“Make Love, Not War” in Cheesy Sci-fi Form: Barbarella

Dear Tor.com, are you in a primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility? I know I am! But never fear, the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia has the cure! Or something!

Today’s MRGN entry is 1968’s Barbarella. Yes, that one. No, really. No, for real! And you might actually be really surprised by what I have to say about it.

Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.

And now, the post!

LIZ: Well, we’re definitely not in the ’80s anymore, Toto.

No, no we are not.

Barbarella is a departure from the MRGN’s usual fare in more than one way. For one, it’s the first movie we’ve done from a decade that none of us were alive in, and for another, it’s the first movie we’ve done that none of us saw as young kids—probably for good reason.

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However much I may hate to admit it, though, at this point movies I first saw in college are quite long enough ago to still count as “nostalgia”. Sigh. Liz and Kate saw Barbarella in high school and 8th grade, respectively, probably right around the same time I saw it, in fact.

KATE: We randomly stumbled across it together at like 3 o’clock in the morning one weekend. We sat there and watched it with our mouths open the entire time.

ME: …Yeah, sounds about right.

Probably partially because none of us, at the time, had any real context for this madness whatsoever. I mean, I was aware that the ’60s had happened, in a cultural osmosis blur of Vietnam and hippies and Woodstock and coo coo ca-choo Mrs. Robinson and sitar music and drugs and really weird fashion choices and lava lamps way, but my actual concrete knowledge of the decade was pretty threadbare. I blame this on the fact that not one of my history classes before college managed to get past World War II in anything but the most superficial of ways. And also that when I was younger I was kind of a snob about caring about things that happened before I was alive. And Liz and Kate, I am assured, had even less context for Barbarella than I did.

So watching this movie at complete random was… well, it was trippy, is what it was. Not just because of the excruciatingly ’60s-ness of it, either, but also because of how unbelievably, insanely, jaw-droppingly bad it was. Is.

Because regardless of anything else I say in this article, make no mistake: Barbarella is a bad, bad movie. The special effects are beyond wretched:

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KATE: Okay, that is literally just a sparkler. COME ON.

The acting is absurd, the dialogue is worse, and I’m not even sure you can call the sequence of events in it a “plot”. Anyone who watches this movie expecting anything else but badness is going to be sorely disappointed.

We also had a fantastic time watching it.

Seriously, I don’t think we’ve laughed and gleefully shouted this much at a movie in years. We basically MST3K’d our way through the entire thing, which is about the only thing you can do with a movie which is so awful and yet so weirdly compelling to watch—mostly because of all the things that are supposed to support the movie, rather than being the only things worth noting about it.

I’m mostly talking about the production design, of course. Just like before, we were both horrified and enthralled (horrithralled?) with the deeply whacko and yet oddly delightful set and costume designs, which were so screamingly mod that apparently even people in the ’60s were like, wow, that’s hella mod. And the music!

LIZ: Oh my GOD, the music.

The theme song from the opening credits (where Jane Fonda does her infamous spacesuit strip tease) pretty much sums it up; every time a groovy new riff came up, Liz and Kate and I automatically started doing The Frug in our chairs and giggling our asses off. The music in this movie is ridiculous. And also, awesome. Just like almost everything else in it that isn’t the plot, the dialogue, or the acting. Actually if you could have just taken those three things away the movie would probably have been amazing.

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LIZ: Holy crap I forgot that her entire spaceship is shag carpet, that is priceless.

KATE: Brown shag carpet, no less.

As for the outside of the ship:

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KATE: It’s like a pulsing… caboodle.

LIZ: …That’s not the noun I thought you were going to go with.

ME: Every prop in this movie looks vaguely like an inflatable sex toy.

Which, I’m sure, was no accident. Things were greatly clarified for me this time around when I realized that Barbarella was a French-made movie, based on a French comic. When I told Liz and Kate this, their reaction was the same, a breath of “ohhhhh, that makes sense.”

Why it makes sense is kind of hard to say, but it was the exact same sense of clarity I got when I found out that The Fifth Element was French. Because… yep, makes sense. French. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In that vein, it is of absolutely zero surprise to me that Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costume designs for The Fifth Element were heavily influenced by Barbarella. Let’s just say, you can tell. Liz and Kate and I had a vigorous argument over which of Barbarella’s seven (!) costume changes (eight if you count the spacesuit!) were our favorites. I held out for the silver lame cape suit:

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But Liz was more partial to the fur one:

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But mostly only because it was genuinely hilarious how Jane Fonda kept tripping on the ridiculous six-foot tail.

