Monday, March 7, 2011

Movie Review: "Barbarella" by David Pretty

Greeting, Cinema-Philes!

Barbarella is a movie just has to be seen to be believed.  Honestly, this is some seriously fucked up shit right here.

Now, I've seen some weird-ass films in my lifetime but Naked Lunch, Eraserhead, and Showgirls doesn't hold a candle to this parade of the surreal.  Whereas those flicks were deliberately odd or inexplicable, Barbarella is just the product of an era that I struggle to relate to.

When you sit down to watch this thing a tab of LSD should be as standard issue as 3-D glasses are to make Avatar a decent movie.

Speaking of being a product of its time, the film starts promisingly enough with a groovy theme song that's one part lounge lizard, one part Jefferson Airplane.  Get ready to hum this catchy little ditty for the rest of eternity:

In addition to this trippy pop confection, we're treated to an extended sequence whereby Jane Fonda as the titular character peels out of a hideous space suit (en route to her birthday suit) as the credits fly around her.

Above and beyond seeing more of Ms. Fonda then I'd ever anticipated on seeing in my lifetime, the effect of her zero-gravity strip-tease seems to have been achieved rather slyly.  I think director Roger Vadim pulled a fast one and just told her to lie on the floor of a studio, extricate herself from the costume and cast bits of it on the floor around her.  He then comped her into a background image representing the far wall of her spaceship.

This created a bizarre effect whereby things like her boots, gloves and helmet don't really "float away" in the "zero gravity" until she pushes them out of her way and they go rolling across the screen.  All in all, it's a pretty ghetto visual gimmick.

It also appears as if the film has the dubious honor of inspiring the moniker for a certain 80's era British pop outfit:

So, that's two-star demerit right there.
Our heroine soon receives an unannounced transmission from the President of the Earth (Claude Dauphin).  Nonplussed by his agent's gratuitous state of undress, he dispatches her to the planet Tau Ceti to try and retrieve the renowned scientist Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea).  Seems Durand to the Power of Two is the  inventor of the heinous Positronic Death Ray and now with Earth completely pacified and weapon-free the Prez is a bit freaked out that this rogue scientist is playing for the other team.

After accepting the assignment, Barbarella begrudgingly gets dressed in what I can only assume is her executrix power suit, consisting of spandex and a clear plastic bustier.

She then proceeds to take the helm of her spacecraft.  And, let me tell ya, folks, this spaceship is a dilly.  First off, the interior is tastefully decorated with what appears to be wookiee pelts.   Seriously, what the fuck is it with people in the Sixties and shag carpeting?  Jesus.

Also inexplicably scattered about the ship are impressionist paintings, Dionysian statues and convenient walk-in closets.  I think a lot of the design work can be explained away as soon as you hear Alfie, the voice of the ship itself.  Just between you and me, I think Alfie's a little light in the stabilizers.  But, hey, that's cool.

Soon we're "treated" to a pretty harrowing brown acid trip across the galaxy.  Unlike every other sci-fi flick, the special effects guru's here didn't feel compelled to represent space in Barbarella with the traditional star field.  No, apparently the grand expanse of the cosmos can just as easily be depicted using a full aquarium and copious amounts of food coloring.  Whoa, man.  

Eventually our heroine crash-lands on Tau Ceti, which on the surface looks like the set of Ice Capades.  She's approached by a pair of creepy, Esperanto-spouting little girls who make the kids in Village of the Damned look like Jonathan Lipnicki. These two kids manage to subdue our renowned special agent, tie her up and then race her across the surface of the planet on their dogsled.  Well, actually, that's not entirely accurate.  Replace the word "sled" with the word "skis" and the word "dog" with "inflatable manta ray".

Seriously, you can't make this shit up.

The two little girls cart Barbarella back to their settlement which is populated by rabbits which have been spray-painted blue, carnivorous dolls and a bunch of Lord of the Flies-rejects all wearing red fright wigs.  She's eventually rescued by Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), a "Catchman" who patrols the planet's surface for the purpose of, um...catching things. After Barbarella uses her "tongue box" (!) to translate what Hand's saying, she's chagrined to hear that his one and only request for a reward consists of some good ole-fashioned boot-knockery.

Which brings me to the one and only interesting thing about the movie.  In the (very) distant future depicted in the film (the year 40,000 if you actually give a crap), traditional ugly-bumping has become passe in lieu of popping an Exaltation Transference Pill, pressing palms together with your fuck buddy and then waiting patiently for your "psychocardiograms" to come into "perfect harmony" with one another.  That's hot.

Well, our intrepid Catchman will have nothing of this new-fangled chicanery and casually insists on being rewarded in the "old fashioned way", which makes you wonder if he specializes in catching things that subsequently require a shot or some sort of topical cream. A great, unintentionally funny moment follows when Mark Hand doffs his uniform, which appears to be the business end of a rental gorilla suit, and the audience is hard pressed to tell the difference between the before and after.  I'm tellin' ya, this motherfucker is Class-5 Robin Williams hairy! 

