Does Sydney Sweeney’s trajectory give anyone else flashbacks to Scarlett Johansson circa the early 2000s? ScarJo didn’t do time on a prestige drama on her way up, but she was a child actor who transitioned to grown-up stardom via prestige indie films like Ghost World and Lost In Translation, before finding blockbuster success in the mid/late 2000s, a path similar to Sweeney’s but for the difference between indie cinema of the 2000s and contemporary prestige TV. But really, where they strike me as most similar is that they’re both blonde actresses commoditized for their bodies as much as their talent. People are definitely less openly pervy about it now—no one is groping Sydney Sweeney on a red carpet—but it did not surprise me to find Sweeney is starring in a remake of sci-fi sexploitation classic, Barbarella.


Of course, both Sweeney and ScarJo can be compared to Jane Fonda, another blonde whose talent was undervalued while her body overrepresented early in her career. Fonda stars in Barbarella, a 1968 sexploitation sci-fi that follows galactic adventuress Barbarella on her mission across the stars, where she experiences sex for the first time—future Earthlings no longer engage in physical intimacy (frighteningly plausible in the 2020s, as opposed to the free-love late 1960s). Barbarella engages in several on-screen trysts, including one in which she outlasts a sex machine meant to orgasm her to death. It is a bonkers film, borderline camp, and bombed here in the US, though it was very popular in the UK.

Barbarella is a film with a complicated legacy. Some feminist film scholars have reclaimed it as sex-positive, since Barbarella enjoys sex, and the film does not conflate sexual prowess and innocence: Barbarella is innocent because she is morally good, her having sex has nothing to do with it. But others value it only for its visuals—which ride the French New Wave with a dose of Felliniesque surreality—and continue to deride the middling writing and the somewhat indifferent direction of Roger Vadim. And there is never-ending debate of whether or not exploitative art can ever be elevated above its inherent exploitation, no matter how good the raison d’etre. There is no escaping that Barbarella is A Beautiful Object on screen, one put into sexual scenarios for audience titillation. It is sex-positive, but it is also exploitative. 


Previous attempts to relaunch Barbarella into cinematic space have failed. There was a remake promised in 2000, to star Drew Barrymore in a new take, adapting more directly from Jean Claude Forest’s French comic books (the 1968 film is a rather loose adaptation). Rose McGowan was then going to star in a different version with Robert Rodriguez directing, both were riding the success of Sin City. In the 2010s, Nicolas Winding Refn was going direct a television adaptation for Amazon, but ultimately decided to focus on The Neon Demon instead (GOOD CALL). The newest attempt currently has no script or director, but Sweeney will executive produce, and it reteams her with Sony, the studio behind Madame Web

The question is will remaking Barbarella work, this time? The original comics are quite different from the 1968 film, so there is room for a different take. But we live in a profoundly unsexy era of cinema; as RS Benedict wrote, “Everyone is beautiful and no one is horny”. This is also an era where people regularly ponder why movies even need sex scenes. 


Barbarella is deeply sexy, as in, it is both interested in sex, and in the presentation of it. The film is not just about Barbarella’s sexual awakening, it is also about the audience’s second-hand experience of sex. Director Roger Vadim is minimally interested in things like character arcs and cumulative narrative in Barbarella, but he is very interested in the look and presentation of sex. Again, the inherent exploitation of people performing intimacy for consumption is there, but Vadim approaches the sex scenes like a sculptor, shaping something beautiful to stir feeling in observers. Even in the comics, less overtly concerned with sex and pleasure, Barbarella is a beautiful woman, often scantily clad or outright naked, drawn in suggestive situations. In Barbarella, the sex IS the point.

So, in the year of the goddess 2022, you cast the famously beautiful Sydney Sweeney as the latest “new Barbarella”. But 2022 is, like the twenty years preceding it, a time of cinematic Puritanism. So what, then, is Barbarella to a modern audience? Will it just be Sweeney, reduced to A Beautiful Object, dressed in metal bikinis and other sexy spacewear, but with none of the exploration and agency of Jane Fonda in the 1960s? Can Barbarella even exist in this environment? 

Attached - Sydney on the set of Madame Web with Dakota Johnson yesterday in New York.