Speaking of which, even though I do not take back my statement about the general awfulness of the acting, it’s very easy to see why this movie helped further Fonda’s career. I mean, I’m sure the nudity and skimpy costumes (and how good she looked in them) also helped a great deal, there, but Fonda’s adeptness at physical comedy (mostly pratfalling) and what I sincerely hope was painfully ironic earnestness in delivering some of the worst dialogue ever provided most of the moments that we were laughing with the film, instead of at it.

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Although, David Hemmings’ performance as Dildano—

KATE & LIZ: HIS NAME IS DILDANO??

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—was fairly hilarious as well. I cannot for the life of me put my finger on who he reminds me of, though.

And then there was famed mime Marcel Marceau, in what I can only assume was the ironically verbose role of Dr. Ping:

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And John Philip Law as the most specifically ’60s-handsome angel ever:

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I spent his entire screen time wanting to tug his feather diaper down to at least his waist, for crying out loud. Also, we can list “feather diaper” among the very many phrases I never thought I’d type in my life, but here we are.

 

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The character of Durand Durand (played by Milo O’Shea) is most famous for inspiring the name of a certain New Wave band (who may or may not also be the makers of the first album I ever owned), but if he’s also not at least partially the inspiration for Stanley Tucci’s character and wardrobe in The Hunger Games I will eat my hat.

 

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ALL THREE OF US: omg it’s the ORGASM MACHINE!!

Discussing the movie before we watched it, this was unquestionably the thing all three of us most vividly remembered from when we watched it as teenagers. Mostly because we found it inexpressibly funny that apparently Barbarella was just so darn sex-tastic that she broke it. It was just as funny this time, in fact.

Which, of course, brings us to the elephant in the room.

ME: So… are we bad feminists for enjoying this movie?

LIZ: I… don’t know? Maybe?

KATE: Obviously it’s sexist. But the question is, was it sexist then?

Which… well, yes, that is the question, isn’t it? By modern standards, Barbarella is unquestionably sexist. Barbarella’s only power in the movie is sex, literally, and in every other way she’s helpless, passive and compliant, managing to exude lasciviousness and innocence simultaneously. She eagerly rewards her multiple male rescuers with sex, and never really questions or resists anything that anyone in the movie wishes to do to her. Which, looked at in that way, is every last creepy male wish fulfillment fantasy brought to life.

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However, it’s also worth noting that it is often both disingenuous and counterproductive to judge a thing independent of its context. And in the ’60s, Barbarella’s brand of sexual freedom was considered liberating and progressive, at least as far as I can tell. The idea that the experience of sexual pleasure is unconnected to a person’s innocence (or lack thereof) was a quintessentially ’60s philosophy, and as weird as it seems to be to say, more than anything else Barbarella is portrayed in this film as an innocent.

In context, she thinks nothing of wearing revealing clothing (or being stark naked, for that matter) or offering sex to anyone who wants it, because to her neither of those things have any moral stigma attached to them. She doesn’t even resist the mean or evil things other characters do to her—

LIZ: Like DEATH BY PARAKEET, WHOO

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—because, the film tells us, her culture has no concept of aggression or violence. (You know, not counting the fighter ships she blows up with the guns her leader gives her, but hey.)

It’s basically the slogan “Make love, not war” in cheesalicious sci-fi form, and on that level, it’s kind of hard to be mad at it. It has always been science fiction’s purview to extrapolate the future implications of the culture of its present, and in that sense, Barbarella is perhaps one of the more accurate sci-fi extrapolations of its own era around. In its own ridiculous, cuckoo bananas way, of course.

Don’t get me wrong, I still raise a highly skeptical eyebrow at the way all that glibly justifies ogling Jane Fonda’s nubile body for 90 minutes, but… I don’t know. To me, there really was a sense of artless sincerity to the whole thing that prevented me from getting much more worked up about it than some eye-rolling at some of the most egregious bits. Maybe we should have been offended by it, and if it were made today in the same way I would have been, but, as it stands, well, we really mostly weren’t. Take that as you will.

KATE: Plus, the movie is so ludicrous I can’t take the sexism seriously anyway.

…And there’s also that.

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The next question, of course, was how the hell we were supposed to rate this thing. The “Nostalgia” rating was pretty easy (if lower than usual, owing to how much older we were when we first saw it), but as Liz pointed out, no matter how much we enjoyed mocking watching it, it is still, objectively, a terrible movie, and our “Reality” rating really should reflect that.

Eventually we threw up our hands and decided to divide it up into three ratings this time, because why not. So without further ado, here is our Nostalgia Love to Reality Love to Enjoyment Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!

For Barbarella:

Nostalgia: 4.5

Reality: 2

Enjoyment: 8


And that’s the MRGN for today, dears! Barbarella is available on Netflix streaming, so if you have sufficiently snarky friends/family to laugh at it with (alcohol is also highly recommended), give it a gander and tell us your thoughts! Were we wrong, were we right? Let me know, and come back in two weeks for Moar!

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