Forty-five years ago, Jane Fonda got naked in outer space.
That zero-G striptease is all that most people know about Barbarella, a movie that opened in October 1968 and was seen at the time as the worst kind of cheese.
“A mix of poor special effects and the Marquis de Sade,” one reviewer said.
And that is the reputation it has been saddled with ever since.
But the movie, directed by French Svengali Roger Vadim and made for a pittance, has an odd staying power: Many of its scenes are memorable the way a Mozart melody is. Whether it is Pygar the blind angel, the eye-patch Evil Queen — the “Great Tyrant” — or the psychedelic “Mathmos” — a kind of molten id-lava that flows under the city — the film sticks in the mind like a particularly disturbing dream.
“A dream we dreamt with our eyes open,” as Fellini says.
If you look at it purely objectively, Barbarella is a really bad movie. The dialog is campy. The acting is either wooden or, if you are feeling generous, stylized. The plot wouldn’t hold a Flash Gordon serial together.
The costumes are polyester and scanty. Even the sets are comically shoddy: Barbarella’s space ship is covered up the walls with orange shag carpeting and even the exteriors, like the Forests and Lakes of Weir, or the Labyrinth of the City of Evil, have the claustrophobia of a cheap soundstage. Special effects are not much more advanced than a lava lamp.
Yet, none of that ultimately matters. Like a small cache of sister films, Barbarella transcends its tawdry birth because it gives us dream-memorable scenes. The parts are greater than the whole.
“A film is a ribbon of dreams,” Orson Welles said. “The camera … is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret.”
One shouldn’t be too portentous about such things, but the history of cinema is littered with bad movies that are too memorable to die. Like advertising jingles you can’t stop hearing in your head, they just stick.
Think of King Kong (1933). Its acting is wooden, its writing jejune, yet it is one of Hollywood’s greatest classics. On any objective level, the movie is awful – every time Bruce Cabot opens his mouth, you cringe – yet those scenes with the big monkey have buried themselves in our collective unconscious. The movie is great not because it is a finished work of art, but because it connects directly to our psyches like a dream you can’t understand, but know is meaningful.
The majority of great bad movies are science fiction or horror films. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all fear has a more driven imagination than hope.
It is what makes 1950s’ monster films such an instantly recognizable genre.
Our fear of nuclear annihilation is given vent in fighting giant ants, spiders or iguanas; our fear of the Soviet Union shows in the number of Martian invaders.
But the list isn’t limited to Them!, The Angry Red Planet, The Crawling Eye or Things to Come. For it isn’t only a B-movie thing. Mainstream Hollywood schlock can lodge in our collective brains, too, like the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes or the spinning head of Linda Blair, spewing invective and vomit in The Exorcist.
The value of such films is not in their thin plots and narrative contrivances, but in those brief scenes that traumatize us. They are straight from our id and are burned into our memory like a cattle brand.
Think of Freddie Krueger pushing the girl around the ceiling in Nightmare on Elm Street, or the flaming Plymouth chasing the teenager down the road in Christine.
Or Rae Dawn Chong teaching the missionary position to the Neanderthal in Quest for Fire.
All of them have left the confines of their movies to become part of our common mythic inheritance.
Barbarella is full of such mental peanut butter to stick to the roof of our brains. Before Barbarella, did you know that angels built nests? That flying manta rays could pull sleds? That you could be killed by a mechanically induced excess of pleasure? That the mathmos could rise and devour us all in a colorful burp of lava lamp?
Despite its candy-color design scheme and its stretched polyethylene see-through sets, Barbarella overflows with unforgettable detail. But that isn’t all it has.
Barbarella has one claim to uniqueness. It is a camp film all the way.
Writer Susan Sontag defined camp in a famous 1964 essay as a style that emphasizes artifice, frivolity, and shocking excess, among other things.
You couldn’t find a better description of Barbarella.
More important, she said, “You can’t do camp on purpose.” It cannot be made to order; it bubbles up from the sincerity of lesser talent. Camp cannot know it is camp.
Yet Barbarella may be the exception that proves the rule. By all appearances, it was meant to be read as camp, and yet, it still functions well as camp, unlike all the other films from the era that tried so hard to be hip and with-it, but now only seem as dated as bell bottoms.
The reason must be found with its maker, Roger Vadim. A minor-league filmmaker, Vadim was the creator of Brigitte Bardot, whose most famous film, And God Created Woman (1956), managed to transform her into a “sex kitten,” the neotonic French Marilyn Monroe. Vadim’s Bardot films are filled with memorable scenes, mostly coy and erotic, but none rises to the level of great cinema. When he was done with her, he tried his star-making power on Jane Fonda; he also married her. Their films together, including her 1964 remake of the great Arthur Schnitzler play, La Ronde, were entertaining, but mediocre at best.
But sometimes, when you put a mediocre mind to work on a mediocre idea, something clicks. With Barbarella, Vadim could create a camp world sincerely, because he believed in it, but without the self-consciousness that ruins most trendy films of the time. His esthetic level and the camp level meet perfectly, with neither aspiration nor condescension to upset the balance.
Perhaps that is why the proposed remake of Barbarella, by super-hip cinemaker Robert Rodriguez, went nowhere. Rodriguez is too knowing a filmmaker. Barbarella works on the thin, slippery edge between sincerity and irony, a place too small for a large talent like Rodriguez to find foothold.
Worse, he proposed to use Rose McGowan in the title role, and she is prima facie the wrong actress to play the part: too smart, too sophisticated, too knowing. All wrong.
Other actresses run up the flagpole include Scarlett Johansen, Carey Mulligan and Anne Hathaway. You have to scratch your heads.
When Rodriguez gave up on it, the rights were bought by Dino de Laurentiis, before his death in 2010. His widow is now set to produce the new version. The de Laurentiis name on a film is the kiss of death. Remember King Kong of 1976?
The new Barbarella would ostensibly be a TV series, perhaps for French TV, perhaps in English.
Don’t hold your breath. Like the original King Kong, it was done right the first time.