Late 1968 must be considered the apex of psychedelic sexploitation romps, witnessing the release of Candy, adapted from Mason Hoffenberg and Terry Southern’s satirical reworking of Voltaire’s Candide, and Roger Vadim’s sci-fi picaresque Barbarella, based on a French comic strip and partially scripted by Southern (alongside an armada of other credited writers). Both films employ a rambling, shaggy-dog structure as an excuse to flagrantly foreground softcore sexual hijinks tinged with a pungent whiff of social commentary, albeit the latter aspect may be easier to discern in Candy‘s daisy chain of patriarchal perverts. Southern’s contributions to Barbarella can be detected in its wittier lines (“A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming!”) and sly pokes at the persistence of class-consciousness (in the far-flung future, only the poor still “make love” in a physical sense). Aside from Southern’s standing as common denominator, the two films are also linked by the contributions of pop icon Anita Pallenberg, round-robin muse and mistress to several of the Rolling Stones. Pallenberg provided little more than a walk-on for Candy, but secured a significant role in Barbarella as the Great Tyrant of Sogo, even though her Teuton-toned delivery was overdubbed by the throatily enticed British actress Joan Greenwood, doyenne of several Ealing comedies.
Textbook example of the cult film whether or not it wanted to be, Barbarella delivers about equal doses calculated camp comedy and unintentional hilarity: wink-wink double entendres, deliberately cheeseball effects, and saccharine songs and musical cues. Barbarella famously opens with star Jane Fonda performing a zero-G spacesuit striptease, set to a swinging title song unafraid to rhyme “Barbarella” and “psychedela” (which I’m pretty sure isn’t even a word), as the credits coyly cloak her prurient parts. More remarkable still, the set design features a cockpit lined with hideous brown shag carpet, a half-nude statue that doubles as a two-way viewing screen, and a clackety A.I. abacus that doesn’t just talk, it lisps (providing the butt for the first of several limp-wristed gay jokes). Caught in flagrante by the president of Earth, Dianthus (Claude Dauphin), our not-so-obscure-object-of-desire gets debriefed on her new mission: The “5-star, double-rated astro-navigatrix” has been assigned to track down Dr. Durand Durand (from whence, as you may have guessed, the band copped their name) and gain possession of his fantastic super-weapon, the Positronic Ray. If all this smacks of some sub-Flash Gordon storyline, it’s hardly a coincidence, since the film takes many a cue—and lifts its deliberately retro sparkler-rocket effects—from the old Buster Crabbe serials. A similar aesthetic would inform Barbarella producer Dino De Laurentiis’s 1980 Flash Gordon remake, though that film simultaneously dials up the camp and tamps down on the erotica.
Crash landing amid the icy wastes of Tau Ceti, Barbarella runs afoul of some creepy children and their steel-teethed dolls, only to be rescued at the last minute by feather-suited Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), a Catchman who’s responsible for rounding up the wild children when they reach a “serviceable” age. (Best not to ponder too deeply the implications of that one.) Abjuring “governmental recompense,” Hand persuades Barbarella to repay him with some old-school lovemaking. In the film’s best sight gag, Hand strips off his feather suit only to reveal a just-as-hirsute torso. Sent on her way by handyman Hand with a repaired rocket, Barbarella soon crashes again, this time burrowing into the bowels of the planet. There she discovers a subterranean labyrinth populated by political exiles from Sogo, the capital city—seen, in wonderfully obvious forced perspective, towering in the distance. Among the outcasts are local brainiac Professor Ping (an underused, albeit speechifying Marcel Marceau), and Pygar, the blind angel (technically an “ornithanthrope,” mind you). Pygar is played by John Phillip Law, who earlier that year had portrayed the lead in Mario Bava’s own candy-colored ode to the comic strip Danger: Diabolik.
Together, Pygar and Barbarella infiltrate Sogo, the City of Night. Things go awry, as such things will, all the better to separate the two, and leave them open to the depredations of Sogo’s evil overseers. The Black Queen (Pallenberg) puts the moves on Pygar until he informs her, “An angel doesn’t make love, an angel is love,” upon which she has him summarily crucified. Elsewhere, Barbarella faces death by parakeet—enclosed in a giant see-through aviary, natch—at the hands of the Concierge (Milo O’Shea). Along the way, the Concierge tells Barbarella the secret of Sogo: Directly beneath the city roils the Mathmos, a heaving mass of sentient liquid energy that resembles the contents of a lava lamp and attracts pure evil, hence the decadence and depravity of this futuristic Sodom and Gomorrah.
Saved from being brained by birds (“much too poetic a way to die”), Barbarella plunges down a pneumatic chute to the underground lair of rebel leader Dildano (David Hemmings). As with most of Barbarella‘s “guest stars,” Hemmings’s role is decidedly unwritten, confined to a laundry list of quirky traits like fidgeting with uncooperative machinery and over-applying the descriptor “secret.” Fortunately for him, he also gets to engage in a hand-to-hand mind-fuck with our astro-navagatrix, about which, however, the kinkiest thing to be noted is its effect on their respective coiffures. Topside again, Barbarella is apprehended in due course by the Concierge, who subjects her to the delectable tortures of his Excessive Machine, an enormous apparatus that really puts the player back into player piano. O’Shea has the meatiest role; naturally enough, he comes through as the film’s comic highlight, his progressive unhinging registered by outrageous changes in costume, and increasing tonsorial dishevelment, so that, by the film’s fiery finale, he resembles nothing so much as some unholy hybrid between a demented Beethoven and a lurid purple Big Bird.
Barbarella looks suitably fantastic on Blu-ray. Paramount's 1080p/AVC transfer brings out wonky peripheral details like the painted-blue rabbits frolicking around Durand Durand's crashed spaceship, as well as paying due tribute to the film's trump cards: the insanely inventive set and costume design. From Barbarellla's shag-carpeted Alpha 7 to the massive distorting lenses cluttering the Black Queen's Chamber of Dreams, naked girls in swings and "Essence of Man" smoked through a giant hookah, your eyes will pop at the op art set design, awhirl with psychedelic swirls courtesy of a contraption called an oil wheel projector, then all the rage at hip musical "happenings" on several continents. The majority of the sets—and some of the sexier costumes—feature elements constructed out of translucent plastic (for instance, the virtual Habitrail of escape tubes established throughout Sogo by feckless rebel leader Dildano) lending the film an appropriately modernistic and synthetic look. The Dolby TrueHD mono soundtrack may be short on range and dynamics, but then it isn't required to do much more than deliver clearly delineated dialogue, canned sci-fi effects, and a nutty score from Bob Crewe that swings from croon-y lounge music to groovy acid rock at the drop of a space helmet. (One can only wonder what the score might've sounded like if negotiations that were underway with Frank Zappa had come to fruition.)
Only a theatrical trailer that amps up the cheese and cheesecake factor.
Remember, an angel is love. Fall in love with Paramount's splendid Blu-ray transfer of Barbarella, even though it's lamentably light on extras.