The subject of the “male gaze” in movies—in particular, those based on comic-book properties—came back into the public discourse, or at least the public gossip columns, recently with Blackwidowgate. That’s what I’m calling it, anyway; maybe it already has a more popular “-gate” brand…I can only pay so much attention to this stuff. For those of you who pay even less attention: The Avengers sequel suffered something of a mini-PR-kerfuffle when, during the course of a videotaped interview, Chris Evans (Captain America) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) responded to a question about the Black Widow character’s onscreen relationships by jokingly referring to her as a “whore” and a “slut.”
There have already been exhausting analyses everywhere of not only the relative worth of the apologies quickly offered by both Evans and Renner (Evans’ was judged to be the more “sincere”; Renner’s was a “sorry if you were offended” nonpology), but also explorations of whether or not it’s fair to say that Scarlett Johansson’s character has indeed been rendered in the Marvel movies as decidedly less-dimensional than her male counterparts.
That second issue, to me, is the far more interesting, especially when you consider that only a couple of weeks prior to this blowup, Avengers director Joss Whedon—who is just as responsible as the screenwriters and the studios for the richness, or lack thereof, of our sole XX-chromosome costumed crusader—had leveled an uninvited critique of “sexism” at a scene from the upcoming Jurassic Park sequel. You should, of course, treat all of these PC-related flare-ups as the background noise they are.
(Plus, I’ve just seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it’s a massive achievement of Marvel Comics superheroic awesome.)
Most of all, this uneasy back-and-forth between artists, fans, and critics, as well as the now-persistent talk of rape culture, the ways that men tell stories involving women, and the scarcity of female heroines from big-screen comic-book movies, made me very interested in returning to the last female-powered comics film that got people talking.
I am not, of course, referring to the Cathy Lee Crosby version of Wonder Woman, the big-screen belly-flop that was Supergirl, the indifferently-received Elektra, Pitof’s legendarily-mocked Catwoman, or even the Thora Birch film Ghost World (which, for the record, is the truly terrific movie among this kind-of-sad bunch, and also featured Scarlett Johansson). It might be a lose-lose situation for me on all fronts, but employing my assorted set of “privileges” now as a straight white male and showcasing a movie starring an actress many people have now made it their life’s work to love to hate, I am giving in to my basest urges as a comics fan and movie lover and having a look here at director Roger Vadim’s Barbarella starring Jane Fonda.
Lucky for me, just before settling down to look at the (very good-looking) Blu-ray release of the 1968 cult film, I remembered I had a second-printing of the hardback edition of the original 1962-64 Barbarella comics by Jean-Claude Forest gathering dust on my shelf; I’d had it for years and years and never read it in full. (Yes. I subscribe to the same “antilibrary” philosophy as author Umberto Eco, and always had, long before finally getting around to reading my copy of The Black Swan and joyfully discovering that he agreed with me) Because I couldn’t remember much of anything about the Vadim movie at all—so much so that I frankly doubt I’d ever seen it in its entirety until now—I decided it would be a good idea to race through the comics first, in order to better compare how the PG-rated film matched up to what was then a highly controversial publication regarded as the world’s first “adult” (as in, too sexually explicit for children) comic book.
Forest’s sci-fi saga is a sometimes-lively, sometimes-silly, sometimes-provocative, and sometimes-dull series of episodes involving our titular star-hopping rocket pilot. Here, Barbarella is a voluptuous adventurer unafraid to use her sex appeal to satisfy her own urges, express her gratitude to a rescuer, or just get herself out of a jam. There are times that the details of the plots and the motivations of the characters she interacts with hint at or predict the kind of socially-conscious storytelling most genre fans would come to associate with the Star Trek franchise—though certainly good science fiction often tilts at thorny social issues—while other elements of the Barbarella adventures lean towards the simpler, swashbuckling style of Flash Gordon comics, along with a healthy infusion of the kinds of encyclopedic alien lore and interstellar gobbledygook that helped make the worlds of Frank Herbert’s Dune feel so authentic (or incomprehensible, depending on your level of absorption into this sort of thing).
I found Vadim’s movie to be a very curious creature of an adaptation, being simultaneously quite faithful to many of the comics’ scenarios as well as more than a little traitorous to the main character. The film does a fine job of announcing itself right away; while the very first thing we see after the Paramount studio logo is the credit “A Dino De Laurentiis Production”—a significant indicator of what you’re going to be in for, whether you are a fan or a detractor of the man who, funny that I just mentioned them, also went on to produce big-screen adaptations of both Flash Gordon and Dune—what follows gives us the real clue as to what will serve as the film’s defining point of view: star Jane Fonda’s famous zero-G striptease.
