Barbarella, who is called the ‘queen of the galaxy’ on the cover, but is actually just an Earth government agent, is sent by the president to find Dr. Durand Durand and his invention, the positronic ray, on the planet Tau Ceti.
I think that if Barbarella were being produced today, the title character would be portrayed (depending on the budget) as either a ditsy sexpot (for the low budget market), or a flawless superwoman (for the mainstream). A variation of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that describes how most women are depicted in art (this has become more confusing since the debut of the whorish singer Madonna; the Madonna I speak of the the mythical virgin mother of Jesus). It’s interesting then, perhaps because of the sexual revolution that was going on at the time of its production in the late sixties, that this Barbarella is so very average. She is, first and foremost, a person.
Yes, she gets caught in traps fairly often (traps which invariably tear up her already skimpy clothing) and frequently needs help to escape, but she doesn’t have the air of the perpetual victim about her. She doesn’t fall into traps easily or out of stupidity, she is simply bested. But despite this, she always gets up again, and carries on her mission. She is determined and intelligent, just, perhaps, a little out of her depth.
Barbarella is a sexy movie; though it is rated PG, so it’s more of a suggested sexuality than an overt one. The film opens with Barbarella slowly stripping out of a spacesuit in zero gravity. There’s some fleeting nudity in the scene (I guess ratings standards were different back then), and that’s about as graphic as the film gets.
The attitude towards sex is certainly on the liberal side. Barbarella explains that sex on Earth has been replaced with a procedure in which a couple takes pills and holds hands. When one of the relatively primitive men of Tau Ceti asks her to make love to him the old fashioned way, she agrees, though unenthusiastically, on the grounds that it’s so inefficient. But despite her doubts, she ends up liking it very much, and spends the rest of the movie looking for any opportunity she can to repeat the experience.
Barbarella’s enjoyment, coupled with the PG rating make the movie far less exploitative and sleazy than it could have been. This is a sex-positive film, which separates recreational sex from all of its more complex issues. It’s amazing how innocent and un-dirty the whole thing can be with just this slight adjustment in viewpoint.
The story, such as it is, works well. Her primary mission gives the plot an overall arc (with a few twists along the way), but scene-by-scene, it plays more like a series of vignettes, with Barbarella moving from one situation to the next. This allows the movie to focus on the sexy visuals (each new scene comes with a costume change for Barbarella) and to highlight the weird characters she encounters.
Barbarella is a very likable character, as is the rest of the cast (even most of the villains). There’s an angel named Pygar who has the same speech pattern and expression as Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, it’s creepily disconcerting.
Barbarella is a charming film. It’s fun and sexy, provided you have the right attitude and aren’t offended by free love.