Barbarella: Why the hell do we want a remake?
OWhen Jane Fonda was preparing for the galactic striptease that opens the 1968 sci-fi fantasy Barbarelle, she satisfied herself with vodka. She was so terrified that she made sure she was completely drunk before the cameras started rolling. A bat flew past the lens, spoiling the shot, and the director, her then-husband Roger Vadim, insisted she shoot it again the next day.
“The hold that was actually used, I wasn’t just drunk. I was hungover too,” Fonda recalled in the 2018 documentary about her, Jane Fonda in five acts.
It’s one of the most memorable sequences from an otherwise uneven and eccentric film that barely deserves its cult reputation. Fonda appears to be floating as she pulls off her outfit. In fact, she was lying on a window pane with the rest of the spacecraft behind her for the shot. As she takes off her helmet, gloves, and eventually everything else, a bland pop song with crazy rhyming lyrics plays over the soundtrack. “Barbarella, psychedelia/Never a guy can name you or clone you” or, even worse, “Barbarella, psychedelia/There’s some kind of shell in you.”
Last week, Sydney Sweeney, the brilliant young TV star Euphoria and The White Lotus, was announced as the new Barbarella, in a remake planned by Sony Pictures. Details about the project are almost as skimpy as the outfits she’ll have to wear in the movie. Commercial publishing Deadline reported that there was no writer or director attached yet, but that Sweeney was to serve as executive producer.
“He’s such an iconic and fun character. And I want to keep that fun alive through Barbarella. So I’m excited for everyone to see him,” Sweeney said. entertainment tonight earlier this week.
The announcement of the new space adventure, however vague, prompted an immediate question: why on earth would Sweeney want such a thankless role? Pleasure was definitely not what Fonda considered doing Barbarelle. She patiently accepted the film because Vadim suggested it. “I was not a questioner. The superficial can be quite easy for me,” she later said of the docile manner in which she did what Vadim said.
The American had not wanted to do the “weightless striptease”. “Again, I just didn’t think I could say ‘no,'” she admitted in her autobiography, My life so far, about how, during this period, she always relied on her French husband. “He promised that the letters in the film’s credits would be placed thoughtfully to cover what needed to be covered – and they were.”
Fonda was in the movie mostly to admire. Vadim was a Svengali who turned his female partners into international sex symbols. He did it for Brigitte Bardot in her St Tropez set And God created the woman (1956) and was now going to do the same trick with his wife. He loved science fiction, comedy and erotica. best selling Barbarelle the cartoons, written and illustrated by Jean-Claude Forest, brought together the three.
The film has a certain kitsch charm. It is shot in dazzling color by Claude Renoir, the grandson of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the nephew of filmmaker Jean Renoir. In its best moments, Barbarelle has that blend of whimsy and gentle menace you find in Tim Burton movies. There may be frequent references to sex, but the film never feels dirty. Fonda is funny and engaging in the title role because she plays it in such a primal and earnest way.
Barbarella comes from a world in which intercourse is conducted by partners who take pills (“elation transfer pellets”) and push their palms together until full intercourse is achieved. When the hirsute handyman Mark Hand, played by Ugo Tognazzi, suggests that they go to bed together, she dismissively replies: “But no one has done that for centuries. Nobody except the very poor who can’t afford the pills and the cardiogram readings…”
However, once she is told about old-fashioned sex, she discovers that she not only likes it, but is very good at it. At some point, late, she is tied up in an orgasmatron machine playing music in which she is supposed to die of extreme pleasure. The corpses of previous victims lie nearby but Fonda’s love power short-circuits and breaks the machine. The film includes several close-ups of the star’s face and eyes, which are even bluer than those of her famous father, screen legend Henry Fonda.
Sometimes Vadim includes horror movie elements and even references to Alfred Hitchcock. Early on, after her spaceship crashes on a distant planet, Barbarella is accosted by two young girls. They turn out to be little sadists, dropping dolls with razor sharp teeth on her. Later, she’s locked in a cage with equally voracious birds, “pecking and pooping in my hair” as she later recalled.
