Barbarella is a silly, softcore, S&M, PG-rated movie from 1968. Yes, I’m aware of how many times I just seemingly contradicted myself. I promise to explain all. As those of you who frequent my blog know, I love discussing the history of the Hays Production Code and its discomfort with sex and sexuality. I’ve already discussed marriage, musicals, and sex scenes during the Hays Code. So it’s fitting that this next entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series gives me a chance to talk a little bit about post-Hays Code filmmaking, when middle class morality had been put to bed and the Free Love, swinging 60s were in full swing.
The plot of Barbarella is roughly as follows: Barbarella crash-lands in a new exotic location, is attacked by a bizarre threat, has her outfit ripped off by said threat, is saved from total nudity and possible death by a man, has sex with her savior, gets a new outfit, crash-lands in a new exotic location, is attacked by a new bizarre threat, has her new outfit ripped off, etc. Low production values, terrible dialog, and strange acting choices contribute to the campy feel of the movie, which actually masks a startling fact: though it treats its subject lightly, this is a movie heavy on sadism. Sex and violence are directly linked. Every scene that tortures Barbarella is directly followed by sex. In case you think I’m overanalyzing, there is a scene where the evil Durand Durand (yes, that’s where the band name comes from) tortures Barbarella with a giant sex organ (not a euphemism) that is supposed to kill her with pleasure. And while I desperately want to show you the sex organ (still not a euphemism, it’s actually a giant organ), instead I’m going to show you a shot that I think sums up the entire film perfectly:
My Choice for Best Shot
The devil is in the details in this establishing shot of the city of SoGo, which takes place roughly 3/4 of the way through the film (right before we’re introduced to Durand Durand’s organ). No other shot in the film so perfectly sums up the tonal balance the movie strikes between outlandish, kinky, silly, and sadistic. At first glance, what sticks out is the terrible production design. It’s like a blind 60’s-Mod-obsessed architect redesigned Emerald City. All that’s missing is the shag rug! (Don’t worry, you can find that on the walls of Barbarella’s ship.) But if you look closer, you’ll notice that there are a lot of really kinky things going on here. On the left a woman in latex is suspended on a sex-swing trapeze while a lady in bubblewrap holds a torch under her feet. In the background, some women are frolicking in a cage with giant plastic pillows. On the right (this is my favorite), three women are literally sucking the essence from a man trapped in a giant hookah. How the hell did a scene like this get through?
Broad humor and satire have always been a way to brush away the threat of deviance. Remember Cary Grant cross-dressing in My Favorite Wife? The first time I watched Barbarella, I laughed myself silly. It wasn’t until I started pausing it to look for a shot that I noticed how obsessed the film is with sexual domination. Barbarella owns and even revels in its sexuality and sadism. The film’s absurdity and silly tone push it into more publicly palatable parody.
I’m not saying Barbarella was harmless. It was banned by the Catholic Church, panned by critics, and Pauline Kael had some rightfully nasty things to say about director Roger Vadim. Obviously the Production Code Administration was working on a new set of guidelines. In fact, 1968 marked the beginning of the ratings system. Originally there were four ratings: G, M, R, and X. While Barbarella was originally rated R and has now been downgraded to PG, Midnight Cowboy, a film which came out a year later and discussed sexuality much more seriously, was rated X (it’s since been downgraded to an R). My point is: we excuse a lot of things as long as they make us laugh.