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Barbarella 4K

by Glenn Erickson Nov 18, 2023

It says so in the song: when Barbarella and I get together the planets all stand still!  Arrow and Paramount bring Roger Vadim’s intergalactic bande-dessinée to 4K, for the enjoyment of Home Theaters equipped for the high-resolution format. Jane Fonda’s fille de l’espace spreads Free Love to the ends of the Galaxy, while thwarting Milo O’Shea’s attempt to conquer the perverse planet ruled by Anita Pallenberg’s leather freak. John Phillip Law is excellent as the blind angel Pygar, and a few more guest stars drift in and out in glorified bits. Arrow’s sumptuous extras focus a Positronic microscope on Vadim’s disrespected yet pretty-darn-influential slice of sexed-up space opera.


Barbarella 4K
4K Ultra HD (only)
Arrow Video
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 98 min. / Street Date November 28, 2023 / Available from Arrow USA / 59.95
Starring: Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau, Claude Dauphin, David Hemmings, Ugo Tognazzi, Antonio Sabato, Fabio Testi, Romolo Valli.
Cinematography: Claude Renoir
Production Designer: Mario Garbuglia
Special Effects Supervisor: Augie Lohman
Visual Effects: Charles Staffell
Costume Design: Jacques Fonteray, Paco Rabanne
Film Editor: Victoria Mercanton
Original Music: Bob Crewe, Charles Fox
Screenplay by Terry Southern, Roger Vadim in collaboration with Claude Brulé, Vittorio Bonicelli, Clement Biddle Wood, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates, Jean-Claude Forest, Charles B. Griffith from the best seller by Jean-Claude Forest
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Directed by
Roger Vadim

We were primed for Arrow’s exhaustive extras for Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, as we always thought the story behind Jane Fonda’s far-out / flaky Sci-fi romp would outshine the film itself. Early reviews and Playboy magazine suggested that the film’s shoot must have been a 24-7 full-on party.

By 1968 standards Jean-Claude Forest’s bande-dessinée comic book Barbarella bordered on pornography, and was largely unknown on our Puritan side of the Atlantic.  What was Paramount thinking when it gave producer Dino De Laurentiis the green light to make two features based on unfamiliar continental comic strips?  Before Barbarella came to our local theaters we had already grabbed the soundtrack album with the provocative poster. Nothing forewarned us about its title sequence, with the sexiest opening credits we’d ever seen.

Presumably galvanized by the success of TV’s reboot of Batman, De Laurentiis went comic-book crazy. He engaged Italy’s Mario Bava to bring the Giussani sisters’ anarchist fumetti Diabolik to the screen. Bava stuck to his intimate, small scale production habits and used only a fraction of the budget allotted by the big-time Italian producer. The French filmmaker Roger Vadim was deemed a good choice for the oversexed adventures of a female Buck Rogers saga; his Paris-based production became an expensive money pit.

Vadim is of course most noted for launching his first wife Brigitte Bardot as an international sex star. The tangled irony is that the original Barbarella comic strip character was supposedly based on Brigitte Bardot. The single-minded Vadim promoted two more major actress/wives post-Bardot, Annette Stroyberg and Jane Fonda. He married each of them in turn, and tried to mold them into Bardot’s image as well.

The Positronic Ray!

Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is a liberated, sex-obsessed space adventuress in a spoofy, Camp fantasy future — the year 40,000. Accepting a mission from Earth’s President Dianthus (Claude Dauphin), she proceeds to the planetoid Tau Ceti to find the lost scientist Durand-Durand (Milo O’Shea) and retrieve his ultimate weapon, the Positronic Ray. Barbarella discovers that Tau Ceti’s capital Sogo is ruled by The Great Tyrant, a.k.a. the Black Queen (Anita Pallenberg). Her army of Black Guards terrorizes the miserable inhabitants of The Labyrinth, a Dante-esque hellscape. The curious scientist Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau) is the wisest man in The Labyrinth. Are you taking notes?

Episodic detours await our dauntless blonde space cadet. Barbarella is aided/seduced by two men, the hairy space hermit Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi) and the clumsy revolutionary Dildano (David Hemmings). She also finds a noble ally & bedmate in Pygar, a blind angel complete with enormous feathered wings (John Phillip Law). Upon entrance to the evil city of Sogo, Barbarella is subjected to erotic torture in the Excessive Machine. The insane Durand-Durand then activates his Positronic Ray in a bid to overthrow the Black Queen. The Black Queen wants to sleep with Barbarella as well. Trapped with her in her inviolable Chamber of Dreams, The Queen opts for an apocalyptic, suicidal act: she frees from its underground chamber a living liquid called The Mathmos, which will dissolve and destroy everything on the planet.

