More puzzling than why Jane Fonda installed floor-to-ceiling shag carpet in her spacecraft, is why it has taken me all these years to watch Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (1968). As the second-highest-grossing film in the UK that year, it isn’t surprising that a few young men from Birmingham would come across it and choose to name their band after a character. From the science fiction storyline to, well, Jane Fonda, it is the sort of film that captures the imagination of young men. Much like Duran Duran’s own videos, the film is a product of its time but remains a, sometimes, revolutionary text.
Equal parts Flash Gordon and Austin Powers, Barbarella finds herself trying to save the universe from the evil Durand Durand. There is a blind angel, the blonde adonis John Phillip Law, some evil dolls that try to eat Barbarella, an attack of parakeets, a bi-sexual princess and a lot of other ridiculousness along the way. As far as storylines go, it unfolds like the comic strip it originated from. The scenes look individually brilliant with a retro-futurist style the screams 1968 but it is far from gripping as a story.
While most will want to dismiss the film as soft-core sexist fluff, Barbarella has proven to be an iconic and influential character, most recently being reprised by Ariana Grande in her “Break Free” video and celebrated by Clutch with “In Walks Barbarella” . The kitsch and camp of the film overshadow how in-control of her sexuality Barbarella is throughout the film; ultimately undermining patriarchal attitudes and reflecting the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. Nobody exerts any power over Barbarella’s choices and she possesses the same sexual freedom of James Bond, moving from bed to bed without a second-thought.
Nobody, not even Durand Durand with his excessive-pleasure machine, can tame Barbarella and her innocence ultimately is what saves her from the Matmos, some sort of evil energy substance. That innocence is not tied to chasteness, but to peace and love and the search for a utopia that we know we will never find. Barbarella’s charm lies in how it celebrates and ridicules such thinking simultaneously. It’s all a bit daft and the film embraces that fully. Fonda may have been cast by her husband for other reasons but she magnificently threads the needle as an actor throughout.
Which brings us to Duran Duran. From “Girls On Film” to “Electric Barbarella”, many of the same criticisms of Barbarella apply to their work but they can be dismissed for the same reasons. If patriarchy is rooted in power, it is hard to see how the band has exerted that power over women in their music and short-films. In the subversive “Girls On Film”, the video unfolds with vignettes that establish power ultimately resides with the women and the band are kept at a distance, unable to participate. When they are allowed into the fray with “Rio”, they all make fools of themselves chasing their idea of female beauty.
The most troubling video is likely “Electric Barbarella” with the boys purchasing a sexbot for their flat. Why Nick, Simon, and Warren are sharing a flat is never addressed but I know record sales were declining at the time. Director Ellen von Unwerth brings her iconic photography to life in the video and, admittedly, her visuals threaten to overshadow the underlying message of the song. As much as the men wish to control their electric Barbarella, they are destined to fail in every regard. Myka Dunkel shrewdly exaggerates the ridiculousness of it all with her acting; something I missed the first few times I saw it upon release. Much like Barbarella, the video is a parody that mocks social conventions of the time without becoming too cynical. And it looks amazing doing so.
Did Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy give Duran Duran more than a cool name for their band? Definitely. When you watch the film, notice how many times Fonda says “planet earth” for example and how many Duran Duran songs can fit into a science-fiction context. With the band’s recent NASA show, this is the perfect time to watch Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy and ponder the ultimate question: is there anybody out there?