It is right, and a good and joyful thing, that producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Roger Vadim should have collaborated on a film. Their careers were too complementary for there to have been any possibility of them both bopping around Europe at the same time without colliding. Indeed, the fact that 1968's Barbarella was the only thing they made together is a bit of a surprise in its own right. Luckily, they got it right the first time, and Barbarella is exactly and in every detail the film that the De Laurentiis/Vadim partnership ought to have produced in the very best-case scenario.

But I am getting ahead of myself - perhaps I should have first introduces messieurs De Laurentiis and Vadim first, so the readers among you less versed in 1960s Eurotrash would know what I'm talking about? Dino De Laurentiis was a prolific producer whose career ranged from austere art films to the cruddiest exploitation, and he never saw an opportunity to cash in on a trend that he wouldn't grab with both hands (the most famous example being his pair of rip-offs of the massive hit Jaws, 1976's King Kong remake and 1977's Orca; it says most of what there is to say about the man's personality that he viewed a King Kong remake to be an obvious, credible attempt to hitch his star to the Jaws bandwagon). Roger Vadim was the director of several movies, beginning with his groundbreaking 1956 debut ...And God Created Woman, that split the difference between the European art films then in vogue and just plain smut. Tasteful, refined, artistic smut, you understand. Artistic smut with an uncomfortable tendency to star the succession of sexpots he was married to at the time: Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg, and Barbarella herself, Jane Fonda.

De Laurentiis's eye for a bankable trend and Vadim's status as a brand name rather than a filmmaker fit together neatly as bread and butter, and in no time they'd joined forces to turn Jean-Claude Forest's comic book character (who was said to be modeled on Bardot) into the central character of a big sci-fi epic, at a time when science fiction was at one of its all-time popular lows (though 1968 also saw the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, and boy, how's that for the most nonsensical triple-feature of all time). We shall not call the screen Barbarella a "heroine", exactly, for it's not really the case that she does much in the way of active heroing, though from the way the film is put together, you'd expect that's meant to be the case.

Barbarella, in fact, goes rather out of its way to marginalise its title character's agency, intelligence, and ability, despite the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) promising that she's one of his finest agents. Agents of what, exactly the movie doesn't say: having made it very clear that In The Future, there's no war or violence anywhere except in this one nightmarish backwater planet where the whole movie happens to take place, it's surely not right to call her any kind of peacekeeper. But looking for narrative coherence in Barbarella, as we'll see, is a waste of time. It is the very model of an Italo-Franco co-production, in that regard.

In 1968, second-wave feminism was still in its cradle, and though it's tempting to suggest that Barbarella, and Barbarella herself, is a reactionary satire of what happens when you put women in a position of power (answer: they have so much sex, and can't accomplish anything without a whole fistful of deus ex machinas), that's giving the movie far more credit than it even starts to deserve. Frankly, that level of intellectual sophistication is far beyond the screenplay by Vadim and Terry Southern, of all people. In keeping with Vadim's modus operandi, the film is just an excuse to include as much tittering naughtiness as you could get away with under the new freedoms available to filmmakers in the late '60s, without actually tipping over into "adult" territory. Barbarella has a great deal more self-conscious kitschiness - I refrain from using the actual word "campy", if only because nothing about the film is even marginally transgressive, which I take to be a requirement of camp - than at least ...And God Created Woman (the only other Vadim film I have seen), but that's as progressive as it gets. The flimsy plot and shockingly weak characterisation of Barbarella are clearly not premeditated, but simply because the movie is concerned with other things: sexy humor and razzle-dazzle. This is an immensely shallow motion picture.

All of which is dreadfully nasty to say about a movie that I have anointed as part of my personal canon, and here's the thing about that: as unabashedly dumb as it is, Barbarella is a hell of a lot of fun, and not even ironic fun: though it's probably fair to file it under "so bad, it's good", rather than as actually good, that badness is not something the filmmakers were unaware of, or concerned about. The real hell of it is that '60s kitsch, European-style, can be deliriously entertaining - earlier the same year, De Laurentiis produced Diabolik, a glorious masterpiece of the form directed by Mario Bava - and Barbarella is every bit as excessive as the Excessive Machine (a pipe organ that causes deadly orgasms, essentially) that plays a huge part in its final act, and to just as pleasurable effect.

For starters, Fonda was an unbelievably hot woman in '68, and I am not made of ice and stone; when the movie opens with her famous "zero-gravity" striptease, I am not sorry to watch it, least of all in the Blu-Ray that is, by some reckonings, the fully uncut version of a movie with many different edits. But the difference between a Bardot and a Fonda, is that Fonda has a good sense of humor about using her body (though assuredly not in any kind of proto-feminist way; in truth, I can't believe that the politically-engaged firebrand Fonda of the '70s, even in embryonic form, could tolerate being part of this movie), and the story's one and only point of actual thematic commitment gives her plenty of excuses to show off that humor. See, in the far-flung future where this takes place, nobody has any hang-ups about sex any more; Barbarella's real storyline, which is not at all about a space agent finding the missing scientist Durand-Durand (and yes, this is exactly where Duran Duran got their name), is about how a woman for whom the efficient, open sex of her culture is about as interesting and exotic as remembering to buy a new pair of socks, is instructed in the vigorous joys of down-and-dirty fucking by a host of male and female residents of the planet Tau Ceti, and its main city of Sogo, where only evil and sin live. That is to say, it's about an open but fairly sexless hot woman finding out that she really, really likes to screw, and Fonda's bright-eyed, unfussy way of playing this part is genuinely fun, appealing acting. Whatever honest-to-God humor happens in Barbarella, it owes largely to Fonda, the only thing that anchors a largely plotless film that shuttles around what feel like dozens of locations populated by several colorful figures (played by a host of vaguely familiar faces from vaguely disreputable European filmmaking of the day: John Phillip Law, David Hemmings, Miles O'Shea, Anita Pallenberg, Ugo Tognazzi, and legendary mime Marcel Marceau, oddly). With Fonda, Barbarella hangs together only as an attitude and a sense of sweetly innocent dirtiness; without her, I'd be hard-pressed to say it would even exist.

That being said, as much as I like what Fonda is up to, I am head-over-heels in love with Mario Garbuglia's production design. Also without irony, though Lord knows I should have. Barbarella is a weird missive from the deep dark depths of the '60s era, with a villain that amounts to a villainous, evil-eating lava lamp, and the inside of a spaceship in which literally every single surface is covered in brown shag. The design of Sogo is a singularly odd mixture of industrial interiors, ridiculous props and set pieces and garish, smutty costumes (Paco Rabanne had the honors of making Fonda look even sexier clothed than she did mostly naked), colliding stark grey with every color of the pop-infused rainbow, in a slurry of the ugly and the candy-colored insane that looks at once like nothing else you've ever seen, and like all the design of 1966-'69 boiled into one ecstatic whole. It is so much a part of its time, visually and morally, that it could not be a more profound work of sociology if it were a more self-conscious attempt to depict This Modern World - and because it's not depicting the actual world of '68, with all the seriousness that can often entail, it has the added benefit of being shallow fun. It's a damnable wreck of a story - not confusing, just aimless and frequently dull - and wildly offensive to any basic sense of decency, but golly, is it ever vibrant, living cinema, alive as a series of disconnected moments made by people whose talent and ambition was exactly suited to that task.