 

That synopsis suggests that Barbarella would require an extra-big helping of not-yet-invented Star Wars– grade visual effects. It gets colorful cinematography from Vadim’s frequent collaborator Claude Renoir, but the otherwise stage-bound production is forced to rely mostly on flimsy theatrical effects. The depiction of Mark Hand’s ice planet tells it all – the set is an ice skating rink with a dull cyclorama for a background. Production designer Mario Garbuglia (Rocco e i suoi fratelli,  Il gattopardo) comes up with some arresting, dynamic settings. But Roger Vadim doesn’t film them well, and his overall visual approach makes little attempt to express the dynamism of comic strip art. The movie has its moments, yet remains somewhat shapeless, with no editorial strategy. A better title might have been ‘It’s a Barbarella happening, Baby!'”

 

Huh . . . our first taste of Free Love.

Characterizations must carry everything. Jane Fonda is excellent as Barbarella, a spirited space-flake in a series of revealing costumes. Barb is a male fantasy slightly inverted, a Little Annie Fanny of the cosmos but a with a female-empowering core. Ms. Fonda feigns concern, arousal and confusion with an open-faced innocence. Her seduction scenes are okay, and she has a flair for off-color farce. Prime among these is the Excessive Machine, an automatic masturbation device that Milo O’Shea plays like a church organ. One of the few scenes that’s actually funny is a sex encounter shared by Fonda and David Hemmings. They engage in Futuristic lovemaking by simply taking a pill; sitting motionless, they experience orgasms while their joined fingertips generate smoke.

The disc extras remind us of a New York film critic’s (Amos Vogel’s?) scathing review, which said that Barbarella is artistically worthless in comparison to Mike Kuchar’s underground movie Sins of the Fleshapoids — and steals its sex-through-fingertips idea for sex scenes.

That said, both Fonda and Vadim do very well in comparison to their lifeless episode in the horror portmanteau Histoires Extraordinaires. Ms. Fonda had her first child with Vadim but did not become his permanent muse. A year later, she back in Hollywood pursuing acclaim with more conventional dramatic roles. She also found time to wax political with Jean-Luc Godard and the North Vietnamese.

“An angel does not make love, an angel is love.”

Critics assumed that Barbarella was a stumble for Fonda, when in reality she carries the picture well, and retains her dignity. The best material places Fonda opposite John Phillip Law’s gentle, sightless Pygar, a mellow-yellow angel who talks like a Zen fortune cookie. When the time comes to fend off a buzzing horde of enemy airships, Pygar carries Barbarella aloft so she can shoot them down with her ray gun. The impossibly pure Pygar is a nice contrast with Law’s concurrent Diabolik character, a stylish master thief.

Marcel Marceau isn’t given much of interest to do, and Italo star Ugo Tognazzi was mostly wasted on American audiences unaware of his fame. The third distinctive characterization is Anita Pallenberg’s Black Queen of Sogo, the high priestess of a futuristic Sodom & Gomorrah. The Queen wears an eye patch and an abbreviated leather jumpsuit cut for maximum perversity. She spins a pair of knife-weapons in her palms. All she needs to complete the illusion of Black Widow is a red hourglass on her stomach. For additional velvety menace, Pallenberg is dubbed by the British actress Joan Greenwood (Kind Hearts and Coronets,  Mysterious Island), whose melodic, throaty voice registers somewhere between a growl and a purr:

“Hello my pretty pretty.”

 

Barbarella manages some interesting scenes, even if most look better in stills. For one tableaux of Barb’s crashed spaceship, an entire soundstage is transformed into an impressive rocky outcropping. The entrance into the City of Sogo sustains a nice sense of menace — unsavory denizens peer at Barb and Pygar from all sides, on a multi-level set. Once captured, Pygar is crucified with nails driven through his wings. Elsewhere the writers insure that Barbarella is placed in a compromised situation at least once in every reel, preferably something fetishistic. She is trapped and attacked by a squad of unconvincing metal-toothed dolls. Not much later, she’s menaced by hundreds of pecking parakeets and finches . . . you know, the dreaded Melanie Daniels enhanced interrogation technique.

Us teenagers hoping for space warfare a la George Lucas have to settle for some tame action scenes. A few airships explode and a number of Black Guards are blasted apart, but only in static cutaways. Our hopes are raised when Barbarella, cornered in Sogo, grabs the Black Queen by her neck and threatens to melt her face with a ray pistol. But similar material is staged better in the old Buster Crabbe serial Flash Gordon.

