FANTASIA OBSCURA: Jane Fonda Brings a French Comic Character to Life in a Space Opera

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, going where no one has gone before can be surprising, especially when you’re encouraged to patrez votre affection

Barbarella (1968)

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Directed by: Roger Vadim

Please note: This piece describes and uses materials from a film that is very frank about intimacy that may make select readers uncomfortable; discretion is advised.

Among many genre fans, the French don’t often get enough credit for their work in the field. Despite their many contributions to this area, including producing the first “big” SF film, Le Voyage Dans la Lun, the overall inspiration from the art of Jean Giraud aka Moebius and the genre films of Luc Besson, which we’ve gotten a new one of recently, there is often a blind spot with regard to their works. It’s because of this that films like Eyes Without a Face and Fantastic Planet are even less likely to find an audience than English-language films released at the same time.

In 1968, in the midst of the Sexual Revolution, the French gave us a film based on one of their comic characters that was less likely to be forgotten that easily. In this film, if you were screaming in space, you’d hope no one could hear you, lest they come upon you doing so for reasons you might not be ready to explain…

Based on the comic series by Jean-Claude Forest, and drawing on its first plot line, the film is set in the far future, at a time referred to offhandedly in the script written by Vadim and Terry Southern where Earth has evolved beyond “a primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility.” There, star astro-naigatrix Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is tasked by the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) with finding renegade scientist Durand Durand (with the two ending “d” being silent).

This fugitive invented a weapon (a concept it takes Barbarella a few tries to get her head around) called a positornic ray and disappeared into the Tau Ceti system, and he wants her to find him and bring him back.

Due to magnetic fields around one of the inhabitable planets, her ship crashes on the surface. Barbarella comes close to being killed by the menacing mechanical dolls of the feral children she encounters before being rescued by Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), the child catcher, who Barbarella turns to, offering him thanks and payment for the rescue and repairs to her ship.

And it’s here we see how far Earth has gone beyond “neurotic irresponsibility” when it comes to intimacy:

Soon after, our heroine encounters more trouble with her ship, stranding her in the Labyrinth, the prison used by Sogo, the City of Night. While there she meets Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau, who actually has a speaking role in the film) and Pygar (John Philip Law), the last of the ornithanthropes (bird men), who she asks for help from.

When she requests Pygar to fly her out of the maze to Sogo, he claims he has lost the will to fly. Barbarella “goes retro” on him as well, and while she hums with satisfaction, Pygar finds he can fly again, and with weapons provided by Ping they quest on.

Um, we did mention this was a French film from the Sixties, right…?

In Sogo, a city so depraved that the subject of ELP’s “Karn Evil 9 Part 2” is probably a description of their pre-k edutainment programming, Barbarella ultimately finds the Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg, who around the time of the production left Brian Jones for Keith Richards). She captures her and Pygar, and has plans for both of them. For our heroine, the plan’s very simple: place her in a cage where she gets pecked to death by songbirds.

She is rescued from being at the bottom of the pecking order, however, by Dildano (David Hemmings), the leader of the resistance. She feels compelled to reward him as well; however, he has a few ideas of his own on how things should be done.

Once again looking for Durand Durand, she encounters the Tyrant’s Concierge (Milo O’Shea), who has his own plans for her, throwing her in the Excessive Machine, a device that adds a whole new meaning to the term “killing with kindness”:

As the film races towards its finale, you find yourself at times needing a break either to catch your breath or take a cold shower. If you aren’t distracted (or worse) by the sexy shenanigans, there’s a solid space opera story to follow that will leave viewers who came for the genre work very satisfied.

What helps to propel the tale is the game approach to the material by the cast. This is especially true for Fonda, who was married to Vadim at the time and during production on the film in France and Italy met acquaintances who helped expand her horizons, which ultimately led to her controversial visit to Hanoi.

By being able to read her lines straight in a scene and subtly shift to commentary through knowingly asides about the situation in a beat, she keeps the tone of the film playful and not too bound in on itself. This allows O’Shea, Pallenberg, and Hemmings to make the most of every scene they chomp when they appear, and keeps the film racing at its jaunty pace.

And what scenes the actors have to dine on. The sets the cast play in are a great imagining of a far ahead future, one rooted in Neo-futurism ideals after they had a few drinks in the lounge in the hotel. These designs could easily have appeared in a clean-even-for-Disney film and still have dazzled audiences. But with a score by Charles Fox (his first major theatrical project) and songs by Bob Crewe that sound like it would have easily played in the background of said hotel’s lounge, there’s no confusing this with a tale for kids.

Speaking of the score, the film’s deepest influence on culture at large would be found not in cinema, but music. The musicians who would form the band Duran Duran would so honor the film by taking the name of the man Barbarella was looking for. They go on to display their influence explicitly with the explicit extended video for the song “Wild Boys”:

With reviews that trended more negative than not at the time and a financial disappointment, the film did not lead to a wave of high spirited space operas, sexy or otherwise. About the closest one comes to following the trail blazed by this film was 1974’s Flesh Gordon, which was more so of a parody and far more explicit in how it handled sex on screen.

*sigh* Eh bien, ce sont des films…

NEXT TIME: We recall the last use of nuclear weapons in war, with a look at the first use of nuclear weapons in film…

About James Ryan 113 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…