First, a little history...
...You're welcome. And now back to your regularly scheduled Jane Fonda-ing:
"The ultimate Camp statement: ...it’s good because it’s awful." - Susan Sontag
"Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation — not judgment.
"It is camp because it both succeeds and fails so spectacularly.” - Riccardo Slavik
Full disclosure, I knew I was going to LOVE this movie the second I read the description on IMDB. It just has too many exquisite things going for it, and you should know by now what a sucker I am for all things #camp.
Beyond the delicious premise - Barbarella is an astronaut from Earth sent to a Sodom & Gomorrah like planet to find and stop the evil scientist who wants to destroy humanity, with the help of a literal ARCHANGEL with a fear of flying (who is inexplicably played by a German underwear supermodel??) - Jane goes above and fucking beyond letting herself be Sexploited. She gives us ALL the eye-twinkling from Barefoot in the Park and MORE. She knows exactly what the fuck this is, and she's having FUN with it. This is True Camp.
"Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness."
I think I first fell in love with camp accidentally... I might get shit for saying this, but tbh it was when I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time. They had to lay heavy on their tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating, self-aware humor to compensate for their lack of a sci-fi special effects budget, and for me, it fucking WORKED. I was in a shitty place emotionally when I discovered Buffy - wallowing in teen angst and self-pity, but totally lacking the maturity or vocabulary to articulate my deep and valid emotions - and something about mocking the very thing that I wanted the most clicked in my head. Cheesiness, campiness, they were just languages for people who desperately wanted to talk about their feelings but thought feelings were "dumb." For the misanthropic, camp is the only path to catharsis. At least for me it was.
I honestly don't even want to do a recap for Barbarella because you should really all go watch it yourself, but I'll give you my highlights reel:
"Camp is the heroism of people not called upon to be heroes." - Phillip Core
Jane Fonda does some wicked acting here, and it's a testament to how grounded and strong she fundamentally is as a person - made all the more impressive if you watch her HBO documentary Jane in Five Acts (highly recommend) and learn that she wasn't feeling all that grounded at that time in her personal life. But that's the magic of Jane: whatever was going on off-camera, she is a heroine at heart. I think the reason this movie has survived as a cult classic (and not solely as a symbol of sexploitation) is because never feel worried for her. Is what she's doing ridiculous? Of course. Is it relying her sexuality and capitalizing on it? You betcha. Is she totally aware, and leaning into it, and having fun with it, and owning the shit out of it? Fuck yes. Because you know that deep down she is extremely intelligent and capable and, in a sense, "in charge," you can relax and enjoy the absurdity of it... and why not? She is!
So this is what's called an "anthology," a film comprised of three 45 minute segments all based on Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Jane is only in the first one, a piece called Metzengerstein. It was actually Poe's first published piece, largely based on a very old German folktale.
It's important to remember that Vadim, Jane's husband at the time, not only directed this piece but also worked on the modernization... because shit's about to get really weird.
FIRST OF ALL, the original story goes something like this:
It's medieval times, and there are two warring families in the same kingdom. Their hatred for each other goes back so many generations no one can even remember what it's over (although an ancient prophecy about one house destroying the other might be involved). One day, the Lord of House Metzengerstein basically says "enough is enough!" and decides to kill the Lord of the other house by burning down his castle (how exactly DOES one burn down a castle though??). The Lord of the house dies, but there is one survivor... a black horse, whom Lord Metzengerstein becomes weirdly obsessed with. Deep down he low key believes it's the Lord of the house come back to haunt him - but for some reason doesn't kill the horse?? - and just gets, like, really into hanging out with the horse. Then one day - presumably after the horse has lulled the murdery lord into a false sense of security - the horse kicks him off a cliff and he dies. So... moral of the story: don't murder people, or they'll come back as animals and MURDER YOU. I give the story a 7/10.
So Vadim sees this story and is like "OH BOY I HAVE AN IDEA! Let's make my hot wife, Jane Fonda, the murdery lord... but instead of the enemy of her house, let's make it her HOT COUSIN... and hang on here, 'cause it's about to get interesting... let's cast her enemy/hot cousin as... PETER FONDA, HER REAL LIFE BROTHER!! And also let's make her "obsession" with the horse HIGHLY erotic. Like no question about it, my wife wants to fuck a horse. And also her brother. But not in that order."
AND THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENS. HOLLYWOOD JUST LET HIM FUCKING DO THAT.
Her acting in this is nothing extraordinary, because she doesn't have a whole lot to work with... she's supposed to be this delightfully hedonistic, cruel, Cersei-like queen (*cough* incest *cough*) who accidentally falls in love with her worse enemy, then kills him, then becomes obsessed with what she believes is him in ghost-form trapped IN A FUCKING HORSE, and then lets herself go INSANE until the horse literally rides her into a field of flames (??) and they both die. Together. In love.
...I'd like to blame this all on what a CREEP George Vadim is, but tbh, this as been an ongoing problem in Hollywood for some time. Like seriously, where did this obsession with hot blondes and big hairy animals come from??
Like I think it's weird enough when directors choose to direct their wives in sex scenes - remember Revolutionary Road??? Yeah, that was directed by Kate Winslet's then-husband, Sam Mendes. Fucking WEIRD. Not to mention literally EVERY Tim Burton/Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter movie... like I think Tim Burton was just hardcore into cuckolding and didn't know how to express it except via film?? The point is, this was pre-GoT, so what's with the totally overlooked incest vibes??
If I learned one valuable thing from Spirits of the Dead it was that Cruel Jane is definitely in her Wheelhouse. Like every actor has a few "types" that they play really well - if you remember from last time, Bitch Meryl was my favorite, Shrill Meryl was my least favorite - and I think we'll be seeing a lot more from Cruel Jane again in the future. She's got all the chutzpah of Spunky But Immature Jane, but she's evolved.
That being said, Cruel Jane didn't get to play very much this round - there were just too many knockouts from Camp Jane.
And the winner is...