Depending on viewer expectations, the expensive visual effects are ‘artificially quaint,’ ‘Camp’ or just plain tacky. The all-dissolving ‘Mathmos’ below Sogo will bring back memories of Lava Lamps.   The lamps have a weird Barbarella connection — the UK lighting company that first marketed lava lamps in 1963 was inspired by the Jean-Claude Forest comic books, as is proven by its name.  

Excepting the main titles and credits, the film has few if any standard optical composites. The most prominent and noteworthy effect is big-scale Front Projection, utilized for the flying sequences, the Queen’s Chamber of Dreams, and the living liquid of the Mathmos. The pulsing psychedelic imagery is exactly like the big overhead-projector light-shows that were a standard feature at rock concerts. Specialist Charles Staffell had just accomplished excellent FP work for the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey.

Unsolicited effects errata: Front Projection doesn’t look like traditional rear screen process shots. It’s not difficult to spot: he projected images tend to have lighter contrast than the live-action placed before the screen. Since Scotchlite FB material was manufactured in narrow rolls, the large reflective screens constructed for filming were patchworks. This becomes clear in Pygar’s first flying sequence, against light clouds — the distinct pattern of patched FP material detracts from the effect.

 

The Zero Gravity Strip Tease.

Topic A for Barbarella fandom has long been Jane Fonda’s shining hour as an exhibitionist. Floating in apparent zero gravity to the airy music & lyrics of Bob Crewe and Charles Fox, Barbarella shucks off her space helmet and suit to reveal a free-floating nude body. Maurice Binder’s animated credit titles flit to and fro, failing to censor Ms. Fonda’s nether regions. We first saw the movie at a theater at Norton Air Force Base, with predictably enthusiastic applause from an audience of servicemen. Were homesick soldiers in Vietnam tormented by screenings of Barbarella?  The poor guys — stuck fighting a war while the home front explodes with Free Love.

The film’s only truly inspired montage cutting occurs here, filling the Panavision frame with Vadim’s approximation of a space age wet dream. The weightless illusion was accomplished in-camera: Vadim simply shot downward at Jane Fonda, twisting and writhing atop a large sheet of Plexiglas. Helping out is that bouncy title tune:

“Barbarella psychedella, there’s a kind of cockleshell around you . . .”

So why did Barbarella not inspire critical praise or become a massive hit?   Vadim stages a lot of kinky tableaux — “it’s a happening!” — but only occasionally finds a good angle for his camera. When more than two people are on screen he just stays wide, trying to take it all in. The vibe is more Pageant than Comic Book. Cutaways to miniatures, effects, explosions, etc., feel disconnected.

We can still appreciate much of the art direction and cleverly designed props. Some of Jane Fonda’s costumes are appealing, with their plastic see-through breastplates and other erotic details. But some of the ‘far out’ sets are little more than collections of plastic balloons and clear plexiglass. The film’s margins are packed with exotic models in weird makeups and wholly impractical ‘futuristic’ garb — like one might have seen on a 1968 fashion runway.

The bottom line is that the talented comedienne Jane Fonda needed better direction. Twelve years later Dino de Laurentiis committed himself to another comic book space opera, Flash Gordon. Once again the result disappointed, but for opposite reasons. Dino’s production team created a lavish pop-art look and Mike Hodges’ direction is reasonably inventive and dynamic . . . but the actor in the leading role didn’t measure up.

 


 

Arrow Video’s 4K Ultra HD of Barbarella is billed as a new 4K restoration from the original negative, commissioned by Arrow Films. We’ve never seen a bad copy of this Technicolor show, from glowing theatrical prints all the way to DVD and Blu-ray; those flesh tones are warm and lush. Claude Renoir’s camerawork is always attractive even in the odd conditions imposed on him by the mostly stage-bound production. Renoir also filmed Roger Vadim’s horror classic … Et mourir de plaisir, a Paramount release in Technicolor and Technirama that’s in serious need of revival. Buyers need to be aware that no straight Blu-ray of the film is included; the company offers a separate Blu-ray disc release.

The audio is present in a choice of original mono and a remixed 5.1 Atmos track. Of special interest is a secondary French audio soundtrack, in which Jane Fonda speaks her entire dialogue part in French … can it be considered the film’s original version?  There’s also a welcome Isolated Music track. Bob Crewe & Charles Fox’s busy score would seem an attempt at a Burt Bachararch- like sound, with a catchy tune or two. Slickly arranged and orchestrated, the action cues provide most of the movie’s forward momentum.