In the comics, Barbarella is certainly a character who has no aversion to removing her clothes for a variety of (sometimes hilariously justified) reasons. The film’s all-important opening sequence, though, does signal a turn-around of the character completely, by defining expressions of her sexuality as the satisfaction of our desire, rather than hers. A good way to demonstrate how the movie alters Barbarella’s character in this way is also to look at a moment in the comics that becomes one of the film’s key running jokes—that when Barbarella is rescued, she repays the favor with sex.
In the Forest stories, after a character named Prince Topal saves her, we see that not only does Barbarella know that offering herself up to him sexually will satisfy him, it’s clear that it’s going to satisfy her. The movie takes this moment and makes something else out of it entirely.
The first time we see Fonda’s Barbarella saved onscreen—by the gorilla-fur-clad Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi)—she gratefully offers to have her superiors on Earth make some manner of “recompense” to him for his valor. Instead, Hand very bluntly requests that they make love, and Barbarella responds to this by shrugging her shoulders and looking for the “Exultation Transference Pellets” used by Earthlings to facilitate what passes for copulation in 40,000 A.D.: an experience involving the taking of the drug by both partners and the placing together of their palms for up to an hour, eyes closed, until such time as their mutual “rapport” is completed.
Traditional sex in the world of the Barbarella movie, as Fonda’s character helpfully explains to her lustful rescuer, has long since been abandoned on Earth due to its habit of distracting people from “maximum efficiency.” The nonplussed Hand responds he “knows nothing of this,” and gently insists on being satisfied the “old-fashioned” way.
After a momentary expression of shock, Barbarella complies.
In this way, the comic and movie characters are galaxies apart. Fonda—who is known to not be overly fond-a the film in general—has said that the key to understanding her character in the film is to know that she is being portrayed as an “innocent” and not “liberated” or a feminist “rebel,” since she is not willfully acting out against an oppressive worldview she opposes.
I find this to be less than 100% true in the movie, since after the lovemaking session with Hand early on, it’s obvious that Barbarella has discovered a kind of blissful fulfillment she hadn’t known before (i.e., orgasm), and in the future encounters she has with the men who rescue her—including the noble, winged Pygor (John Phillip Law) and the cloddish revolutionary Dildano (David Hemmings)—their rescues not only lead Barbarella to the expectation of sex as a return favor, but to her newfound desire to carry out the act with no regard to pharmaceuticals or matching “psychocardiograms.”
Movie Barbarella has discovered her libido and is eager to satisfy it. That said, it’s almost always in response to actions taken by her assortment of lovers (they keep rescuing her), and it’s obvious she doesn’t quite understand her sexual desires or ever feel that she can use them to advance her own purposes.
Even when Barbarella wears out the Expressive Machine—a sequence improved from the comics in terms of its importance in the story and its quality as a compelling set-piece weirdly blending together flavors of eroticism, sexual violence, and farce—it seems like the degree to which she can now victoriously enjoy sexual pleasure is something to which she is entirely indifferent. The quality of Barbarella’s “innocence” is definitely on display in this scene, but I would argue it makes for a weaker character rather than a stronger one.
To close this topic out, Comics Barbarella has sex with a robot, pretty definitively settling the question as to which of the two Barbarellas is the more taboo-challenging. Certainly the Barbarella comics were way ahead of their time—even if these days, not by much.
Both the comic and the film revel in the flimsiest of excuses to have Barbarella remove her clothes, but the film treats this conceit a little differently in that it serves less as an opportunity to exhibit skin than to showcase a fashion-runway-worthy series of sexy outfits. If the film ups the comics ante in any way in this regard, it’s in the creative ways that assaults on Barbarella are used as the reason to see her clothing torn and her body scratched and bloodied, either by vampire-toothed dolls or lovely little birds.
Less Brigitte Bardot and more Doc Savage.
(For the trivia watchdogs among you: It’s reported—and obvious—that the famous blonde sexpot Bardot served as the inspiration for the look of Forest’s character on the page. Bardot was also the first wife of Roger Vadim, the film’s director—but by the time he was making the screen version of Barbarella, third wife Jane Fonda became the more obvious choice to star. And Fonda here looks pretty close to the comics character, too.)
Lest I allow this to become an all-out rip on the movie, I want to make very clear that I found the film to be, on the whole, hugely entertaining. Chief among the film’s strengths are its production design and art direction (Forest served as a consultant on the film); Barbarella is a real feast for the eyes, mixing influences and textures to create utterly unique settings.