Other sequences, however, wouldn’t seem out of place in a Carry On comedy. For example, in the underground headquarters of revolutionary leader Dildano (David Hemmings), none of the gadgets seem to work. He will pull a lever and it will return to his hand. If certain special effects have the same naive charm as those of old silent films like that of Georges Méliès A trip to the moon (1902) in which rockets crash into sticky lunar surfaces like sponge fingers landing in custard.
The outer space imagined by Vadim resembles the psychedelic nightclubs of the 1960s. It is full of strange characters played by actors like Anita Pallenberg, in the role of the “Great Tyrant” à la Dominatrix, and the mime Marcel Marceau, incongruously cast in a speaking role as the white-bearded, pixie-like Professor Ping. Plinky-plonky music adds to the overall feeling of frivolity.
The plot is a hokum about the President of the Earth Republic sending Barbarella to hunt down Durand Durand, who has invented a weapon of mass destruction – “a positronic ray”. She spends much of the film in the presence of Pygar, a tan angel resembling Adonis (John Phillip Law) who is blind and reluctant to fly.
At the time of its release, no one confused the film with a masterpiece. Nonetheless, it had a far greater and more lasting influence than many other much better films of the time. Everyone was fascinated by the idea of Fonda in a risque intergalactic sex comedy. She has been featured on magazine covers in the United States and Europe. Vadim succeeded in his goal of making Fonda an international movie star in his own right. He also inspired fashion designers and new romantic pop groups.
Like Bardot, Fonda quickly moved from Vadim, the high priest of voyeuristic kitsch, to working with Jean-Luc Godard, the most radical and provocative French director of the time. In 1972, his transformation was complete. The pin-up of Barbarelle“The scantily clad – sometimes naked – sex heroine,” as Fonda called the role, had morphed into “Hanoi Jane.”
She was back on the covers but no longer the object of voyeuristic male fascination. Thanks to her trip to North Vietnam in the midst of the Vietnam War to draw attention to American bombings of the country, she was now seen as a subversive and a traitor. Furious right-wing commentators were so busy condemning her as un-American that they stopped eyeing her.
Since Barbarelle days, Fonda has also been a tireless campaigner for women’s rights. She appears in Camille Hardman’s new documentary, Always working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – it was released in the US last month. This looks back at the 1980 comedy 9 to 5in which Fonda and her co-stars Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton played office workers suffering the slingshots and darts of outrageous sexism at work.
Forty years later, the documentary concludes, little has changed in office culture – gender inequality still reigns, and harassment and bullying remain rampant. Fonda, however, continues the fight. The idea of doing 9 to 5 grew out of his friendship with activist Karen Nussbaum, who in the early 1970s co-founded the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women.
“Jane Fonda, as we all know, is a women’s rights stalwart and has been for a very long time,” director Hardman said admiringly of the actor during a women in cinema event at the Doclisboa Festival in Lisbon last week.
Barbarelle represented precisely the jingoism against which Fonda would later react so strongly. It was an extremely goofy film, based on a French comic book, about a space traveler who travels the galaxies on romantic adventures – and is humiliated along the way. Nevertheless, Fonda has learned to live with her space sex adventure and no longer sees it as “gender betrayal”. In Jane Fonda in five actsshe describes it almost fondly as “just a camp romp. Really…I don’t think that’s particularly sexy.” After several decades, she observed, she’s reached “a place where I can . .. share the enjoyment of the film’s unique charms”.
Fonda’s galactic gallops transformed his career, but it’s hard to see Sweeney benefiting from it in the same way. Surely Sweeney is far better advised to stay on Earth than strip naked in space. Barbarella is a 60s screen heroine who should be left alone. Turning a fantastical male figure into a feminist icon is a near impossible task – and that old orgasmatron machine is surely way beyond rebooting now.