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Friday, 7 August 2015

BARBARELLA (1968)

BARBARELLA (1968)

Yes indeed, no fan blog covering movies from the late 1960s would be complete without the teenager’s psychedelic wet dream BARBARELLA!

This French comic-strip adaptation co-produced with Italian Dino Di Laurentiis and directed by her then husband, the Svengali Roger Vadim, is a madcap sci-fi romp. The delicious opening credit striptease performed by the stunning Jane Fonda accompanied by the title song serenading her as ‘Barbarella psychedella’ lets you in on the joke from the start. It’s sheer technicolour candyfloss and great fun.

The plot, like it matters, revolves around the President of Earth sending our go-go booted heroine to the Tau Ceti region to retrieve a Positronic Ray developed by scientist Durand Durand whom the government fears will end up in dangerous hands. Her first task is to find the inventor, which shouldn’t be hard as even in the distant future they’ll be endlessly touring somewhere on a nostalgic kick. (That’s right – Simon Le Bon’s band took their name from this very movie).

Along the way, Barbarella encounters some of the most amusingly bizarre cliff-hanger death possibilities imaginable. You thought the old monochrome Flash Gordon being lowered into a pit of fire was special? Try an army of razor-toothed, head-snapping mechanical dolls – or nearly being pecked to extinction by a horde of budgerigars. “This is really much too poetic a way to die,” she muses.

To assist our lovely astro-navigatrix as she’s called, she is helped by the be-furred Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), a ‘catchman’ of wandering children. He takes one look at her and decides it’s time for naughties. He shuns her offer of pills and futuristic reduction of sex to ‘psycho-cardiogram’ chemistry and instead we cut to the aftermath of a good seeing-to, where she blissfully hums to herself having had her doors of perception well and truly opened. 

As Barbarella’s ship tunnels deep into the earth on her quest, we can already spot that the writers Terry ‘EASY RIDER’ Southern and Vadim have already set their controls for the heart of Planet Smut. Her language translator wrist-device is called a Tongue-box, the vessel’s tunnelling merchanism is named the Terra-screw and we’ll soon be introduced to a man known as Dildano. Ten year-olds of the world unite. Before that dubious pleasure, Barbarella is introduced, in more than one sense, to the blond, tanned blind angel Pygar who cannot fly at present. That will be resolved. He takes her (after she ‘takes’ him) to Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau – speaking!) who offers to fix her damaged ship.

There are two splendid villains to choose from in BARBARELLA. Door Number One is the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards favourite Anita Pallenberg as the Great Tyrant, dubbed by the famously seductive huskiness of Fenella Fielding. Or if you want to just play with madness, how about the great character actor Milo O’Shea as Durand Durand? He not only reminds you that ‘In space, everyone can hear you’re Irish’, but seems to be channelling the demented spirit of Keith Moon’s ‘Uncle Ernie’. He tries to incorporate her into his Excessive Machine [ahem] organ, playing a keyboard that floods her body orgasmically, but her libido unwittingly wrecks it. Even when he resorts to the Ming-esque declaration “I will destroy you with my Positronic Ray!” she [ahem again] overcomes him as well.

O’Shea isn’t the only actor who simply has to embrace the wackiness. David Hemmings, not long after achieving fame in Antonioni’s seminal BLOW-UP, here arrives with enough curls and a ratty moustache to resemble a ‘70s Scouse footballer who’s wandered into a MENSA conference. He barks his lines tersely to at least provide some passing interest for himself.

As Barbarella, Jane Fonda gives the most winning performance. Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot turned down the role first, as did she to begin with, yet in all seriousness she somehow manages despite the nudity, silliness and awakened promiscuity of her character to convey intelligence and innocence amidst the exploitation. This is no mean feat in a film that blends the ripe colours of the Hammer Doctor Who films with the camp of the 1980 FLASH GORDON. Dino Di Laurentiis must have had this in mind as he produced both vibrantly coloured space operas. Jane’s father Henry Fonda was originally offered the role of the President of Earth. Posterity hasn’t recorded me his reply to hand.

The music is equally fun, being very much a ‘ba-ba-ba’ Bacharach-style cheery slew of pop numbers recorded by a group mysteriously called the Bob Crewe Generation, a name oddly suggestive of ON THE BUSES.

Although BARBARELLA was the second-highest grossing film in the UK in 1968, it was a failure particularly in North America. That didn’t stop Robert Evans at Paramount at least planning an unproduced sequel entitled BARBARELLA GOES DOWN. Hey, at least the tone would have been consistent.  The Di Laurentiis family even discussed a remake in 2008.
As it is, like DARK STAR and a number of other science fiction films of this blog’s era, it was a long time gaining cult status but is now an established period gem.

Settle back, check your brain at the door, and let the bubble-gum fantasy wash over you…


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