Feminine Sexuality in Cinema (1/4) Intro & Barbarella

Cannabis is a miraculous substance which I credit for giving me a greater appreciation towards certain works of art. In my experience, to witness a film or album while stoned is to be stripped of all cynicism or preconceived biases. It allows the beholder to put aside their expectations, their knowledge of tropes and cliches, as well as their emotional detachment towards fictional characters. Unburdened by real world concerns as these, one can enjoy media in a pure state of mind almost as if they were a child again. The effect is such that I can be devastated by Han Solo’s carbon freeze even though the sober mind knows he’ll be okay in the next movie. I can allow myself to get absorbed in the musings of a teenage girl, even though the acting is spotty and the writing is kids’ show quality. With this tool, I’m able to lose myself, emotionally and intellectually, in the universe of the story. I know a lot of adults who look down on cannabis, and see its advocates as degenerate “pot heads” looking for nothing more than a distracting high. But truly, in my opinion as a film buff and a writer, I believe a person hasn’t fully experienced a work of art until they’ve observed it both sober and stoned.

During the recent week of protracted election results, I decided to put this technique to use again in service of some movies I’ve discovered this past year. Since they all revolve around a common theme, specifically feminine identity in the context of sex, I thought my reactions might make for a good series on the blog. This first entry is going to be about Barbarella, with future installments to come for The Libertine, Check to the Queen and Belladonna of Sadness.

Barbarella: My First Impressions

During the summer of 2019 (…before the dark times, before the COVID…) I found two amazing movies with female main characters. One of them was Femina Ridens, which I stumbled upon by a chance recommendation from YouTube’s algorithm. I’ve talked about this film at length several times on this blog and it has left as big of an impact on me as any movie I’ve ever seen. The other film was Barbarella, and unlike its counterpart, I was introduced to this by my friend. He knew I loved the ’60s peace and love ethos, New Hollywood cinema and kitschy B-movies, so it seemed like the perfect fit. I certainly liked Barbarella from the first, but not as much as I felt I “should.” I wanted to give it another chance, and found myself enjoying it more and more with each subsequent viewing. Finally, last month it all just clicked with me for the first time and now I’d call Barbarella one of my favorite movies.

From the opening credits, Barbarella wants you to know that this isn’t your (stereo)typical male-dominated, sterilized, pretentious Science Fiction. This is something far more flashy, with a distinctly feminine energy and tongue in cheek sense of humor. It’s one of the most arresting beginnings to any film I’ve ever seen, not only because of Jane Fonda’s beauty but the novel premise of psychedelic space faring. If the sunshine pop title song didn’t give it away, Barbarella’s mission brief with the President of Earth should make it clear that this is a future where the ’60s counterculture never ended. Mankind makes love not war: so much so that weapons are an unthinkable concept and people greet each other by saying “love.” Humanity has shed its old puritanical hangups about sexuality. We can surmise this from Barbarella’s lack of shame to appear before the President nude, as well as his nonchalant reaction. Rather than leading us to a world of debauchery, removing all stigma towards our natural urges has actually created a more innocent, kindhearted populace.

Barbarella’s is a world of bliss. The only potential threat to this newfound tranquility comes in the form of Durand Durand, whom our hero is tasked with bringing to justice. It’s sort of 50-50 whether Barbarella was chosen for the job because she’s the most capable ranger in the galaxy, or because everything is so pacified that no one else can take on the role either. I personally feel it’s a little bit of both; it strengthens the themes of the film (which I will address as we go) to imagine Barbarella as sort of a babe in the woods. She’s unaware of the depravity which the denizens of unexplored space are capable of, and runs guilelessly into danger as a result. Her innocence will prove to be both a blessing and a hindrance through the course of the film.

Production Design: In Service of World Building

By far the crowning achievement of Barbarella lies with its stellar production values. Everything from the sets, to the costumes, to the soundtrack is silky smooth and gorgeously realized. This is what made me want to keep revisiting the film despite not being gripped by the plot in my initial screening. I wanted to come back and just be a part of this beautiful universe again, where the cosmos are rendered as psychedelic graphics and the essence of evil looks like the wax mixture in a lava lamp.* I have never seen a greater blending of the mystical and the scientific as exists in the city of Sogo, where laser cannons and orgasm machines can exist side by side with invisible keys to impossible dreamscapes. Every time I gave this film another chance, I’d notice some new detail in the scenery I hadn’t before and find myself awed by it. It’s the only time, at least that I’m aware of, where an America release has ever matched the stylized composition of the best Italian films of this era. (We’ll look at some of those in later entries of this series.)

*ASIDE: In fact, “Mathmos,” which is the substance in the film that leads the citizens of Sogo to evil, is actually the name of the first company to manufacture lava lamps. That’s quite the oblique reference, and kudos to the filmmakers for slipping that in!