The fun starts with the interior of Alpha 7, Barbarella’s spaceship. Earth’s five-star, double-rated Astro-Navigatrix pilots a vessel whose bridge is covered top to bottom in brown shag carpet, with a representation of the Georges-Pierre Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grande Jatte” on one side and a breast-baring, crescent-moon-shouldering bronze statue on the other (Is that Isis? I’m not sure). The entirely soundstage-shot film then proceeds to offer up a never-ending parade of elaborate sets that marry the scale of James Bond films to the kitsch of variety shows and the intrigue of obscure art museum exhibits.
You half-expect Donny and Marie to turn up ice skating on the ice forests of Weir; the Labyrinth of the City of Night, where Barbarella meets the helpful and eccentric Professor Ping (famous mime Marcel Marceau, talking, a lot), is a legitimately creepy place that looks like something Kenneth Anger and Lars von Trier would have dreamed up; and the city of Sogo, where our “pretty-pretty” heroine nearly enters into a homoerotic encounter with the sultry Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) before finally confronting villainous scientist Durand Durand (Miles O’Shea)—yes, this is where that band got its name—is a wild jungle of brightly-colored metal, glass, plastic, and rust teeming with tubes, fishbowls, and giant hookahs, populated by hollow leather stormtroopers and crowds of onlookers clad in bondage outfits.
The Charles Fox music score is an energetic affair that fuses glitzy sci-fi cues to softcore porno lounge rock, and keeps some of the admittedly stiff cutting of the film from feeling too lifeless. The theme song might not be the Cheesiest Movie Song ever recorded, but I’d comfortably put it in the running; Claude Renoir’s cinematography is crisp and free of gauzy period devices like soft focus or the overuse of filters or zooms, brilliantly capturing the film’s crayon-box of vivid color; and the script, credited to a large set of writers including Vadim and Terry Southern (of Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove fame), deftly stitches together many of the comic’s sequences, rearranging and repurposing them to suit a more streamlined narrative.
While the writing absolutely benefits the movie adaptation by giving Barbarella a concrete “mission” to pursue, the film also adds on a concept of the far-flung future that stands in stark contrast to most sci-fi literature in that it posits a world (a universe, in fact) where not only sex, but war is obsolete. I have little doubt that many Fonda critics, should they even choose to revisit the movie, might seethe just a little bit more upon hearing her offer up the line “Why would anybody want to invent a weapon?” while thinking the movie’s setup to be a sop to leftist utopian fantasies—though I might challenge those same people to reflect on the idea that a society that somehow managed to erase the need for violent confrontation for decades would be seen by them as more of a “liberal” utopia than a “conservative” one.
The special effects in the Dino De Laurentiis-produced film are meant to be suitably epic, but are now dated, yes—but I will say here that they appear less dated to my eyes than the ones for Dino’s Flash Gordon (released 12 years later) and Dino’s Dune (released 16 years later); this could be because Barbarella’s aesthetics push towards an experience more made to resemble a two-dimensional canvas than deepen or enhance it.
And Fonda’s lead performance, whatever you want to think about the controversies that would soon all but swallow up her identity as an actress or celebrity, is really enjoyable. It’s easy to see how the film, flop though it did on its initial run, made her an instant sex symbol. She’s very funny in the part, too, although my favorite of her comic roles will always be the original Fun With Dick and Jane.
And yes: She looks really great in those costumes.
The rest of the ensemble more than pulls their weight, with Danger: Diabolik star John Phillip Law proving an exceptionally attractive and subtly touching co-star in the role of the blind angel whose own innocence about the ways of the world remains intact after a roll in the nest with Barbarella restores his ability to fly.
After Durand Durand’s climax-stimulating Excessive Machine—meant to make its victims “die of pleasure”—is defeated by Barbarella’s pure-hearted indulgence in the sweet rhapsodies of carnal knowledge, Durand rages at her: What kind of girl are you? Have you no shame? She doesn’t, and that’s the point of the character in Vadim’s film. What she also lacks, though, is the realization that others around her, who might indeed possess the “sophistication” to feel that kind of shame, but not be resourceful or courageous enough to stand up to the men who will punish them for not feeling it enough, need her to be consciously liberated enough to use her heroism to help stand up for their autonomy as well as her own.
This seems to me to be what the comics version of Barbarella represents more than the movie version, even though Forest’s work is not nearly as interested in chasing these larger ideas out in the open. In both mediums, Barbarella is an intriguing entertainment for the mind and the loins.
Barbarella might also be the perfect Jane Fonda Movie Role: sexy, not very easily understood, thought of as alternately glorious and tacky, loved by some, and hated by others; her naiveté both a valuable asset and a chief source of frustration for those yearning for a heroine every bit as revered and imitated—while remaining just as richly human and imperfect—as any male crusader who fights on behalf of the “humanism, morals (and) principles” villains like Durand regard as “utter nonsense.”