FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
I once made the following comment about this film's status as an "irony:"
BARBARELLA (1968)— Jean-Claude Forest’s sexy space-fantasy might have borrowed a lot of paraphernalia from FLASH GORDON, but the tone of Barbarella is more Rabelais than Raymond. At times Vadim’s best work verges on straight comedy, but the satirical elements dominate, particularly in the scene of Barbarella's most memorable combat-scene, where she out-orgasms a mechanical sex-machine.
After recently re-watching the 1968 film, I also re-read the original Jean-Claude Forest stories on which the film was based. All of these were translated into English for a 1960s volume from Grove Press, and this seems to be the sole English-language source for the curvaceous crusader's adventures, except for a much later 1970s sequence printed in HEAVY METAL.
The original 1960s stories have been accurately praised as a breakthrough for comic books of the period, in that BARARELLA, however derivative of the FLASH GORDON mythos, seems to have been the first attempt by a major publisher to issue comics with mature sexual content. In addition, whereas FLASH GORDON was all about the hero's continual attempt to overthrow various tyrants of Mongo, Barbarella's exploits are more in the tradition of the picaresque novel, with the heroine merely bopping about from peril to peril-- many of which, naturally, imply sexual encounters.
Despite the allegation that Roger Vadim's script had at least fourteen contributing writers, and that Vadim himself was more interested in stunning visuals than in story, the movie does manage to cull many of the more sensational elements of the Forest stories-- often combining elements from different stories-- and unite them in a plot with some degree of consistency.
This means that Barbarella, rather than simply drifting from one adventure to the next, is given A Mission at the film's beginning. The heroine hails from a far-future Earth which has become so over-civilized that its natives use "exaltation transference pills" to achieve sexual ecstacy. It's not clear why Barbarella, who possesses no special training, is selected to go to Tau Ceti, where she's expected to find missing scientist Duran Duran and prevent his positronic ray from falling into enemy hands. Indeed, this may be one of Vadim's key ironies; that Earth entrusts its future to a female astronaut, without their even being aware that her primary skill is her ability to seduce males (and one female) with her feminine charms. To be sure, in Barbarella's first encounter she initially offers to reward her first male conquest with sex in the Earthling manner. But once he converts her to the old-fashioned method, Barbarella never "goes back," as she uses sex to seduce an angel and a queen, as well as destroying the aforementioned ecstacy-machine with her own erotic capacity.
To be sure, during the course of Barbarella's peripatetic adventures, she does occasionally show that she can use a ray-gun. which is about the only reason I can countenance this film as belonging to my "combative irony" category. Her shooting-skills don't play a major role in the plot, contrary to the many iconic posters showing her brandishing various weapons. Given that in the 1960s a woman handling a gun would have instantly connoted "penis envy" to the Freudians, it's kind of surprising that Vadim never goes there. But Barbarella's greatest weapon is dumb luck, which more or less accounts for the way she encounters the evil queen of Sogo, the resistance movement headed by Dildano (who, despite his name, DOESN'T have sex with Barbarella), and the scientist Duran Duran, who plays only a small role in the comics but becomes far more central in the film-- which surely led to the co-opting of his name by the famed rock band.
Fonda's wide-eyed approach to heroism doesn't much resemble the rather cynical and knowing attitude of Forest's protagonist, but the latter approach probably wouldn't have played any better in the 1960s, given that the film was a box-office flop. The effects are minimal by modern standards, but the excellent costume-work makes up for a lot-- which was also the primary visual appeal of FLASH GORDON, for that matter. Fortunately, over the years the film has become a cult movie, and Vadim's ironic accomplishment has retained its appeal for a small, select audience ever since.