The second Blu-ray disc is for extras only — a lot of them. Experts Tim Lucas and Steven R. Bissette are the go-to pair dispensing the most information and insight. They’re appreciative of Barbarella even as they see it for what it is, a gaudy milestone of the hippy dippy year ’68, that promised us teenagers a future of far-out movie fare. Tim’s solo commentary takes a deep dive into the hard facts, with some interesting info about the deal-making world of Dino De Laurentiis, and the show’s status as a ‘sister’ production to Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik.

Lucas teams with Steve Bissette for a conversation about everything Barbarella that goes on for two full hours. Bissette’s name is now a draw, after the bright ideas and new info in his lengthy solo discussion on a recent release of Gorgo. The Lucas-Bissette track is productively focused on Euro comics and graphic novels. At the half hour mark they’re still on the bande-dessinée from which the movie sprang. When they go off on a tangent, it’s only to make a contextual point or an on-topic comparison. It’s like a good post-screening discussion, minus the rush to finish so the theater can close for the night.

Bissette adds a generous plug at the finish, praising one of author Roberto Curti’s books on comic book heroines like Barbarella.

Can I skip explaining the MTV-era significance of Durand-Durand?

The other new featurettes aligned around specific spokespeople aren’t as focused. Actor Ugo Tognazzi’s son Ricky gives a respectful talk about his famous father. Camera operator Roberto Girometti praises the famed DP Claude Renoir, and actor & stunt man Fabio Testi explains his role in the movie. Each must be near 80 but look in terrific health. Charming raconteurs, they default to anecdotes and personal memories involving famous directors and gorgeous actresses. Girometti talks at length about his fun on the Renoir-shot The Adventurers. Testi’s effort to entertain comes up with at least one eyebrow-raiser: when he took John Philip Law’s place in the flying angel rig, was he really ninety feet in the air?

 

Film fashion scholar Elizabeth Castaldo contributes an academic talk about the film’s costume designs. She touches upon the work of designer Jacques Fonteray and tries to trace some color themes through the movie. The rambling discussion makes a case for the movie’s relevance in a social-artistic revolution of the the late 1960s, and describes an artistic injustice visited upon Monsieur Fonteray, being cheated of proper credit for his futuristic fashion designs. Ms. Castaldo’s essay for the disc’s booklet covers much of the same ground and is easier to follow.

Castaldo offers some interesting speculation that begins with the documented replacement of Italian actor Antonio Sabato (Grand Prix) in favor of the English David Hemmings. She suggests that Vadim may have filmed more adult material with Fonda, Tognazzi, Sabato, O’Shea and Pallenberg, scenes that Paramount needed re-shot for the American censors. The film’s surviving nudes are parts of the static tableaux, such as the Doré-like figures imprisoned in trees and rocks in the Labyrinth. Behind-the scenes film footage elsewhere on the disc shows that the editors likely had a chore avoiding more nudity in the scenes of apocalyptic panic. Yet on its release late in 1968, just before the Ratings System arrived, we teenagers knew we were getting a glimpse of an unclothed future. The studio clearly scored a coup in getting Ms. Fonda’s strip scene pushed through intact.

Don’t do a Toby Dammit in your new car, Rog.

Arrow’s disc producer has found a 1968 promotional film loaded with behind the scenes footage. It billboards Jane Fonda (‘look, she’s making lunch for her husband Roger!’) and lets Vadim show off his new Ferrari. We see some rehearsals on the set, and get close looks at the models being fitted for bizarre makeups and peekaboo ‘futuristic’ costumes. A glimpse of one model reveals a ‘gold feather’ look identical to what John Philip Law wears in the last scene of Diabolik, when he’s a piece of golden statuary.

The trailer included is an original ‘coming soon’ piece from 1968. At some point in the film’s theatrical life the film’s initial poster art     was swapped out for a less attractive design that adds to the title the words ‘Queen of the Galaxy.’  This replacement art is what’s represented on Arrow’s fold-out poster extra. Mr. Bissette notes that in the preferred poster, the publicists place Jane Fonda in a pose very similar to that for Raquel Welch in One Million Years, B.C..

 

Besides Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén’s good piece on Barbarella’s contribution to the ’60s counterculture, the 120-page color insert booklet has essays by Anne Billson (a psychedelic overview), Paul Gravett (on Jean-Claude Forest) and Véronique Bergen (free love and fashionable perversity). We can see Arrow pushing their colorful boxed disc set as a holiday special for committed fans of fantasy on 4K.

