Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” fantasy (and, for today, “science fiction”) movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. We’ll be posting one every Friday. . . at least, that’s the goal.

The Film: Barbarella (1968)

Also known asBarbarella: Queen of the Galaxy

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Jean-Claude Forest source comic strips, script by committee but notably Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove), directed by Roger Vadim (…And God Created Woman), swinging soundtrack by Michel Magne, “acting” by Jane Fonda, John Philip Law, Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, and Marcel Marceau

Quote: “I’ll do things to you that are beyond all known philosophies! Wait until I get my devices!”

Alternate quote: “De-crucify the angel or I’ll melt your face.”

First viewing by Molly: As an impressionable late-teenager

First viewing by Jesse: A few years ago?

Most recent viewing by both: Last week.

Impact on Molly’s (late) childhood development: Astronomical. My friend Daniel Blair showed this to me during my first semester of college and it blew my fucking mind. I had never seen such a vibrantly campy, unabashedly sexy film. The film (in conjunction with said Mr. Blair’s vigilant tutelage) launched several of my more unwholesome obsessions, like vintage erotica, corsetry, and costumes as elaborate as they are raunchy.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Negligible. Aware it existed, not much else. If only…

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I have watched Barbarella every few years since my first viewing, including showing it to many uninitiated folks. When Jesse and I started toying with the idea of this project, I had a hard time immediately coming up with influential fantasy films I saw as a kid, mainly because I never really watched that many fantasy movies, barring a late-high school anime craze. I saw Legend (which we’re definitely doing for this), The Neverending Story, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as some animated bizarro-fests like The Maxx and The Last Unicorn and The Secret of NIMH. I also saw a few other things that appealed to my nascent sensibilities (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, omfg), but it was college before I really started discovering what made me tick in terms of stuff I’d seek out, if that makes sense. Barbarella was the first film that I knew we really had to do, for my part, just because, well, when I think of things that really made a younger me sit up, prick-eared and bushy-tailed, Durand Durand and his Excessive Machine immediately jumped to mind. This viewing promised something new for me, as well, as I’d just recently discarded my beloved VHS copy for a widescreen DVD.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Molly expressed incredulity at my never having seen Barbarella at some point in our friendship and so a screening was arranged with her husband John and my wife Raechel. Previously the extent of my familiarity consisted of a scene I had caught on television where Barbarella is menaced by parakeets:

And that was it. I anticipated something along the lines of Flash Gordon but Barbarellawas actually a high-booted step closer to Flesh Gordon only, you know, watchable. I remember enjoying the film more than I expected when the four of us screened it but John is something of a savant in the ways of mixology and so the pan galactic gargleblasters (or maybe they were Long Island iced teas) he was administering may have helped. Going into the re-watch with Molly I was sober as a parson and thus afraid, very afraid.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I still love this film, every minute of it, even the overly-long psychedelic space/mathmos/dream chamber scenes. Also, widescreen makes a ton of difference! I mean, it always does, but damn! So awesome. Watching it is seriously like hanging out with an old friend, re-telling stories you’ve both heard a million times but they’re still hilarious. Even though I know it’s coming, when the wicked twins put Barbarella on the ice-toboggan and she says “But I haven’t skied in ages!” I laugh every time. The scene where the Catchman takes off his furs to reveal what must be the inspiration for Austen Powers’ chest-mane, still so good. The very “explanations” of things are amazing (the plummeting spaceship telling Barbarella “I’ve been repaired in reverse!” What? When Professor Ping shows Barbarella some mustached man with a hole in his chest, he just says “That is one of the Grand Grotesques—that’s the classic way of ending life in the Labyrinth.” Okay?). And the costumes! Oh, the costumes! And then there’s the whole subplot of How Pygar Got His Groove Back, which is outstanding, especially the scene of Jane Fonda in his nest, post-scromp, just covered in feathers.

I think the brilliance of the film is its camp—sure, the special effects are dated, but when you watch it, the utter lack of CGI gives it this amazing quality of “holy shit, they made all these props/set pieces by hand, with love.” The sinister Excessive Machine, the Catchman’s Ice-Wind-Craft (or whatever), the cityscapes of SoGo. . . glorious. And, unlike The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which, if memory serves, kind of slows down in its third act, Barbarella just keeps going, building upon itself, until it’s just hitting you in the face with awesome: Barbarella encounters la résistance only to find it woefully understaffed and headed by a sex-obsessed weirdo named (seriously) Dildano! Barbarella escapes only to be captured by Durand Durand who puts her in The Excessive Machine, which breaks because it simply can’t keep up with Barbarella’s ability to take pleasure! Barbarella is put into the Tyrant of SoGo’s dream-chamber only to release the concentrated evil of the Mathmos! Barbarella is protected from the Mathmos because of her innocence! Which looks like a bubble! Pygar rescues Barbarella and the Tyrant, and when Barbarella asks why he saved the Tyrant, he just answers “an angel has no memory.” And that’s the end of the film! Fucking shit! Yes! What?

Not to make too much of this terrible fucking movie, but really, as problematic of a cosmic-space-bimbo as the titular character truly is, there was, for younger me, something very liberating about her attitude to sex. I’d not really seen anything like it. She is active and enthusiastic about it, aggressively soliciting sex from males by the middle/end of the film. She’s not just an object of desire for the intended viewership (though the visual thrill of Jane Fonda in skimpy costumes is not to be denied, esp. as you see her nipples)—she turns the tables by demanding consideration as a subject. Sort of. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Whooooooooa. Barbarella psychedela. First off, I’ve gotta say that watching this movie sans inebriating beverages was a big ol’ mistake, because the sober millennial mind just cannot handle the visual overload of this late-sixties film without recoiling. Just. . . Jesus, they were not even fooling around with this. The colors, the colors. . .

Molly’s right about the costumes, and definitely right about the camp. In contrasting it with Flash Gordon, which shares its lavish sets, costumes, and overall look, I think the main things missing here are Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton, and a soundtrack by Queen. If the two films could be fused into one I think you’d have a serious contender on your hands but alone Barbarella, like Flash Gordon, falls short of perfection; perhaps it was not seen quite early enough in my life for me to really love it. It’s fun, definitely, and has some stunningly ridiculous sequences, but overall never becomes more than vintage eye candy—which is of course just fine when all one wants is something sweet and colorful.

A note for anyone calling shenanigans on Barbarella qualifying as fantasy—you’re right, it isn’t. But if we didn’t also do science fiction than Molly would never let me pick Krull, as she insists it’s sci-fi and not fantasy (Molly says: It is!!). She’s wrong, of course (bullshit!), but we’ll get to that in due time. Oh, and apparently his name is Durand-Durand, but tell that to the architects of “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

Some quick Barbarella highlights: killer dolls, killer kids, Barbarella smoking a dude out of a hookah (!?), candy coated decadence, playful debauchery, wanton wantonness, mutants, freaks, pervs, angels, and, of course, Jane Fonda’s skunk tail.

molly says: i totally had this image as a poster over my bed all during college

Final Verdict: A film so awesome it doesn’t matter that the actual plot makes no sense whatsoever.