‘Barbie’ is glitteringly kitsch – it’s also beautifully human
In the hands of writer-director Greta Gerwig, what could have been a superficial joyride is something far more affecting
Saturday 22 July 2023 By Hanna Flint
During the London production of Barbie, writer-director Greta Gerwig established a Movie Church for her cast. Every Sunday morning, with the help of the BFI archive team, she would screen films that had a direct influence on her vision for the film based on the iconic Mattel toy at Electric Cinema Portobello. The Red Shoes and His Girl Friday were among the classics played for her actors at the Notting Hill venue. In fact, Gerwig, co-writer Noah Baumbach and star-producer Margot Robbie were inspired by a total of 33 films in the writing and visual architecture of this lucid dream of a movie.
It was certainly music to my ears to get confirmation from Gerwig and Robbie that Wings of Desire was an early thematic and narrative source as it was the film I was left thinking about after watching Barbie for the first time. Wim Wenders’ 1987 romantic fantasy is about angels in Berlin who watch over humans and listen to their emotionally-turbulent thoughts. When one of them, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), falls in love with a trapeze artist and begins to ponder his own immortality, Wenders takes us on a breathtaking journey that is one of the most soulful explorations of life, love and humanity ever committed to screen.
Now, given that Barbie is based on a consumerist toy product, it could never meet the lofty, existential heights of this German masterpiece. However, I have to give props to Gerwig and Baumbach for managing to paint this film with as much pathos as they do pink.
In Barbie there are similarly two planes of existence that have an emotional connection to one another. The residents of the insanely poptastic Barbie Land are basically the angels; they might not directly interact with the humans in the Real World, but in their timeless realm they have been designed to believe they have a positive, empowering influence on the children who play with them. They also think the Real-World order functions the same as their matriarchal community – a place where Barbies are in charge and can do anything they put their mind to, and Kens only exist as non-threatening, cheerleading accessories.
In Barbie Land, every day is perfect. That is until a glitch in the matrix (caused by a human in the Real World) triggers Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie to malfunction, which leads her to journey to Los Angeles to find answers. Like Splash, The Fifth Element and other fish-out-of-water stories, our Barbie experiences a rude awakening upon arrival.
Here we have Robbie truly in her element. Sure, she plays more of the straight woman to Ryan Gosling’s hilarious buff-oon Ken, who unself-consciously throws himself into the ridiculously fragile mindset of his bleach-blond himbo. Along the way, he gets to sing silly musical numbers, go melodramatic in a bombastic fight scene and deliver some of the film’s best punchlines. However, the emotional unravelling we witness as Barbie’s idealistic world view is confronted by the realities of patriarchy is executed with earnestness, wit and touching vulnerability in what is a superb performance by Robbie.
Barbie could have simply been a superficial joyride that saw the eponymous plastic doll girlboss her way to love, success and happiness. But in the hands of Gerwig – a filmmaker who has long grappled with the messiness of human nature through a female lens – we’ve got something more poignant: a film that sharply highlights the flaws in an outlook that expects women to attain and maintain a flawless femininity that the Barbie doll has long represented.
Gerwig takes that same toy and revels in its imperfections. She doesn’t completely subvert the iconography of Barbie, but she does tackle some timely, weighty themes with glorious gumption. ‘There were so many ways to go into it,’ she revealed in an interview with The Observer. ‘The idea of Barbieland. The idea of Barbie herself being constrained in multitudes. There was this sense of wanting to make something anarchic and wild and completely bananas because it felt, like, “Well, if we ever do get to go back to cinemas again, let’s do something totally unhinged”.’
The result is beyond unhinged. Yes, Barbie is a glittering spectacle of self-aware kitsch and bonkers humour – but most of all it offers a deep, warm understanding of what it means to live.
Barbie is showing at cinemas across our UK Houses from Fri 28 July. Visit the screenings page for for details and for the full film schedule across all our Houses.