Streaming Choices: Barbarella (1968)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: One and a half stars (out of five)

Camp is a tool filmmakers have at their disposal when they want to show something craven about society.  It’s a purposeful way of going over the top, to get in the audience’s face in an accusatory fashion, to confront them about the behavior they’re complicit in by being part of civilization.  Drag queens make us question beauty standards for women.  John Waters — sometimes with the help of the purest drag queen of them all, Divine — makes us think about the way we treat the “other.”

Camp is also my least favorite kind of comedy.  Even when done well, its in-your-face aspects are grating, loud, and it’s hardly ever as revelatory as it purports itself to be.  It’s a prank that screams its way to a feature length it can’t sustain.  When camp is done poorly, it makes something already tough to sit through into a slog that requires a full week of stopping and starting to watch an hour and 40 minute movie.

Which is what I did with Barbarella (although allergies and Benadryl played a part), a movie that tries to be big and outrageous about the women’s liberation movement gaining steam at the time, but which invariably takes every opportunity to go cutesy instead of confrontational.

Everything about Barbarella is small, a sense that is only heightened by its poor decision to go with the 2.33:1 aspect ratio.  The anamorphic lens is a stylistic choice to expand the scope of a film, used to brilliant effect in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, with their European cliffs and vistas.  It needs a big canvas to be properly implemented.  Barbarella does not provide that canvas.  Its sets and props are all so plasticky, with nary an outdoor shot in sight.  In this way, the anamorphic lens only showcases the lack of scale director Roger Vadim was working with.  A return to the Academy Ratio (1.33:1) would have added a retro charm to accompany the film’s Ed Wood-esque special effects, and it would have masked some of the set design’s insufficiencies.

That smallness extends to the story, or at least its telling.  Barbarella, played by a seemingly (and rightfully) confused Jane Fonda, is sent by the president of Earth into the cosmos to find Durand Durand, an Earth astronaut who has created a weapon of mass destruction.  She is supposed to use any means necessary to find him and bring him back, which means her body. It’s a mess.  What should have been an A to B, cause-effect narrative becomes a jumble of vignettes about a sexy lady in space encountering wacky creatures to do it with, including a blind angel.  Each scene break features an excuse to put Fonda in a different lascivious costume, too.

Barbarella could have been the basis for a seriocomic exploration of the way society treated women at the time (and in many ways, still treats them) and in how women could give themselves more agency.  In some ways, Barbarella uses her body to get what she needs, which could be considered a sly way of empowering her and women at large, but it’s a limited and sad notion.  Vadim may have thought he was showing an enlightened, independent woman because she was openly sexual, but every cinematic choice belies this.  She is a tool of the future Earth’s government, operating on an assignment to please a man (the president), and her only way to accomplish her goal is to give physical pleasure to everyone she meets.  She doesn’t get to display her brain, she has nothing in the way of wit or charm, and she’s an empty vacuous creature who doesn’t make a choice of her own throughout the picture.  It all seems like a too personal attempt by Vadim to show off what was “his” to the world.  In turn, the movie is all crummy style with a substance completely opposite of what it’s selling.

Barbarella is available on Netflix Instant, if you want to watch an example of how to totally undermine the message you want to send.


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