When the sci-fi film Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968, France) is not being plain ridiculous, it is outrageously extravagant. In its delightful ludicrousness, the film manages to slip into almost every scene a sexual reference. However, nothing makes more evident the film’s sexual obsession than the sequence in which Jane Fonda is put through the ‘excessive machine’ for a pleasurable death, only to become the cause of the machine’s destruction.
Perhaps it is the fact that Barbarella seems to know no limits –as neither does Roger Vadim’s imagination– that is so enjoyable to the spectator. By the time we realise it is not going to get any more decorous than Barbarella’s innocent expressions of “Oh, goodness!”, we learn to roll with it and enjoy the excess as it is. In any way, it is not so much the sexual character of the film that we enjoy as the playfulness with which it is presented. We are invited into Barbarella’s surreal world to take part in her pleasure and go along with whatever seems to be ‘too much’, instead of criticising it. As Susan Sontag argues, “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation –not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy.”
Although we are drawn to the film for the sensuous content, what makes us stay is the star. I can hardly conceive that such a film would have enjoyed the cult character it has gained throughout the years if it had not been for Jane Fonda’s charisma and fabulous –once again, excessive–, performance. She is ultimately the reason why we might decide not to hate this film, and instead say to ourselves, as Barbarella does when she first experiences the ‘excessive machine’: “Oh! It’s… sort of nice, isn’t it?”