By Wes Smith
Today’s “Cult of Kitsch” write-up focuses on a sci-fi classic that not only helped to define kitsch, but also reflected the exploding sexual revolution of the era: Barbarella.
Like many of the movies in Cult of Kitsch, Barbarella began life in comics. As a character in V-Comics first appearing in 1962, the eventual stand-alone trades of her were known by some as one of the first “adult” comic books for their use of sexuality.
When director Roger Vadim wanted to create something to capture the “wild humor and exaggeration” of comic books, producer Dino de Laurentiis went to work courting young actresses. Both Sophia Lauren and Bridget Bardot turned down the role. Fonda, too, had the same reaction, but Vadim, her husband of the time, convinced her to stay on as the title character.
What resulted was a strange, surreal film of oddball – even cheap – props, off-the-wall characters, and settings that make even the Jim Henson films look tame. The movie follows Barbarella in her quest to find a lost inventor, Durand Durand, who has fled to the evil city of SoGo with a weapon that could enslave a universe that has seen peace for Millenia. Along the way, she discovers sex, befriends an angel, and fights off the Great Tyrant of SoGo.
Filmed in Rome, the movie seems almost low-budget by today’s standards. Sets are amalgamations of shag carpeting, random assortments of household objects, and even plastic shipping stuffing. It’s visuals are, at best, a collection of oddities that can be found in only the ’60’s. Vadim was certain that sci-fi films were the wave of the future, and he intended to create a comedy to spearhead the movement, though its formula sometimes seems lost on the actors.
Yet the capers of Barbarella somehow withstood the test to become a cult classic, and today viewers can see many of the sparks that audiences of the time may have missed.
To put it simply, Barbarella was the epitome of the 1960’s style. The era saw no small amount of genuine classics, from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Graduate (1967) to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the birth of the James Bond franchise. Yet many of the aspects people think of when thinking of the 1960’s – kitsch, revolution, and the tie-dyed counterculture – are somehow best reflected in a poorly-reviewed Vadim adventure.
Many of the elements of Barbarella have been viewed as sexist or violent, with Fonda under constant threat or torture through some device, usually using sex as a means of thanks for her benefactors. It’s important to note, however, that that approval of the birth control pill in 1960 meant an explosion of sexual freedom among women of the time. By 1962, women were in control of their own bodies for a change, and sex was no longer something for closed doors but a thing to be celebrated.
In such historical context, Barbarella may actually be seen as a reflection of this mindset. At first, Fonda is heard of describing sex as little more than taking a pill and mentally engaging two people of similar brainwaves through a pill of their own. Upon learning how “primitives” have sex, she becomes a new woman of her own, even becoming disappointed when one revolutionary wants to try the “Earth-style” version of the sex pill. It’s a near parallel to the decisions many women went through during the whirlwind of the 60’s, with Barbarella fully in charge of her own desires.
Of course, none of this would have mattered much if not for the fun, often self-aware performance from Jane Fonda. In her role, audiences can see the sparks that set her beyond just a sex symbol of the time and would eventually turn her into a two-time Best Actress winner at the Academy Awards and an iconic force in her own right. Even her personal life would mirror the activism of the time, culminating in a still-controversial trip to Vietnam in 1972. In Barbarella, she’s funny with a wide-eyed performance and deadpan in just the right places without a trace of being too over-the-top in an over-the-top film.
When Barbarella was released, the New York Times wrote, “For a while, the audience catching all the pointless, witless modernist allusions feels in on something chic, and laughs. Then it is clear that there is nothing whatever to be in on—except another uninspired omnispoof.”
Since that time, the movie has since earned its cult status, a kind of movie that is reminiscent of the era and has since been understood for what it is: full of comedy and camp from an era that practically created the terms. As much an interesting study in film as it is an entertaining film, Barbarella deserves its spot among the sci-fi classics.