After we're treated to a clever visual gag which brings to mind stock footage of trains going into tunnels and animated hot dogs jumping into buns, we see Barbarella languishing in bed and humming contentedly in the afterglow of what we can only assume to be a skillful bout of traditional whoopie-making.  While THE MAN fixes her spaceship, our gal Barb gets dressed in a practical, new outfit which appears to be an amalgam of stitched-together skunk pelts.

Soon the two part ways, leaving Barbarella to wistfully admit that "sometimes the old-fashioned ways are best".  She's learned from her cro-magnon shag buddy that Durand Squared may now reside in Sogo, the City of Night, on the other side of the planet.  She decides to take a shortcut by burrowing through the planet (?), but crashes and damages her ship again in the process.  I swear, this chick's landing record is worse then Luke Skywalker's in The Empire Strikes Back.

After being knocked out by a landslide of foam boulders, she's revived by a blind, earth-bound, disconcertingly Aryan-looking angel by the name of Pygar (John Phillip Law).  He takes her to the Labyrinth, where exiles from the city of Sogo have gathered.  She's then introduced to Professor Ping, who graciously agrees to help her repair her ship. Ping is played by Marcel Marceau which leads me to believe that he was probably banished from Sogo for walking against the wind too many times.  BA-dum-tsssh!

Not long after, Pygar saves Barbarella from an incursion by the evil Black Guards from the City of Night.  Please note that from here on in I refuse to refer to the titular character as "our heroine" since she's done absolutely nothing so far to warrant that moniker.

Apparently her little dalliance with The Missing Link has dislodged something internally, and Barbarella insists on rewarding Pygar for the rescue with some more vintage rogering.  Not surprisingly, Pygar immediately regains the power of flight.

I'm tellin' ya, folks, it ain't just Red Bull that gives ya wings!    BA-dum-tsssh!

Anyway, to make a long story slightly less long, Pygar flies Barbarella to Sogo, where she (in quick succession)...
  •   Destroys an entire fleet of enemy defense craft with what appears to be a novelty pop gun.
  •   Gets rescued (for a third time) by a salacious, eye-patched, switch-blade wielding hootchie who keeps referring  to Barbarella as "Pretty, Pretty."
  •   Nearly gets pecked to death by a savage flock
  •   Is rescued yet again (#4 for those of you at home keeping score) by a revolutionary leader named Dildano.  Seriously, after this I thought it was just a matter of time before Lieutenant Buttpluggio was introduced.  
  • Gets to simulate all the satisfaction of being rescued by being placed by Durand Durand himself inside the organ-like Excessive Machine, I.E. the often miss-labeled Orgasmatron.  Yeah, did I mention she ends up overheating the damned thing?
Yeah, I'm sure you get the picture by now.  Roger Vadim wanted to turn his then-wife Jane Fonda into a sex symbol so that's why she's in this hunk of excessive cheesecakery.  The funny thing is, Fonda actually turns in a bravura performance and strikes the perfect balance between deadpan serious line deliveries, non-irritating helplessness and all the while throws in the occasional knowing wink to the audience.

Most of the costumes, special effects and sets are dreadful and make what was on display in Logan's Run look like friggin' Alien.  Except for the convincing Labyrinth set, most of the film's backdrops look like they were designed by Bob Mackie on an PCP bender.

Vadim's direction is pretty static and pedestrian, which is in direct opposition to the film's over the top visual style.  Honestly, where the film succeeds at all is in the loopy pop-psychology dialogue.  Witness this little tete a tete:

President: We don't know anything about Tau Ceti or its inhabitants.
So they could still be living in a primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility?      

There's plenty of mock-clinical terms and pop psychology babble, all of which was a real fad at the time.  I like how the script subtly takes the piss out of this kind of self-analytical quackery.

But it's in it's view of female sexual power that I find the film has any worth at all.  At first, Barbarella's libido has been repressed by a patriarchal, sanitized, state-mandated, chemically saturated view of sex.  As soon as she's "off the pill" so to speak, she begins to feel real visceral pleasure and her sex drive goes through the roof.  She's instantly liberated and her newly discovered sexual power is so great it destroys the male-designed Excessive Machine organ.   

Read into this what you will, but it doesn't take Durand Durand's big brain to interpret what this meant for women in the Sixties.

Unfortunately this intriguing message is buried under the character's hapless, chronic waifism and the film's hopelessly dated production design which is clearly the product of psychotropic drugs.  I'd recommend watching it if only to see where Mike Myers got all of his comedic visual clues for the Austin Powers flicks.

out of  five, y'all.  Huuuuge tilt up.

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