Of course the shot I choose from Barbarella is going to feature Jane Fonda. The question is which one?

Roger Vadim took the women in his life and created a celluloid shrine for their bodies. Barbarella is a camped-up celebration of the ideal female form; soft-core objectification shrouded in trippy sci-fi goofiness. It’s a counter-cultural product of the time, full of hippie idealism and free love baby, free love. Jane Fonda, Vadim’s then-wife, fashions an epic blonde mane and a sex-kitten silhouette that recalls Vadim’s former-muse Brigitte Bardot. She brings a wide-eyed matter-of-fact innocence to her newly rediscovered sexuality and tries to lend a self-aware comic quality to her role that she alone can lay claim to.  Outside of a few amusing lines, both intentional and unintentional, (“I hear screaming. A good many dramatic situations begins with screaming”) Terry Southern and Roger Vadim aren’t able to liven up their script. For a film where the plot is this inconsequential (it’s structured around Jane Fonda’s costume changes and various states of undress), most of the dialogue is concerned directly with its meaningless story.

I first saw Barbarella at, my best guess is, fifteen. All I remembered were a handful of images; spacesuit striptease, furs, bubbles and a buff blonde angel. That’s mainly what you take from the film. Roger Vadim doesn’t have a hand at taking advantage of its inventively tacky low-budget sets. He shoots apathetically and flatly, laying the soundtrack on top in similar fashion, a fun and schizophrenic score that alternates between daytime- kiddie-show, sunshine-pop and groove-tunes in the blink of another costume change. The flatness removes most wide shots out of consideration for ‘best shot’.

Which brings us back to Jane Fonda. Barbarella is about creating scenarios where we can gaze upon Fonda’s body, her pain, her pleasure, and her outfits. Vadim gives us plenty of opportunities and this is when the film excels; after all, she is the ‘object’ of our focus.

My shot of choice:

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Death by parakeets? Sure; why not? Jane Fonda is trapped in a cage, slowly being pecked to death by small birds of various colors. She is, as always, in soft focus, unfixed shades of purple behind her and a plethora of blurry blue birds fluttering around the frame both in and out of focus. The color scheme, with the silvery armored costume serving as a centerpiece, is perfect. The entire sequence photographs Fonda in both pain and ambiguous pleasure, but in circumstances so absurd that it becomes comically digestible. She moves about as if she’s the participant of a really uncomfortable photoshoot, which she pretty much is.

With that little sprinkle of blood, the scene walks up to the edge of sex and violence, backing away lest it becomes gruesome. It mirrors an earlier scene where some sharp-toothed dolls chomp away at Fonda’s clothes (time for another costume change!) It also recalls a far more traumatic assault (in this case punishment) on a woman via birds; the famous climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. This shot illustrates the height of the kind of light-hearted casual sadism sprinkled throughout Barbarella and the outside-of-the-box thinking Vadim employed so he could capture his wife in precariously barmy predicaments. It’s a ridiculous but beautiful portrait of in-peril silliness.


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One thought on “Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Barbarella (1968)

  1. I was inches from choosing this same shot. I’m glad I didn’t, because I love your insight. Any thoughts on the number of times Jane Fonda lies prone for the camera the film? I think that happens as much as the frequent costume changes.

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