Barbarella [Blu-ray] (1968)

Actors: Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, Milo O'Shea, Marcel Marceau
Director: Roger Vadim
Writers: Roger Vadim, Brian Degas, Claude Brulé, Clement Biddle Wood, Jean-Claude Forest
Format: Dolby, Subtitled, Widescreen
Language: English
Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Region: A/1
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Paramount
DVD Release Date: July 3, 2012
Run Time: 98 minutes




While many people cite 1982 as a high-water mark for genre movies, 1968 could give it a hell of a run for its money. Planet of the Apes, 2001, Night of the Living Dead, and Rosemary's Baby all debuted that year . . . four masterpieces out of only 34 movies in totem to hit U.S. screens (compared to 146 movies in 1982 and over 400 this year).

Though a comparatively minor entry, the camp classic Barbarella deserves mention in their company: a psychedelic head trip that pushes sci-fi fetishism to new and delirious heights. It finally scores a Blu-ray release this week; but considering its pedigree and the time it took to reach this format, it proves to be a long ride for a short day at the beach.

The film itself almost defies description for those who haven't seen it. Based on an erotic French comic strip, it recounts the adventures of an intergalactic hottie (Jane Fonda), charged with locating Terran scientist Durand-Durand (Milo O’Shea) and returning him safely to Earth. (The latter character, incidentally, served as inspiration for the 80s pop band of the same name.) When she lands on the planet Lythion, she encounters a rotating series of weirdly sexy perils, from carnivorous dolls to a lesbian queen (Anita Pallenberg) to the infamous Excessive Machine which literally tries to fuck her to death.

The structure follows a very episodic formula, with only a basic follow-through linking each extremely naughty episode. “Naughty” is the name of the game here, because there’s very little overt nudity or graphic sex (at least in the PG-rated American version). Barbarella revels in the implied, the inferred and the not-quite overt: pushing its suggestive overtones as far as they will go without actually blurting anything out. The sets, costumes and overall look feed into that, from Fonda’s endless variety of costumes that simultaneously accentuate and conceal her sexual features to the bizarre landscape springing fully formed from the most Freudian hallucinations ever conceived.

The film makes it all work because of its active campiness. Every performer keeps their tongues firmly in their cheeks and the outlandish spectacle never takes itself even the slightest bit seriously. (I defy you not to chuckle when Ugo Tognozzi’s Catchman removes his hairy coat to reveal an equally hairy chest underneath.) The film’s perfectly dated visuals – shot by DP Claude Renoir – create a vision of mod style, aging exquisitely because it doesn’t age at all.

Barbarella couldn’t exist in any era but the 1960s and its delightful over-the-top qualities find an ideal expression in the ridiculous excesses of the time. That makes it a unique experience – grown-up, to be sure, but only for those grown-ups who enjoy a sense of fun with their sexiness. I won’t call Barbarella the best science fiction film of 1968 – it ranks a distant third behind Apes and 2001, and even lower if you toss Romero and Polanski into the equation – but the party wouldn’t be as much of a stone-cold groove without it.

THE DISC: Borderline insulting! The Blu-ray differs from the DVD in no way whatsoever: a sloppy port that does nothing to justify the change. The image is grainy and muted, while the extra features are anemic in the extreme. You might actually do better with a DVD in terms of quality, depending upon your upconvert capabilities. Barbarella is notable enough to deserve a much more respectful transfer – remastering the imagery and perhaps adding a few new features at the very least. Only the slipcover speaks to any thoughtfulness, duplicating some of the original promo artwork for the film. Fans would doubtless love a look at the unrated European version, or at least a better transfer to help them trip out. The new Blu-ray lets them down in every conceivable way.

WORTH IT? Only if you don’t own the DVD and even then it’s a near thing.

RECOMMENDATION: Hold out for a better version if you can. Otherwise, look for the DVD which gives you the same package for a deeply reduced price. 

- Rob Vaux



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