Filling the Gaps: BARBARELLA – QUEEN OF THE GALAXY

Scouring the video store shelves in search of something interesting I feel like I should see often yields surprising results, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the surprise I got from BARBARELLA: QUEEN OF THE GALAXY. I had a vague idea of what it was (kitschy sci-fi cult classic was my understanding), but, to my initial delight (but eventual disappointment), I had more in store, but perhaps also much, much less.

BARBARELLA is a bizarre, psychedelic tale of the sexual awakening of the titular (no pun intended) character, played by an startlingly young and alluring Jane Fonda, a woman sent by the Government of the Republic of Earth to search for scientist Durand Durand. Durand, whose spacecraft disappeared somewhere near mysterious planet Tau Ceti, is the creator of the Positronic Ray, a weapon of unspeakable power which the Earth government wish to retrieve before it falls into unfriendly hands. After crash landing on the planet, Barbarella encounters various odd people and creatures, all of whom seem to exist in a primitive world of sexual liberation. 41st century society has moved on from archaic penetrative intercourse it seems, opting instead for a meditative melding of ‘psychocardiograms’ (think the virtual sex from DEMOLITION MAN, but less exciting), and Barbarella is initially appalled at the idea, yet after around 20 seconds of coercion from a creep in a bear suit, experiences the pleasures of the flesh for the first time. And so begins the erotic adventures of Barbarella, which include making love to a blind angel, being propositioned by a one-eyed dominatrix who may not be what she seems, and having her body literally played like an organ by the nefarious Durand Durand.

Unfortunately, it all sounds a little racier than it is. There’s plenty of innuendo and double entendre (one of the characters is named Dildano!), but really it’s not pushed far enough, and the film is a little tame. There are laughs to be had, and Fonda is fully committed to the campy lunacy of the script but BARBARELLA doesn’t really live up to its cult status. The spectacularly low-budget sets and effects, Fonda’s ever-changing and increasingly revealing outfits, and the fun and funky psychedelic lounge music throughout stand out as highlight, but it’s far from a good movie. Amazingly Fonda turned down both BONNIE AND CLYDE and ROSEMARY’S BABY to make this, so I guess you have to give her credit for the effort, and perhaps some chemical accompaniment would work in BARBARELLA’s favour (as I’m certain there was plenty on set). It’s the sort of film which you know you’re going to like or hate before even starting it, and I’m not surprised that it has its fans. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

Filling the Gaps: Repulsion (1965)

Well, for my second Filling the Gaps post, I chose a film which is probably even creepier than the first one. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion tells the story of Carole (Catherine Deneuve) and her gradual descent into madness. It’s a pretty small-scale story, with most of the plot taking place in the apartment that Carole shares with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), but Polanski works masterfully within the confines of the location. While the film initially made me think of French new-wave cinema, it rapidly evolves into something frightening and deeply unsettling, and it’s not likely to be something I’ll forget any time soon. 

There’s never any explicit explanation for Carole’s madness, but the implication is that it stems from sexual repression, possibly due to some form of childhood abuse. Polanski establishes Carole from the very beginning as pure and virginal in several ways, such as her apparent compulsive behaviour regarding cleanliness. Interestingly, Repulsion feels at times like a companion piece to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with both directors using black and white film for thematic reasons. Where Hitchcock changed Marion Crane’s underwear from white at the beginning to black following her crime, Polanski contrasts Carole and Helen through hair colour and clothing. Helen, with her darker hair and wardrobe, is sexually promiscuous, and is involved with a married man, but Carole’s purity is again highlighted by her blonde hair, pale skin, and lighter coloured clothing. 

When Helen and her lover depart for a few days on vacation, Repulsion slips into a surreal nightmare. The world around Carole begins to disintegrate, and the cracks that begin to appear all over the walls mirror the fracturing of her mind. She begins to hear and see noises around the apartment as she lays in bed, and hallucinations of rape plague her repeatedly. The fear and disgust she has concerning sexual contact, coupled with her already compulsive behaviour, destroy what fragile grip on reality she has, and ultimately lead her to shocking violence when confronted by two men who show amorous interest in her. The deeper into insanity she falls, the more Polanski distorts the perspective and framing of his shots, building terrific suspense and dread until the conclusion, closing with a slow zoom into a photograph which suggests some form of explanation for the chaos we’ve just seen. He doesn’t give up all the answers, and is maybe a little heavy-handed with some of his metaphors, but by and large the film is an excellent example of psychological horror and suspense.

After this film and The Wicker Man I think for the next Filling the Gaps entry I’m going to try and go a lttle more light-hearted, maybe with some screwball comedy. I’ve got more time on my hands now, so I’ll try to do at least one of these posts each week, along with my reviews of new stuff.

