Thursday, 6 August 2009

“Barbarella” – A message about purity, in the language of the 60s

[Dear readers, a quick note before the article commences: I have replied to comments from Brijesh, KK and VG on the August 4 post...]

I came across this 1968 movie starring Jane Fonda about eight years ago. A single watching made a lasting impression. Apparently, when it was released the film was roundly panned and failed at the box office, but in later years it developed a cult following. Its supporters, who call it a “classic”, rave about the film’s tacky production qualities - which are praised as extremely difficult to pull off - and its camp eroticism, which they say could never be remade with the same finesse.

However, I believe that what makes Barbarella a classic is an anti-erotic or meta-erotic symbolism that runs through the film. I would argue that the film is talking about purity, or the ideal nature of “free love": so, a theme of the 1960s being discussed in the language of the 1960s.

By “meta-erotic” symbolism, I mean that the film’s makers were attempting to convey (whether they were conscious of it or not) a higher (meta-) vision of human consciousness. This is a consciousness that is beyond being affected by the negative force of eroticism that threatens to hijack sexuality and destroy the pure relationship that should exist between love and the physical demonstration of love.

The lead character Barbarella (played by the earthy, no-nonsense yet feminine Jane Fonda) is never erotic, though eroticism constantly chases her and tries to ensnare and kill her. The erotic elements in the film are negative, lacking in energy, harmony or happiness. But they are unable to affect Barbarella, who sails through every encounter entirely unfazed and without losing her warmth and honesty.

An approach to life
The film offers a representation of pure, free consciousness. And as such it makes comment not only on sexuality but also on the nature of life generally, on decision making, and on the problem of fear.

There is one scene in particular that impressed itself on my memory. Barbarella, again being pursued by someone wishing to do her harm, is chased into a death-trap. In that trap, she is offered several choices – but they are all forms of death. True to form, Barbarella gets right on with choosing one. Leaping forth, she emerges into her next challenge, but she does not die, which she would have done had she not made a choice.

Some say that making a decision is more important than what decision is made; but what could be even more important than this – and what I think this scene from Barabarella conveys - is the way in which decisions are made. Adjectives such as forthright, unregretful, and honest would well characterise the approach illustrated in the film.

It has been reported that Jane Fonda regrets her decision to participate in Barbarella. One alleged reason is that she had to turn down the lead female roles in the films Bonnie and Clyde and Rosemary’s Baby in order to complete her work on Barbarella.

But my view is that she should not regret this film. Barbarella is both a more meaningful film than the other two, and represents accurately the unique nature of Jane Fonda - the passionate activist who has always exhibited the qualities of frankness, fearlessness and good humour. That Jane Fonda would say: “To hell with the elitists! This movie is in such a workable package it can reach out to every level. This film can tell you something about life, love and character. Watch carefully!”

Before writing this 'review', I thought I ought to re-watch the movie to see if my memory was being selective. Too impatient to rent it out, I went onto You Tube. There I found a trailer for the film. In that trailer, a narrator introduces Barbarella as the most “beautiful creature of the future” whose speciality is “Love”. The style of the piece was strongly tongue-in-cheek and made me seriously wonder if it was foolhardy of me – an invitation to be mocked - to interpret the film as I have done here, especially having watched it just once and so long ago.

I became even more wary when I read comments on an IMDb film forum describing the film as “soft porn” and pointing specifically to an opening sequence where Barbarella conducts a “striptease” in “slow motion”. I could not remember this scene, but found it on You Tube. Now, I have always thought I ranked on the prudish end of the scale, but I think I should place myself on the way liberal end of the scale now!

This so-called slow motion striptease scene lacks any form of eroticism and so to label it “porn” seems absurd. In fact the scene is a good introduction to the character of Barbarella. In this scene, Barbarella is shown floating around heavily in zero-gravity while emerging limb by limb from a black space-suit. The scene recalls the emergence of a butterfly from its heavy, ugly cocoon. Again, this scene looks to me like a comment on freedom spoken in the physical language of the 1960s.

Lasting impression
Whatever was in the film makers’ minds, the film made an impression on me – as a rare filmic example of meta-erotic characterisation and of the link between this type of purity of spirit with the two great human obsessions: beauty and love. It is this feature (meta-eroticism) that enables the creature (Barbarella) to be a specialist in love. And such a creature would definitely be the ideal of the future.

The character of Barbarella is physically and psychologically beautiful. Perhaps it is this – that the story is told on more than one level and is equally effective on all – that is actually responsible for making the film a recognised cult classic.