been "preoccupied with the special effects, though they are [and were] rather cheesy". Kim Newman (Empire) gave Barbarella three stars out of five, calling the film "literally episodic" and writing that the episodes spend "more time on the art direction, the costuming and the psychedelic music track than the plot".
About its sexual elements, Brian J. Dillard wrote that the film's gender roles were not "particularly progressive, especially given the running gag about Barbarella getting her first few tastes of physical copulation after a lifetime of 'advanced' virtual sex" in his review on AllMovie. Phipps found the film "a missed opportunity", noting that the source material was part of "an emerging wave of European comics for adults" which "Vadim film[ed] indifferently." David Kehr of the Chicago Reader found the film "ugly" on several levels, particularly its "human values". Newman summarized the film as "cheerful, kitsch and camp", with "a succession of truly amazing fashion creations with all the confidence of a generation that thought sex was, above all, fun". Newman compared the film to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, writing that Barbarella makes them seem "stuffy" by comparison. Charles Webb's review for MTV noted that Barbarella suffers when described as a "camp classic", since there was "so much to like about Fonda's work here and the movie as a whole"; "Fonda brings naivete and sweetness to a part that requires a certain level of comfort going bare onscreen, while the hostile planet Lythion is a parade of inventive and odd ways to imperil our heroine." Similarly, Lucas declared that "Fonda's performance, which the silly persist in finding controversial or compromising, has dated better than 90% of her 'serious' work; without her centrifugal, wide-eyed presence and suspenseful costume changes, one gets the impression that the whole production might spin madly out of control and off the screen".
Legacy and influence
Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik were both part of a minor trend of Italian film adaptations of European comics (known in Italy as fumetti) that emphasized mild sadomasochism and late 1960s fetish gear; aside from these two films, 1968 saw the release of Piero Vivarelli's similarly-themed Satanik. These were followed by Bruno Corbucci's Ms. Stiletto in 1969, and Corrado Farina's Baba Yaga in 1973. The production and costume design of both films also reflected a larger movement of retrofuturism seen in European genre films of the 1960s and 1970s. These include Pasquale Festa Campanile's The Libertine and Check to the Queen, Umberto Lenzi's So Sweet... So Perverse, Tinto Brass' Col cuore in gola, Lucio Fulci's One on Top of the Other and A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Elio Petri's The 10th Victim, Piero Schivazappa's The Laughing Woman and Radley Metzger's Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Barbarella may seem "quaint" to modern audiences but its "imagery has echoed for years in pop culture." Lisa Eisner of The New York Times called Barbarella "the most iconic sex goddess of the '60s." The film's costumes influenced Jean-Paul Gaultier's designs in The Fifth Element, and Gaultier noted Paco Rabanne's metallic dress that was worn by Fonda.
Barbarella was later called a cult film. Author Jerry Lembcke noted the film's popularity; it was available in small video stores, and was familiar beyond the film buff community. According to Lembcke, any "doubt about its cult status was dispelled when Entertainment Weekly ranked it number 40 on its list of top 50 cult movies" in 2003. He cited the film's popularity on the internet, with fansites ranging from a Barbarella festival in Sweden to memorabilia sales and reviews. Lembcke writes that the websites focus on the character of Barbarella.
Barbarella has influenced popular music, with Duran Duran taking its name from the film's antagonist. The group later released a concert film, Arena (An Absurd Notion), with Milo O'Shea reprising his role from Barbarella.
Proposed sequel, remake and TV series
A sequel to Barbarella was planned in November 1968. Producer Robert Evans said that its working title would be Barbarella Goes Down, with the character having undersea adventures. Terry Southern said that he was contacted by de Laurentiis in 1990 to write a sequel "on the cheap...but with plenty of action and plenty of sex," and possibly starring Fonda's daughter.
A new version of Barbarella was proposed in the 2000s, and director Robert Rodriguez was interested in developing a version after the release of Sin City. Universal Pictures planned to produce the film, with Rose McGowan playing Barbarella. Dino and Martha De Laurentiis signed on with writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who had worked on Casino Royale. When the film's budget exceeded $80 million, Universal withdrew. According to Rodriguez, he did not want his film to look like Vadim's. He searched for alternate financing when Universal did not meet his budget, and found a studio in Germany which would provide a $70 million budget. Rodriguez eventually left the project, since using that studio would require a long separation from his family. Joe Gazzam was then approached to write a screenplay, with Robert Luketic directing and Dino and Martha De Laurentiis still credited as producers.
Gaumont International Television announced a pilot for a TV series based on the film by Amazon Studios in 2012. The pilot would be written by Purvis and Wade and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and the series would be set in Asia. Refn spoke about the show in 2016 where he discussed about having a greater interest on developing The Neon Demon than Barbarella, concluding that "certain things are better left untouched. You don't need to remake everything."
- List of films based on French-language comics
- List of French films of 1968
- List of Italian films of 1968
- List of science fiction films of the 1960s
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