One of the design philosophies of Star Wars which gets a ton of praise is its decision to create a “lived in” galaxy. That is to say, the ships and locations aren’t made of sparkling chrome as though they just rolled off the assembly line. Instead, the equipment has scruff marks, unpolished surfaces and imperfections, the same way most of our cars would in any parking lot. But what I’ve always wanted to know is: would anyone actually want to live in that galaxy? The ship interiors are purely utilitarian and devoid of any creature comforts or personalized touches, for example. With Barbarella, for the first time, a movie made me feel as though humanity not only explored the stars, but had gotten good enough at the process to make it comfortable. Look at our protagonist’s wonderfully decorated spaceship, with wall to wall shag carpeting, classy artwork to gaze at, and even a walk-in closet full of clothes! Her navigation computer (Alpha 7, affectionately dubbed “Alfie”) speaks in the voice of a dignified English butler rather than a monotone drawl, and it even sings to wake her up at one point. The filmmakers actually made me believe Barbarella had designed the ship herself. One imagines every space-faring vessel in this timeline must be similarly personalized to the user’s unique sense of style. (And damn, does Barbarella have good taste!)

Production Design: In Service of Themes and Character

This may not have been the explicit intention of the production team, but I noticed many nods to youthful innocence in the first act of the film. For example, it was always my impression that Barbarella’s ship was meant to be evocative of an inside-out stuffed animal. I like to imagine the fluffy lining of the ship’s interior was designed to be comforting to the touch. (I know if I were caught in an electromagnetic storm, I’d want to cling to something plushy for dear life rather than cold, hard metal.) Her ship’s controls are large and polygonal, which reminded me of children’s toys as well. It goes back to the theme I alluded to earlier, about Barbarella as an innocent figure, naive to the malevolent intentions of the people in uncharted space whom she’s about to encounter. I may be over analyzing, but when she arrives on the planet Lythion, I thought the young girls taking her skiing were meant to be a reference to the White Queen from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Just reverse the ages of the captor and captive.) The young boys and black rabbit in their lair were similarly distorted versions of characters from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, respectively. If that’s too much of a stretch, certainly the killer dolls themselves are a straightforward metaphor of twisted childhood innocence.

This motif of defiled childish imagery is overshadowed by a series of phallic symbols once the Catchman comes to save our heroine. His vessel is composed of a giant drill eternally chasing a set of labia-shaped sails. The pointy tips of those sails suggestively perk up just before he and Barbarella have sex, then relax once the deed is done. He gives Barbarella a set of furs with a long tail, which evocatively gets stuck in her spaceship’s circular door. These sexual references will continue through the rest of the film. The most famous example is probably the giant hookah in which women inhale the “essence of man.” Several of the walls in the city of Sogo contain numerous metallic poles hanging flaccidly, as well. Barbarella also hides a gun in the front of Pygar’s feathered loin, and offers multiple double ententes. (“A great many dramatic moments involve screaming.”)

The Pros and Cons of Barbarella’s Character

Now, as much as I’ve come to love it, Barbarella is far from a perfect film. The biggest issue I have is the episodic plot. There are so many instances of our heroine finding herself trapped only to be saved at the last minute by someone else. That means the story never really gains momentum; it’s full of one too many stops and starts for each scene to flow into the next. This is what I meant earlier when I said Barbarella’s innocence is partially a hindrance to the movie. Since she’s a naive soul from a world without weapons, our protagonist is often incapable of defending herself from the cruel inhabitants of Lythion. It makes sense from a narrative perspective, yet it constantly undercuts the ability of the narrative to maintain a gripping pace. (How’s that for irony?) In addition, there’s quite a bit of exposition peppered throughout the script. This was most apparent during the scene with Dildano, leader of the resistance on Sogo. I like to think his excessively disorganized operation was meant to be a thoughtful critique of the counterculture revolutionaries of the ’60s, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t get bored during that particular interaction.

All the same, Barbarella’s demure personality is one of the most charming things about the film, so you take the good with the bad. I love the way she always asks people “Parlez-vous français?” if they don’t answer to English, as if a culture in the distant reaches of space would be familiar with one but not the other. Perhaps the cutest moment for me, though, is right after she’s made love with the Catchman. Barbarella is essentially a virgin in that she’s only ever had sex with psychocardiogram readings, exaltation transference pellets and hand-holding. After the Catchman has shown her the real thing, she’s swooning like a schoolgirl. The way Barbarella looks at him, the dreamy expression on her face as she reenters the spaceship, is all reminiscent of a teen girl after a first date. I love the way her tail keeps getting caught in doorways afterwards, as though to remind the audience that Barbarella’s not as self-aware or sophisticated as she’s pretending to be. Again, like a teen girl on a first date, she’s projecting a certain air of gracefulness to her companion. It’s clear to me, that the Catchman sees right through this performance from the first, yet admires her all the more for it. Like most guys, he enjoys playing the role of protector and handyman.