55 years later, we cop to still being amused by Barbarella. We remember a photo piece somewhere that focused on the weird weaponry of the film — all those pistols and rifles that are teleported to Barbarella’s ship look like Art Nouveau creations carved from teakwood. I know I’ll be wanting to listen to the Isolated Music Track, too. The picture looks smashing in 4K — you’ll be able to examine every detail of the tacky shag rug in Barb’s spaceship, and the all-plastic, Lava Lamp-scented interior decorations of the Evil City of Sogo.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Barbarella
4K Ultra HD rates:
Movie: Good + Plus
Video: Excellent 4K Ultra HD in Dolby Vision / HDR10
Sound: Excellent 1.0 / 5.1 Atmos / English, French
Supplements:
Feature disc (4K)
Audio commentary by film critic Tim Lucas
Alternative opening and closing credits (in 4K with Dolby Vision)
Isolated score
Extras disc (Blu-ray)
Featurette Another Girl, Another Planet with Glenn Kenny
Behind the scenes featurette Barbarella Forever! by Paul Joyce
A two hour conversation with Tim Lucas and Steven R. Bissette
Interview featurette Dress to Kill with film fashion scholar Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén on Jacques Fonteray’s costumes
Interview featurette Framing for Claude (Renoir) with camera operator Roberto Girometti
Interview featurette (Ugo) Tognazzi on Tognazzi with the actor’s son Ricky Tognazzi
Interview featurette An Angel’s Body Double with actor Fabio Testi
Video essay Dino (De Laurentiis) and Barbarella by Eugenio Ercolani
Trailer; US TV and radio spots, Image gallery
Illustrated Collector’s Booklet featuring essays by Anne Billson, Paul Gravett, Véronique Bergen and Elizabeth Castaldo Lundén, plus more.
Reversible sleeve and double-sided fold-out poster featuring earlier and new artwork by Tula Lotay
Six collector’s postcards.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 11, 2023
(7028barb)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Chas Speed

It seems like such a waste to release this on 4K because I still couldn’t sit through the boredom of this film. It looks like it would be camp fun, but it never comes close.

Last edited 8 months ago by Chas Speed
Jenny Agutter fan

Jane Fonda’s probably embarrassed by that movie; it was an excuse to show off her body.

Nonetheless, you gotta admire the fact that they were willing to put all that WTF stuff onscreen.

PS: Milo O’Shea also played Friar Laurence in Franco Zefferelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”. Later on he co-starred with Janeane Garofalo in “The Matchmaker”.

Jeffrey Nelson

I’ve always loved this film, a glorious slice of psychedelic intergalactic comic book camp, set to one of the greatest soundtracks of the ‘60. Can’t remotely relate to those sad souls who find it boring.

Anthony Thorne

Fun review. Bissette has been a smart critic of cult films for nearly as long as Lucas has – he contributed to early issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG and EUROPEAN TRASH CINEMA, and occasionally did cover artwork for them.

Roberto Curti’s books are great too, and all highly recommended, particularly the three he did on Italian gothic horror films. They rely heavily on original research from the Italian archives, plus interviews Curti did over there with many of the participants. I’ve loved Argento’s INFERNO for years but the several pages Curti gives that movie comes to thousands of words of facts and anecdotes and arresting data that I never would have dreamt about, and that’s just one movie.

Hopefully Severin sends Glenn the three Soavi Italian horror 4K’s that they just announced – THE SECT, THE CHURCH, and DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE.

Darth Egregious

The opening striptease always reminded me of a space-age take on Dietrich’s “Hot Voodoo” number!

As for Flash Gordon, I’ll happily cope with a wooden leading man when the script, settings, music and the rest of the cast are so entertaining!

Pearce

Glenn might be reluctant to mention the band inspired by this movie, but I think it’s worth noting that director Russell Mulcahy (Razorback, Highlander) made a Duran Duran concert video in 1984 called Arena with the conceit that Durand-Durand (played again by Milo O’Shea) was attempting to blow up the band for stealing his name. It’s a fun watch if you can tolerate the music – Mulcahy has all the visual style as a director that Vadim lacks.

Rusty Conifer

“Barbarella” and only one other join my list of movies where I seriously considered leaving the theatre. Having seen the near perfect “2001 A Space Odyssey” my expectations were high but the opening where Fonda was wallowing around on a piece of clear plastic, that killed the whole movie for me. (Yes, I saw the reflection in the floating pen scene)

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[…] half-hour time slots. It’s like a video podcast, and not a bad idea — what they did for Barbarella last year was very entertaining. Destination Inner Space taxes their ingenuity and our patience, […]

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