In 1968, science fiction cinema earned its letters of nobility thanks to Kubrick, without forgetting Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. Amid these two masterpieces, a third dystopia marks the minds that year: Barbarella.
After the eponymous comic books (considered one of the first for adults), Roger Vadim transports Jane Fonda in the year 40.000, under the features of an intergalactic heroine with exacerbated sexuality. She must save the world from a mad scientist, inventor of a machine killing with orgasms, and from the bisexual queen of Sogo, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the future.
Obviously, the film shines more for its retro-futurist aesthetic — from sets to costumes, some drawn by Paco Rabanne — than for its plot. That said, if it now has a cult status, it is also for its main character, who moves from one bed to another as she changes solar system. Multi-faceted, is Barbarella a sexist projection or a feminist who doesn’t know it…?
The world depends on a woman!
In the middle of the Cold War and the space race, men are everywhere. In rockets, TV news, documentaries and, of course, films. Here, it is indeed a woman, sailing boldly between the stars, who must deliver humanity.
Barbarella manages in every situation (saving her hairdo in the process), whether she is locked in a “suicide room” or ready to be devoured in an aviary. Despite her ingenuity, she’s a badass, a real one. Even the super orgasmator can’t handle her…
A particular relationship to sex
A bit like in Valley of the Dolls, sex is omnipresent in Barbarella. This is the main argument of her critics, who only see her as a nice doll offering herself to those who help her.
The characters’ libido is clearly stereotyped. On the other hand, Barbarella is always consenting, when she is not herself at the origin of the intercourse. She explores her sexuality during her mission, sleeps with a blind angel like James Bond who flirts with pretty girls. From beginning to end, she has control over her body and her pleasure. It is actually what will enable her to get rid of the professor’s machine… and to ensure a conf call with the president of the Earth, completely naked.
A modern figure?
The character is therefore more complex than it seems. However, it would be a mistake to see it as an avatar of the feminist cause. On this subject, the director precises while promoting:
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. — Roger Vadim, Los Angeles Times, 10 sept. 1967.
So Barbarella doesn’t have much of an activist. Nevertheless, she is independent, shows strength, adaptation and fully disposes of her sexuality. Fifty years after the film’s release, too few heroines on our screens can say the same… •