The Catchman plays it cool in front of Barbarella, but once she’s out of eyesight, his look conveys a deep longing as well. It may have been brief, but this is one of my favorite love scenes in cinema.

In the end, it is precisely because Barbarella is such an innocent figure that she prevails against Durand Durand and the immoral people of Sogo. If she were not such a sweet person who would befriend outcasts like the angel Pygar, she never would have reached the gates to the city in the first place. Notice how Barbarella continues to stand by him even after being warned that the people of Sogo will be hostile to angels. She defends Pygar with her own body in the face of danger and guides him in his blindness without complaint. She and Pygar are the only ones who remain uncorrupted by the mathmos fumes which have led the city to vice. In fact, Barbarella’s kind heart saves her own life as well as the Black Tyrant’s in the film’s climax, because the mathmos could not stand to be in the presence of someone as good as her. The whole thing’s a straightforward parable about evil’s inability to exist in a world where good people spread their influence. It’s cliche, but a nicely executed one. (And, again, that’s where the cannabis comes in.)

The Power of Love

This is the “extra dimension” of the film which jumped out at me after last month’s viewing. While we’re meant to think that Barbarella had sex with Pygar, what if she actually didn’t? Or at least, perhaps that wasn’t what lifted the angel’s morale again so that he regained the will fly.

We are led to believe it was sexual pleasure which restored Pygar’s spirit, because Barbarella just learned how to have sex the old fashioned way in the previous scene with the Catchman. When Barbarella learns of Pygar’s plight, she asks where he lives and we cut to her laying naked in his nest. Surely she must have put her new knowledge to good use, pleasuring a man in the only way she knew how. In the second act, the orgasmatron torture scene implies that Barbarella is now a master of sex, with a carnal endurance that can even outperform a machine. This further hints at Barbarella’s unique vigor, and leads the audience to believe that Pygar was stimulated by the physical pleasures of her uncommon vivaciousness.

But later, when the Black Tyrant asks Pygar “what do you think of when you make love to Barbarella?” Remember that he answered “an angel does not make love, an angel is love.” (Pygar also seemed uninterested in sex with the Black Tyrant, despite the fact that she was clearly trying to seduce him, indicating that he’s not big on sex–unless it’s with the right person.) I used to think Pygar was referring to himself, but that doesn’t really make sense with the other context clues of the film. Specifically, this line is repeated when Barbarella enters the Chamber of Dreams, just before she and the Black Tyrant are engulfed by the mathmos. The two remain unharmed, and the Black Tyrant explains “the mathmos is protecting itself from your innocence.” (Or words to that effect.) These two clues, taken together, prove that Barbarella is a person of uncommon, undiminished goodness. She is the embodiment of pure love–in essence, an angel.

This leads me to believe it was actually the act of spending quality time in the presence of such a person which inspired Pygar to reach his true potential. If Barbarella and Pygar did in fact have sex, it was the most kind-hearted, loving copulation imaginable. It was not an act of mere lust, but rather an unequaled display of mutual respect between two highly empathetic, sapient beings. It was due to the fact that Barbarella wanted nothing but to lift a vulnerable person’s spirits that Pygar learned to fly, rather than the Catchman teaching her all the right moves in bed. To put it simply, Pygar finally met another angel, in the midst of a hellish place like Sogo, and it gave him hope for humanity again. The same result might have been achieved if the two stopped at holding hands. (And I mean without using exaltation transference pellets either!)

It’s important to note that just because Barbarella clearly enjoys the physical pleasures of intercourse, that doesn’t diminish her goodness. The film is clearly supporting the idea that sex is not inherently sinful, no matter what any puritanical prudes say. In fact, the Catchman’s presence outside the evil city of Sogo was meant to tell us in advance that the story’s lesson is not anti-sex. Sex can exist outside the context of depravity and harm, and in the best of circumstances it can be a powerful expression of love.

^These are the immutable laws of reality: from mathematics, to rhetoric, and ethics.
The Three Commandments of the Aquarian Age.

My favorite track on the soundtrack, which is saying a lot because it’s pretty freaking incredible.

2 Comments

  1. A very well written and well thought out review of the Movie. I am so glad I was able to introduce you to this movie. I have enjoyed it more the times I watched it with you. You pointed out many things I has missed when I had watched it before. You do for me what you say cannabis does for you. You give me greater appreciation to films and life in general. Another superior piece of writing! Good job Cassandra!

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