In 1968, Barbarella saw into a future in which the counter-culture ruled. Paul Baker looks at the outfits, the camp computers, and the glamour.
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Barbarella is a vision of the future if the 1960s had got its way, and there had been no backlash, no AIDS, no Margaret Thatcher, no unrestrained American capitalism, no nihilistic rap or mindless R&B music. Instead, imagine the 1960s got more and more louche, the drugs got even better and the outfits and music even more colourful and weird, for 10,000 years.
Based on the French cartoon strip, Jane Fonda is at her physical peak as the eponymous Barbarella and has never been bettered. (Kylie and Jem have imitated that opening credit zero-gravity striptease while Ariana Grande’s video ‘Break Free’ is also Barabrella-inspired.) Barbarella travels through the Universe in a fur-lined space-ship with only her camp computer to keep her company (either voiced by Kenneth Williams or a KW-impersonator). There is a plot, but it’s not really essential to enjoying the film, which is a more of a sensual experience involving set pieces, frequent costume changes (at one point Fonda briefly wears a tail as an accessory) and outlandish one-liners. Fonda has a great way of drolly observing her predicament, always slightly amused, always detached.
Briefly, Barbarella is dispatched by the President of the Earth to rescue Durand Durand who has gone missing on the 16th planet of the Tau Ceti region. And that’s when the adventures begin. Our heroine keeps getting herself into unlikely danger. “What’s that screaming? A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming.” Early in the film a group of feral children capture her and condemn her to death by robotic dolls with biting fangs. And later she almost gets herself pecked to bits in a cage full of colourful budgerigars: “This is much too poetic a way to die!” My favourite danger sequence is when Barbarella is imprisoned inside an organ which causes the victim to expire of sexual pleasure during the crescendo. However, redoubtable as ever, the organ is no match for her and it explodes. Ironically, it is Durand Durand who has captured her – he is unrecognisable (life on the planet ages you terribly), and has taken to wearing the Sydney Opera house down his front for no good reason.
The film is one of exploration, as sex on Earth has become a matter of matter-of-fact drug taking – “When our psychocardiogram readings are in harmony and we wish to make love, we take an exaltation transfer pellet and remain like this for one minute or until full rapport has been achieved”. Initially Barberella is horrified – “You mean they could still be living in a primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility?” – but using old-fashioned “primitive” sex as the currency for thanking her rescuers (including a man dressed in a suit of hair, who is just as hairy underneath), she eventually decides the old ways are the best. And there is a lot of sex in this film.
Barbarella’s evil opposite is The Black Queen, played by girlfriend of some of the Rolling Stones, Anita Pallenberg, but dubbed over, if I’m not mistaken, by the sultry, fruity vocals of Fenella Fielding, who can make a simple statement like “I’m going to the shops for coffee” sound like a filthy innuendo. The first encounter between Barbarella and The Black Queen riffs on the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (The Black Queen is disguised as a prostitute at the time and has just offed two of Babarella’s potential rapists):
“Hello Pretty-Pretty. Do you want to come and play with me? For someone like you I’d charge nothing. You’re very pretty, Pretty-Pretty.”
“My name isn’t Pretty-Pretty, it’s Barbarella.”
The Black Queen is wonderfully tyrannical – here’s how she acts as judge, jury and executioner to poor bare-chested fallen angel Pygar (John Phillip Law): “He has endangered the labyrinth. Crime! He has destroyed twelve of my black guards. Crime! He dares to deprive me of a pleasure unique in Sogo: an Earthling. Crime! Crime!”
According to Marianne Faithfull, who was around at the time of filming and wrote it up later in her autobiography, Pallenberg got a big kick out of the role:
“It was a very nutty part Anita was playing and she got lost in it. There’s a fine line between put-on and reality, which is never quite clear in these situations. That line was crossed by our Anita a great deal. Early afternoon there’d be ‘Darling, sometimes when I am at Cinecitta I really do believe I am the Black Queen.’ As a joke, naturally. Then eight hours later and a lot more stoned ‘But you know what? I really am the Black Queen’, and then another eight hours later there’d be another level of insanity ‘I AM THE QUEEN OF ALL I SURVEY!’ Anita was in costume all the time… All her clothes began looking like the Black Queen’s outfit, so even when she wasn’t in costume she looked just like a day version of the Black Queen.”
The sets of Sogo, where much of the action takes place, look like the grooviest, most decadent ’60s party ever. Imagine a city which is decorated in enormous fibre optic lamps, oil-projections on walls, swings, inflatable see-through pillows, fur-lined secret compartments and spaced-out chicks smoking “essence of man” from a giant hookah with a semi-naked man swimming around inside. If you threw a lava lamp it’d hit about 10 gay leather-men because they’re EVERYWHERE. The city is powered by liquid evil called The Mathmos which gives off fumes that cause everyone to be in a state of heightened sexuality (like my home town Newcastle-upon-Tyne). The soundtrack was written by Bob Crewe, who combines kitschy orchestral pop with acid-inspired psychedelia. Out of circulation for years, I spent a good deal of the 1990s trying to get a decent bootleg version.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film failed critically and financially when it came out – it was far too far out, even for the 1960s, although it has since become a cult favourite. And it should be on the playlist of every gay man today. The lines need to be memorised and religiously quoted whenever possible. Got it, pretty-pretty?