By Orisakolade Orisadamilare
Barbarella is a 1968 comic fantasy adventure directed by Roger Vadim and stars Jane Fonda as Barbarella, an Earth heroine from the 41st century. It is a film that defines the 60s in its use of contemporary and futuristic fashion and incorporated the belief in free love and sexual awareness. Perhaps, this film could only be made and based in that decade and no other, with its vivid tonal scenes and questionable acting. Nonetheless, this film has a story to tell. Jane Fonda’s character is reminiscent not only of the Eternal Aeon from the Sethian creation myth, but they have very similar names: Barbelo (Sethian god archetype), described as a supreme female principle is an androgynous being, and the virginal spirit through which the father (male god) would manifest. Barbarella gives birth to these associations as Earth’s feminine saviour the villain Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea), who unbeknown to himself will use her to manifest the destruction of the alien world, Tau Ceti. Not only a heroine, Barbarella is also an astronaut who lives in her own spacecraft in some unidentified part of the galaxy. This is no ordinary spacecraft, with three spheres resembling breasts on the exterior, it defies conventional design.
The interior brings a new dimension to the cockpit of the ship; with floor, wall and ceiling decorated in fur and a piano-looking console as the dashboard, making the cockpit look more like a seedy playboy hotel suite. A rectangular section of the floor of the ship was cut away, revealing a transparent material that doubled as a mattress. This provided the director with the access to get close up shots of Barbarella sleeping from underneath. Barbarella is first contacted by Earth’s president instructing her to take on the mission of finding and bringing back the rogue scientist Durand Durand. She is suitably equipped, and with the coordinates for Tau Ceti now logged into her navigational system, she makes haste for the planet where Durand Durand is believed to be.
After crash landing on Tau Ceti Barbarella is abducted by feral children, who with murderous intentions take her back to their lair. The first depictions of Tau Ceti is an ice waste land above ground “The film shows its 1960s comic book origins but the sets are wonderfully realised through Claude Renoir” The ice set is very sparse with bare trees and jagged ice towers in the background, a low line mist covering their base gives a wilderness effect. The sky was a lemon yellow to emphasise the fact Barbarella was on an alien planet. These strengthen the effect of the comic book theme sets with not only the 60s lending its naturally vivid colour scheme to the film, but the bold and very clear reproduction of environments and props allowing a purposeful understanding of the vision of the production. This ice world is inhabited with the feral children, who live in Durand Durand’s wrecked ship this giving the impression that they are Durand Durand’s children and human. Mark Hand the Catchman (Ugo Tognazzi), who also lives above ground, and clothed in a full fur ensemble, comes to Barbarella’s aid at the hands of the children. The Catchman, a sort of shepherd, rounds up the children when they reach a serviceable age and turns them over to the authorities in Sogo.
The Catchman repairs Barbarella’s ship and in return she is asked to make love with him. Such behaviour is a constant reoccurrence in the film, with Barbarella rewarding help with sexual favours. When the ship is finally repaired Barbarella heads to Sogo to apprehend Durand Durand. Little does Barbarella know that the ship has been repaired in reverse, so as soon as Barbarella takes-off the spacecraft heads down to the ground drilling its way to the centre of the earth until the craft has to stop abruptly in front of a wall of rock. Barbarella has reached a gigantic labyrinth where Pygar (John Phillip Law) the angel is there to greet her. The labyrinth is made from rock and is inhabited by alien humanoids with other creatures imbedded in the rock structure, all donning stylistic make-up and costume. All that is good is exiled to the Labyrinth, while evil remains situated in Sogo.
The inhabitants hold Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau), a faun-like character who undertakes the repairs of Barbarella’s ship, in high esteem. Placed in the middle of the Labyrinth is the city of night, Sogo, where it is said The Great Tyrant lived and ruled. Sogo appears more like an alien spaceship than a city; it hovered above the labyrinth with cables connecting the two entities. While, Ping repairs Barbarella’s ship she and the angel sneaked into the city to find Durand Durand. Sogo is a mechanical city with an infrastructure of working parts clad with metal and iron piping protruding from its walls, portraying a convincing industrial theme. “The film is ugly on so many levels—from art direction to human values—that it's hard to know where to begin. Let's be charitable and write it off to love—Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim at the time.”, Regardless of Fonda’s relationship with the director the belief that this was just an entertaining film for entertainment sake is incorrect. Many theories on heaven and other mythical kingdoms such as Shambhala have their locations not in the sky but within the centre of our earth. The Matmus which is the liquid entity beneath Sogo represents the creation of all that exists; many creation myths have their origins in water. There are many creditable stories and characters which could be associated with the film Barbarella, however it is up to the discretion of the audience whether these are skated over or not. The Great Tyrant captures Barbarella and crucifies Pygar, but Barbarella escapes with the help of Dildano (David Hemmings) a rebel leader planning to overthrow The Great Tyrant. There are a few memorable sets in the city, for example the chamber of ultimate solution, chamber of dreams, the rebel hideout, Durand Durand’s room with his organ of pleasure, and The Great Tyrant’s lair. These sets work well because the decor and props highlight their intention and relevance, also coinciding with the actors’ costumes, with the exception of the chamber of ultimate solution. The chamber of ultimate solution, looking like a beaker in a laboratory with transparent walls and revolving doorways leading to total destruction, painted images of a gas chamber, emitting screams from its depth whenever a door was opened.
The Tyrant’s lair or courtroom where top ranking subjects gather is a splendid place where a door magically appears to the entrance of The Great Tyrant who shows her true form as a woman with a single horn protruding from her forehead and clad in a tight sequined outfit, with sharp fingernails. In a previous unannounced appearance she donned an eye patch holding small cutting knives, and was labelled the one-eyed wench by Barbarella.
The rebel hideout lived up to its name, which is why it worked so well as a room under The Great Tyrant’s lair it has interconnecting tubes linking all of Sogo to the hideout Dildano the head of the rebel outfit is conveniently dressed in a brown outfit reminiscent of the Second World War French resistance in ‘Allo ‘Allo!
Durand Durand’s pleasure organ is a machine resembling a piano, and when Barbarella is strapped to the organ and Durand Durand begins playing, pleasure is imparted to Barbarella - the harder and more intense he plays the more pleasure she reaches. Durand Durand has nothing but murderous intentions when he straps her in, and trying his upmost to destroy Barbarella with pleasure, ends up only destroying the machine.
Finally the chamber of dreams where the black queen goes to sleep is depicted as a huge space with a bronze-like bed in the middle on which she dreams peacefully in the foreground there are small potted grass plants with lights strategically placed to give an illusion of open space and a giant screen as a wall showing the black queens inner thoughts and dreams. Although Durand Durand traps Barbarella (the innocent and pure feminine aspect, the white queen) and The Great Tyrant (The Black Queen) in the chamber of dreams with the intention of the Matmus to devour them, one could be forgiven in thinking it is all over, but the Matmus which seems to be of the same essence as Barbarella, encases her and the black queen in a bubble to protect itself against her innocence.
This leaves Durand Durand to be consumed by the Matmus as he uses his Posatronic ray to try and dissolve the rebel uprising.
Barbarella may not be for everybody’s taste, but it does deliver what it says it will, a comic-strip pop art themed indulgence, which captures you in anticipation of her next and every move for the whole 98 minutes.