Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Roger Vadim's 'Barbarella' (1968)

Barbarella exists as a time capsule of the 1960s’ concept of femininity and changing sexual mores. The film, while somewhat lacking in the revolutionary (or even competent) storytelling department, does portray gender and sexuality in a light almost unheard of previously, at least outside of pornography. The eponymous Barbarella has a great deal of sex over the course of the film, but at no point does the film shame her for it. Sex is treated as a mutually enjoyable act, and Barbarella is an active participant in it, not simply a provider of sex for men while lying back and thinking of England.

Fig. 1. Barbarella promotional still.

Female sexuality is also weaponised throughout the film; Barbarella's sexual appetite gains her the cooperation of multiple male figures, and saves her life when placed inside a 'piano of pleasure' that will supposedly kill her with sexual ecstasy. Through this, sex is shown as not inherently evil, particularly as despite her sexuality Barbarella is constantly treated as being 'innocent', an innocence which ultimately saves her from being devoured by a sentient, evil, all-devouring lake. Innocence, then, is portrayed as a character trait, completely separate from a person's sexuality.

However, even though sexuality is depicted as being a positive, or at least morally neutral, force, the people of the evil city of Sogo (a portmanteau of the first syllables of Sodom and Gomorrah, two biblical cities destroyed for their decadence) are shown to be evil because... they have a lot of sex. Regarding Sogo the film seems caught between two concepts of sex; that of being healthy and enjoyable and of being wild and decadent, and at no point does it define the difference between the two (if there is any at all).

Fig. 2. Pygar & Barbarella still.

Barbarella adopts a traditionally ‘male’ role throughout the film, particularly in regards to the blind angel, Pygar. Ultimately, Pygar’s role in the film is that of the damsel in distress, along with being a useful mode of transport. He embodies traditionally female story roles; that of the gentle lover, the victim of kidnapping and sexual crimes, the one whose confidence hinges on the affection of a member of the opposite sex, the forgiver, et cetera.

In contrast, Barbarella acts as his guide and protector, leading him when he flies and shooting and killing their assailants. She does not nurture him as a woman of the time might be expected to do, and Pygar only carries her because he can fly and she cannot. The single time Pygar assumes an aggressive role is under the guidance of Barbarella, a scene much more familiar in the form of the male hero instructing the female love interest on how to use a gun. The film thus suggests that passivity and activity are character-bound, and not gender-bound. This gender reversal of damsel and knight is unusual even now.

Fig. 3. Great Tyrant & Barbarella still.

The camera, however, is still distinctively male, as is the intended audience. Babarella still suffers from the 'fainting woman' effect, often requiring rescuing by men. Furthermore, despite being a competent female character, she is still treated, at least visually, as a sex object. Her clothing suffers a spectacular amount of damage, and her wardrobe revels in showing off every curve and contour in her body and going through perhaps half a dozen changes over the course of the film.

Her wardrobe, along with the entirety of the visual design of the film, is a distinctively Sixties' vision of the future. Catsuits, plastic and surface pattern and texture are the rule, along with impossibly short shorts and equally impossibly high boots. Chainmail is also de rigueur, for no readily identifiable reason (even less explicable is how it perfectly moulds itself to Barbarella's breasts).

Fig. 4. Duran Duran's laboratory still.

The rest of the film's aesthetic walks the boundary between impressive and silly. The backdrops are heavy on recurring shapes, making the whole film seem slightly psychedelic and constantly keeping the eye moving through the scenes. Tubes and lights are used to a great extent, partly to direct the eye and partly to give the sense that they actually do something. The shapes often lie halfway between being mechanical and organic, highlighting not only the science-fiction elements of the film but also the physical, raunchy elements.

Fig. 5. Labyrinth still.

Similarly, surface texture is almost everywhere, from the lifeless, dusty rocks of the Labyrinth, to which moral souls are cast from Sogo, to the smooth, slightly wet-looking glass, metal and marble of Sogo, to the luxuriant shag pile coating the interior of Barbarella's spaceship. This texturing helps immediately identify each area, giving it its own distinct visual language. Of particular interest is the overall design of the area surrounding Sogo; the warm and cool tinting of ground and sky respectively is reversed, making the sky rich orange-red and the ground washed-out blue-grey. This serves to make the environment bizarre and unsettling without it being readily apparent why, immediately establishing that the area is unnatural.

Fig. 6. Labyrinth establishing shot.

Barbarella has its flaws, and in terms of story it weaves between being mediocre and utterly nonsensical, but its presentation of women and female sexual liberation, as well as many of its design decisions, mark it as a piece of worthwhile cinema.

Illustration List:
Fig. 1. Forest, J. C. (1968) Barbarella promotional still. (Accessed on: 24/10/12)
Fig. 2. Forest, J. C. (1968) Pygar and Barbarella still. (Accessed on: 24/10/12)
Fig. 3. Forest, J. C. (1968) Great Tyrant & Barbarella still. (Accessed on: 24/10/12)
Fig. 4. Forest, J. C. (1968) Duran Duran's laboratory still. (Accessed on: 24/10/12)
Fig. 5. Forest, J. C. (1968) Labyrinth still. (Accessed on: 24/10/12)
Fig. 6. Forest, J. C. (1968) Labyrinth establishing shot. (Accessed on: 24/10/12)

(You may be asking 'but Meg, where are your quotes?'. If you are, the answer is twofold; one, I'm not being graded on this so I can write however I like, and two, I somehow became far more invested in this review than is probably healthy, and I couldn't bear to put other people's words in what was my rant. Phil, if you want me to I'll happily throw in a few references, but I'm taking my chances and leaving it quote-less for now.)


  1. "Innocence, then, is portrayed as a character trait, completely separate from a person's sexuality." - This is GREAT, insight summation, Meg - lovely!

    "The film thus suggests that passivity and activity are character-bound, and not gender-bound. This gender reversal of damsel and knight is unusual even now." - SO well-observed, Meg - keen analysis, concise - pin prick sharp!

    I REALLY enjoyed this review, Meg - and I always enjoy your writing. You have a real talent in this respect. You have a sophisticated eye and enviably readable style - content + lightness of touch - it's rare, and it's a valuable skill. And those quotes? Well, maybe people will be quoting you someday... :)


  2. This is GREAT, *insightful* summation... doh!

  3. Oh - the only thing I'd query is that perhaps it should be 'Roger Vadim's Barbarella' - as he was the director, whereas Forest was the originator of the comic strip?

    1. Ah, thanks Phil - will tweak that now. And thanks for the response! I'm all embarassed now.