Filling the Gaps: The Wicker Man (1973)

In the interests of improving my film knowledge and experiencing as many important films as I can, from time to time I am going to watch and try to write on classics and various other movies that I haven’t seen, but feel that I should. So it was that tonight I found myself watching Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. I already knew the basic plot of the film having regrettably seen the awful 2006 remake, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how bizarre, ghastly, yet wonderfully surprising The Wicker Man was.

Telling the story of a police officer sent to a small island off the coast of Scotland to investigate a missing child case, The Wicker Man was seemingly almost destined to be a cult success, given the subject matter. Upon his arrival on the island, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, finds himself in a community engulfed in archaic, Pagan traditions, led by the charismatic Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Thwarted at every turn in his attempts to get simple, straight answers out of the islanders, Howie discovers the shocking secrets of the seemingly idyllic community. It’s a deeply uneasy film, aided by unconventional, canted camerawork, darkly sinister performances, and some of the weirdest and most creepy use of music I’ve ever seen/heard.

A couple of things that really stood out for me were, firstly, the great sense of watchfulness and constant observation that follows Howie from the minute he steps onto the island. Hardy repeatedly inserts shots of eyes into the film, and indeed it seems as if there are eyes everywhere, following Howie’s every move, and it really gives a terrific sense of menace. He is an outsider, poking his nose into places where it doesn’t belong, and the islanders are always several steps ahead of him. Also, the film has some very interesting things to say about religion. Howie’s steadfast belief in Christianity is challenged at every turn by the Pagan community, and his disgust at local traditions and rituals grows as the film progresses and reveals more and more of the awful truth about the island and its inhabitants. Whether or not The Wicker Man was intended to be a critique on Christianity is perhaps not for me to say, but the film certainly poses some interesting questions about the nature of God and his followers. When the film’s excellent twist comes toward the end, let me just say that one system of beliefs comes off as looking rather more foolish than the other.

There’s not a lot else I can say about The Wicker Man without giving too much away, but having seen it I can appreciate its value as a cult item. It’s perhaps not the genuine classic that many people seem to believe, but it’s mostly a fun, creepy and effective mystery made all the more enjoyable by the sheer nuttiness of it.

Filling The Gaps: The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment was one of a huge list of movies that are considered classics which I haven’t seen, and indeed knew very little about (other than the level of admiration which many people have for it). Having a vague knowledge of the stars of the film (Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine), for one reason or another I was expecting a light-hearted comedy filled with innuendo and witty banter, a tradition of filmmaking that was common around the period when this film was released. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed, as these elements are all in play in The Apartment, but what really thrilled and surprised me was the much more serious subject matter that the film deals with. To say this is simply a comedy is completely false, as it’s a somewhat dark and daring study of the nature of love and infidelity, and the stunning performances and filmmaking on display had me enthralled from the first frame.

The film certainly begins as a comedy. C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is a young bachelor trying to ascend the corporate ladder by allowing a group of his superiors to use his apartment for their extra-marital liaisons. After he falls for charismatic elevator attendant Fran (MacLaine), who is engaged in an illicit relationship with Mr. Sheldrake, the married head of the company, Baxter tries to free himself from the demands of his bosses, with hilarious results. While this is certainly risqué subject matter (for 1960), the film takes an unexpectedly sombre turn when Fran makes a suicide attempt in the apartment after learning the truth behind Sheldrake’s motives. What follows is a touching, and at times heart-wrenching flowering of Baxter and Fran’s relationship, and if the ending is a little predictable, the journey getting there is really something wonderful.

The Apartment features an excellent selection of fully-formed support characters, but the film really belongs to Lemmon and MacLaine. Lemmon’s reputation as cinema’s greatest everyman is really on show here, and it’s impossible not to root for him and sympathise with his plight. Playing Baxter as a charming yet awkward underdog, his character is the embodiment of the ‘nice guys finish last’ maxim, and although some elements of his life may be a little shady to say the least, Lemmon is flawless. MacLaine is completely up to Lemmon’s high standard as Fran, effortlessly making audiences fall in love with her just as Baxter has. She’s just so damn cute that even when she’s recovering from an overdose of sleeping pills, she exudes such a potent ‘girl next door’ allure that can’t be avoided. Her chemistry with Lemmon is palpable, and when they inevitably end up together, it’s one of those truly satisfying romantic moments seen all too rarely in modern cinema.

I’m not usually one to get nostalgic when it comes to film periods, but while I do have great fondness for many more recent romantic comedies, Hollywood really doesn’t make movies like The Apartment any more. Wilder’s screenplay (co-written with I.A.L. Diamond) is clever, witty and engaging, particularly in the subtle motifs and unique idiosyncrasies of all the characters, and the film is just so expertly crafted. I’m determined now to seek out more Wilder films, along with catching up on my Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. I can’t recommend The Apartment highly enough!