We try to remain high-minded here at the Classic Corner, but folks, it’s been a week, and sometimes you’re just looking to have some fun. The Criterion Channel’s new “Starring Jane Fonda” series features plenty of intellectually rigorous works: Godard and Gorin’s Tout va bien, Losey’s adaptation of A Doll’s House, her Oscar-winning turn in Klute, Arthur Penn’s The Chase. But it also includes Roger Vadim’s sci-fi sexcapade Barbarella (which is also streaming on Amazon Prime), and folks, when you’re in the waning days of an execrable presidency and shell-shocked from an attempted coup, the brainy stuff can wait.
And you must give Barbarella credit for letting you know, from its opening frames, exactly what you’re in for: its credit sequence is a zero-gravity astronaut suit striptease, a heart-stopping combination of sexy and silly that serves as something of a mission statement for the 98 minutes to come. “It’s a wonder / wonder woman / you’re so wild and wonderful” croons Bob Crewe, as the letters of Fonda’s name, shaken from her luxurious mane of blond locks, fly across the screen. It’s some of the best hair work of her career (which is saying something). Fonda continues to peel away to nothing through the sequence, an eyebrow-wiggling burlesque as letters land strategically (or not) for the rest of the credits; among them are acknowledgments of the producer (Dino de Laurentiis, the notorious showman and exploiteer) and director Roger Vadim, who co-wrote the script with Terry Southern.
In terms of the latter’s filmography, Barbarella has less in common with Dr. Strangelove or Easy Rider than his novel Candy (whose film adaptation was released, like Barbarella, in 1968) – an unapologetically horny chronicle of female sexual discovery and fulfillment. Those preoccupations made him an ideal match with Vadim, who had gained international notoriety a dozen years earlier with his directorial debut, And God Created Woman, and spent his ensuing years further pushing the boundaries of on-screen sexuality.
He also spent them meeting and marrying Jane Fonda, whose pairing with the controversial filmmaker and headlining of his films also served to effectively puncture the image she had forged in early-‘60s pictures like Tall Story and Period of Adjustment. It wasn’t that she played the goody-goody in those early films; she was never Doris Day, and there was some attempt at candor in these stories of young women coming to terms with the shifting sexual mores of the day. But her collaborations with Vadim went further, and by the time the pair arrived at Barbarella, she had found a new variation of her onscreen persona: the wide-eyed sex bomb, aware of her comeliness but not of the pleasures it can unlock. It’s a grinning, gleeful performance, in which both actor and character convey the thrill of being a good girl who enjoys being bad.
The film that surrounds that performance is, to put it kindly, less compelling. Set in the distant future, when all war has been eradicated and love rules all, the plot concerns space adventurer Barbarella and her mission to find the missing inventor Durand Durand (who has invented a “positronic ray”). Her orders? “Use all of your incomparable talents to preserve the integrity of the stars and our mother planet.” She’s given this mission while still fully nude from that opening sequence, so “incomparable talents” is delivered with the appropriate elbows in the ribs; she certainly doesn’t seem to be a super-spy, since the first leg of her rescue mission is disrupted by a bunch of children, who capture her and unleash an army of creepy dolls on her person.
She’s saved, however, by Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), who suggests she thank him for the rescue in a rather direct way: “Well, you could let me make love to you.” And that’s the crux of the picture – that “nobody’s done that for centuries” because “it was proved to be distracting and a danger to maximum efficiency,” so sex evolved into a process involving harmonious “psycho-cardiogram” readings (the writers of Demolition Man were clearly Barbarella fans). But once she gets a taste of the real thing, she finds she enjoys it, and the rest of the picture plays out in roughly the same fashion: Barbarella travels to a new planet, gets into trouble, wiggles her way out, has some sex, and so on.
Fonda has, understandably, never treated Barbarella as the crown jewel of her filmography – both due to its quality and a general bad aftertaste from the union with Vadim. But it’s a genuinely skillful performance, a tricky role that she plays just right: with a grin, but not a wink, and a good actor knows the difference. She knows how to deliver the double entendre dialogue without going too broad (when she adjusts her speaking and hearing for different languages, she’s matter-of-factly announces “Better adjust my tongue box”), and her comic timing is superb; when she’s asked “Are you typical of Earth women?” she waits a perfectly considered beat before responding, cheerfully, “I’m about average!”
That cheerfulness is all over Barbarella, which is set in the future but couldn’t be more anchored in the culture of 1968 if its characters picked up Abbey Road LPs on the way to the opening of Hair. Everything in it is bubblegum and pop art and exposed skin, accompanied by a score chock full of wah-wah pedals and goofy basslines. It is not, strictly speaking, a good movie. But it’s a wildly pleasurable one, and sometimes, especially these days, that’s just as valuable.