In the 41st Century, space girl Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is travelling the galaxy in her personal spaceship when she gets a signal from Earth. It is the President (Claude Dauphin) and he has an urgent mission for her: she will be sent to find the evil Durand Durand who has invented a positronic ray with which he intends to conquer the peaceful galaxy. Barbarella cannot understand why anyone would want to shatter the tranquility with a weapon, but the President is insistent and sends her some guns to assist. Soon she is heading through a magnetic disturbance to the last place Durand Durand was seen...
Roger Vadim and Terry Southern scripted this campy and psychedelic adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest's comic strip, along with many others, including Forest himself, who also acted as a consultant on the visuals. In an attempt to capture the comic strip's distinctive style, everything is overdesigned and impractical-looking, from Barbarella's costumes and spaceship to the city of SoGo. There is a plethora of weird sound effects and a sixties pop soundtrack is constantly playing, so naturally, all this doesn't seem tremendously futuristic nowadays, but the filmmakers' maxim seems to have been, if it looks cool, if it looks weird, then put it onscreen.
As Barbarella, Fonda strikes the right note of naivety and determination, but for such a sexy title character, the film's attitude to sex is summed up by the opening titles where she strips in zero gravity: you don't see much and it's all a big tease, really. There is also a fetishistic side to her exploits - she is frequently being trapped and tortured, whether by Anita Pallenberg's evil queen or Milo O'Shea's pleasure machine. Therefore our heroine conveys the sexual tension as a wholesome antidote to the more depraved denizens of The City of Night that she ends up exploring, exhibiting two sides to sexuality, the dark and the light, that the film cannot make up its mind about which it would like better.
And some of this is actually quite nasty, see an early scene which must have given many viewers their strongest look at sadomasochistic kinkiness yet when Babs is captured by wicked children and has flesh-eating dolls set upon her, ripping her clothes and giving her some painful nips (so to speak). Then at the other end of the film, there's the callous way characters are killed off for the finale, no matter how sympathetic they have been. How you respond to this is all a matter of taste, I suppose, but the attitude of going all out in an of its time manner has cemented its cult status, even if Fonda struggled in real life with how to react to have been a big part of something this gaudily perverse. Certainly it was used against her when she took up social activism as she and Vadim drifted apart, to undercut her serious messages.
But there could have been more jokes, too, or at least some better oneliners as the arch, faux-innocent dialogue Barbarella gets to speak raises more knowing smiles than outright laughs ("This is much too poetic a way to die!" she exclaims as killer budgies cover her, for example). That said, David Hemmings' bumbling freedom fighter is quite funny (intent on trying the sex substitute pills instead of actual carnal knowledge of Babs - which at least is always consensual) and hints at the stronger comedic path Vadim could have taken, as otherwise he's more intent on seeing how much he could get away with under the guise of what is actually some pretty queasy fun. Since Barbarella was made, we haven't seen much in the way of deliberately kitsch science fiction, which is kind of a shame, even if it's a difficult balance to attain without being too silly for words, something this film gets just about right, sustaining that mood with some impressive dedication, be it your cup of tea or not. Some catchy, bright music by Bob Crewe and Charles Fox scores the overwhelming chintz perfectly.