Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Roger Vadim's 'Barbarella', 1968

The character of Barbarella is a scantily clad astronaut, sent forth on a mission from Earth to stop the scientist Duran-Duran from using his newly designed weapon: the positronic ray.  It's a film that is clearly of its time in terms of visual content and narrative.

The production design for Barbarella is very sixties in appearance.  The entirity of the set is artificial as it was filmed and constructed on a sound stage, which allows for the production and costume designers to create anything they want. The set itself was covered in luxurious and fashionable items from the preiod. For example, the walls and ceilings of Barbarella's ship are covered in fur, the technology within the ship, such as buttons and screens, are very rounded, much like the designs within fashion at the time and the space display screen was a fluid ever-changing psychedelic vision.  The characters' costumes were also incredibly fashionable during the sixties,  Barbarella wears plastic tops and black and white knee high boots with a matching leotard.  Irv Slifkin saw this as the production designer and costumers having "read issues of Penthouse before dropping acid, so filled with phallic symbols and orifices are the sets, so sexed up are the characters, and so colourfully out-of-sight is the wardrobe Fonda and company are forced to wear." Though the visual of the ship's garish textures and bulbous technology combined with Barbarella's skin tight,  and incredibly thin costumes could be interpreted negatively, it could also be seen as part of why the period was so important to women both politically and sexually.

Throughout the film Barbarella comes into contact with fur, whether it's on the walls of her ship, on an animal skin dress or the furs she's laying on.  This is significant as its connotations are that of luxury, sexuality and savagery. The first time we see her making contact with it is as she rolls around her ship because its suffering some turbulence.  At this point the audience has seen her strip naked but due to her naivety as she stumbles about they don't necessarily make her a sexual creature but a sexualised object.  The next time she's in contact with fur however, is after her first sexual encounter with one of the male characters.  It's during this scene that she lays seductively under it and within it as she wears the animal skin dress.  It's this scene that sees her become sexually liberated, albeit through allowing the man to have sex with her because he'll help get her back to her ship. Despite the reason for her becoming sexually liberated, it has happened nonetheless and she's freed because of it.  Contextually, it wasn't until the sixties that women were allowed to have the oral contraceptive pill and it became legal in America for married women to get contraception and Barbarella is showing the audience that women can and do enjoy sex.  Hilary Radner interpretted Barbarella's character as challenging the "traditional gender norms; she embraces her own bodily pleasures, valuing movement and physical expression; she evades compulsory heterosexuality and its institutions of monogomy and marriage; and she advocates political agendas that contradict those of the western nation-state."  The character of Barbarella has sex with multiple partners in this film which not only displays her evasion of compulsory heterosexuality and monogamy but that she, like all other women, have their own free will and sexual desires to satisfy, despite what the current government may think.

The character of Barbarella can be seen as a positive representation of women, as she displays the sexual appetites that women were only just being allowed to have during the 1960's.  In one comedic scene she is in a torture machine that's supposed to kill the victim with pleasure, but she burns out all the fuses as it couldn't 'keep up with her'.  However, it's the comedy associated with her character that could be construed as negative, especially when combined with her over sexualised image.  Though she's been sent to 'save the world'  she's constantly being rescued by other men she meets along the way. She can be deemed useless when it comes to saving herself and the audience is left wondering why she was seen as the best candidate for the mission. Hilary Radner went on to describe Barbarella as "a parodic narrative ...the only way the film can depict a female astronaut as technologically skilled is by hypersexualizing her work and transforming her body to the fetishized sex object."  During the sixties, NASA refused to allow women to be part of their space programme. They could be mathematicians and engineers but not astronauts so contextually Radner's statement  reveals Barbarella's character as a positive attempt at addressing cultural issues within America but smoothed over with a sex object that's as clumsy as she is beautiful.
Despite the negative connotations attached to the portrayal of the heroine within the narrative, Barbarella is still a charming film but not without it's faults.  Varla Ventura described Jane Fonda at the time, the actress playing Barbarella, as  "the epitome of fresh American femaledom, playing Barbarella as an innocent abroad who triumphs over violence and debauchery with her gullible Gulliverlike guilelessness and perfection".  She also made the interesting observation that "Jane Fonda's Barbarella contrasts the American Sensibility to the European - naive versus decadent...) ".  The charm of Barbarella is her stunning beauty and sultry appearance combined with an innocence and naivety that can be interpreted as a metaphor for the American culture stumbling into a new age of female sexual liberation.  It's the beauty and innocence that numbs the audience from the overtly sexual content hidden beneath it.


  1. I was looking forward to your take on this movie, Molly - and it's very even-handed, conceptually sensitized and insightful. Hurrah for that!

  2. Excellent, thank you! I could've easily gone a bit over board with the feminism side of it but I quite enjoyed the film even with its ridiculousness so I tried to keep it fairly even :P