A few years ago, when I was still in university, I took this course called ‘Cinema and Sensation: Sex’ with Professor Bart Testa. I think it was in the opening lecture that we watched Roger Vadim’s first film And God Created Woman starring former sex symbol, current hateful racist Brigitte Bardot. It was a safe choice to reassure the students – at least the straight male students - who had opted for the sex course over the action and horror equivalents in the ‘Sensation Series’ that they'd made the right decision. Bardot essentially rose to the heavenly skies of stardom and sex kitten-ness with the opening frame of Vadim's film; and a shot that iconic, that swelteringly sexy, is a fantastic way to start a class.
It was also a great way to start visiting the career of a man whose filmography doesn’t quite receive – nor does it exactly deserve – as much credit as the other directors of nouvelle vague, but was nevertheless immensely influential. Vadim spearheaded a revolutionary movement in the embodiment of sensuality in cinema. His vision chaperoned many artistic and many, many more pseudo-artistic sexual films that Europe produced regularly in the two or three decades that succeeded And God Created Woman. (See: Radley Metzger) But his finest hour remains his very first film in my opinion.
Fast forward twelve years and there's Barbarella, a film that is, despite more than a few similarities, almost exactly what Woman isn't. For all the taboos that Bardot's vehicle exposed, there remained something innocently subtle about it. Its sensuality was as much a product of the heated locale it took place in and the repressed sexuality of its inhabitants as it was of Bardot's lush nude shots and uninhibited demeanor. Barbarella has none of that. It's garish and over-designed and shrill. I've never liked it much, to be honest. This type of campy science fiction cult film has never been my cup of tea and Barbarella is a particularly silly one.
Last night's screening was the fourth time I've watched this film; a fact not born of any affection for the film itself but of watching Jane Fonda, one of cinema’s greatest beauties, rolling around scantily clad on furry rugs or sweatily out-orgasming the Excessive Machine – a scene arguably more exciting than anything the porn industry has produced in the past three decades. You'd have to be insane not to want to revisit that. My favorite shot, however, is something less overtly sexy, but it's the one that pops up in my head as soon as I think of the film.
Barbarella, upon crashing on planet Tau Ceti, is found by murderous children who trap her using carnivorous dolls. She is rescued by a Catchman who saves her life and asks her to make love to him in return. Barbarella explains that people on Earth haven't had intercourse for centuries, instead using some unbelievably dull pill-induced palm on palm action for pleasure, but she gives in and goes to bed. The intercourse is not shown so the scene cuts away to Jane Fonda humming in sheer bliss as she lies in the Catchman's vessel as he offers her some of his fur for clothing. The next shot, filmed from outside the vessel, shows Fonda's nude figure blurred by the vessel's opaque nylon walls. It's almost a mirror image of Bardot's aforementioned introduction in Woman and it goes against all the oversexed imagery of planet Tau Ceti. It's delicately suggestive and juxtaposed to the rest of the film, it's particularly memorable for being unlike any image that comes before or after it.