It may be one of the most iconic weird films ever made: the 1967 movie Barbarella, featuring Jane Fonda as a triple-rated astro navigatrix flying through the galaxy on a mission of love. Barbarella is a colorful, loud, sexual explosion of inexplicable choices, all of them defying explanation and impossible to look away from.
The movie’s strangeness stems, in part, from the number of chefs in its kitchen. There were over a dozen screenwriters, including Terry Southern, who had just finished working on the disastrous James Bond film Casino Royale (the original 1967 version, which starred Woody Allen, Orson Welles and Peter Sellers). Other writers included Jean-Claude Forest, who created the comic on which it was based, and director Roger Vadim, who didn’t tell Southern he’d be doctoring the script.
Vadim said that he was interested in making a science fiction movie that gave depth to the characters — a noble goal, though difficult to discern in the finished product, where characters seem drawn with all the complexity of a child’s crayon sketch. His mission, he said, as to shoot the movie like he was a documentary journalist.
Jane Fonda was at the time married to Vadim, and was reluctant to take the role at first. She had just weathered multiple sex scandals that would be today considered tame: Photographs were taken of her in stages of undress, including one that made its way onto a billboard to promote an earlier film. Ultimately, she accepted the role of Barbarella as a sexually liberated woman — not rebelling against any prudish standards, but having never known such standards at all.
It was a grueling shoot, made worse by Vadim’s tendency to drink and lack of consideration for Fonda’s well-being. Her stomach was skinned at one point when she was shot through a plastic tube; later, she wasn’t warned about on-set explosions and thought that something had gone wrong when pyrotechnics went off. A scene with birds was particularly miserable, with a fan employed to blow the live animals onto Fonda, where they made a terrible mess.
Adding to the misery: Fonda was living with bulimia at the time of the shoot and was struggling with the character’s tendency to show as much skin as possible. She also was unhappy that Barbarella seemed to lack any principles.
The result was an odd mish-mash of a film that was rewritten so many times it barely makes sense — at one point, Fonda claimed to be ill so that shooting could halt for long enough that rewrites could be performed.
And yet, it’s also a cheerfully kitschy experience, a weird extravaganza of sexually delighted images and style that was dated before it was even committed to film. Barbarella is simultaneously baffling and joyous; disorienting and pleasurable. It’s a film that clearly has ideas, but isn’t sure what those ideas are.
In short: It is a tremendous pleasure that, though viewing after viewing, never wears out its welcome.