Emmanuelle (1974)

Though generally regarded as an outdated artifact these days, the importance of the original Emmanuelle and its effects on erotic cinema (extending to this very day) cannot be overstated. Deep Throat dragged hardcore out of its storefront, mini theater ghetto and made porno chic. Boys in the Sand achieved the same for the even less visible gay side of the genre. But Emmanuelle, considerably less explicit for sure, played regular cinemas (famously monopolizing one Paris Champs Elysées venue for over a decade) and drew in crowds who would have never dared to venture anywhere near the shady downmarket dives displaying Throat and Boys. Long before the term “crossover” was invented, Emmanuelle brought extended scenes of nude lovemaking before an audience of youngsters, couples and little old ladies, lured in by the respectable credentials backing up the project.

First-time director Just Jaeckin had a background in photo-journalism. Composer Pierre Bachelet was a French pop chart favorite and supplied a tuneful score. To top it off, the whole endeavor was based on a scandalous bestselling novel, allegedly penned by the wife of the French Ambassador in Bangkok, yet frequently assumed having been the handiwork of the good Government official himself. Plenty of reasons to put bums in seats then to enjoy what was presumably their very first dirty movie… Exquisite 20-year old Dutch model turned actress Sylvia Kristel, who had enjoyed minor success in her native country, landed the title role and would much to her dismay forever be associated with the character.

Innocent Emmanuelle takes the flight from Paris to Bangkok to join her ambassador husband Jean, played by the very wooden Daniel Sarky, a Yugoslavian actor who would continue to find gainful employment on French TV until his discreet passing just prior to the new millennium. A bit older than his pretty wife, Jean forever tries to push the poor girl into extra-marital affairs to broaden her horizons. While certainly no prude, Emmanuelle continues to resist his incessant urging, even with the other officials’ bored wives forever going on about their erotic exploits. One of them, the predatory Ariane (a suitably voracious Jeanne Colletin, fresh off Alain Jessua’s idiosyncratic medical horror thriller Shock Treatment with heartthrob Alain Delon), shares a conspiratorial bond with Jean and takes it upon herself to seduce the naive girl. More bemused than shocked, Emmanuelle turns to precocious nymphet Marie-Ange (a youthfully glowing Christine Boisson, later to become one of France’s most highly respected A-list actresses) to whom she confides her first betrayal of her husband with a pair of handsome strangers on the flight over, a perfectly paced sequence of suspenseful anticipation which probably instigated the whole “Mile High Club” idea.

Marie-Ange is desperate to introduce her newfound friend to elderly “erotic philosopher” Mario (self-consciously slumming arthouse icon Alain Cuny) to further her education but Emmanuelle remains unimpressed as she’s far more interested in the alluring presence of Bee (gorgeous Marika Green, aunt to current actress/fashion plate Eva), a lesbian archaeologist shunned by the other women. Though they share an afternoon of love and lust, Bee insists that she feels no more than friendship for Emmanuelle, driving the poor girl into Mario’s clutches. It’s all opium den rape, Thai boxing and pansexual threesomes from here, all of which remains vastly preferable to Mario’s deliriously halfbaked sexual sermonizing, already drastically pared down from the book, before Emmanuelle at last winds up in that chair, applying excessive make-up and donning a gaudy glitter dress, signaling her questionable “evolution” towards the silly ’70s ideal of sexually liberated womanhood, conveniently overlooking the fact that it has been mostly engineered by men, some of them old, all of them dirty.

Ideologically, there are indeed some problems in dealing with this material over three enlightened (?) decades down the line. I mean, rape and forced infidelity as a woman’s primary liberating forces ? Not even hardcore was proposing anything as offensive at the time, and it was all in the novel, then believed as being a woman’s own autobiographical account of her road to sexual awareness ! Now you know I’m no politically correct prima donna and I can take just about any amount of rape and torture in my skinflicks. The crucial difference between cheerful hacks like Jess Franco or Joe D’Amato and the self-important Jaeckin is their tone, the latter adopting a serious approach towards material ultimately no less exploitative than any cheap, gross-out women in prison picture. As a reflection of people’s moral attitudes, these tasteless aspects were considerably toned down for future episodes in the official series, endowing Emmanuelle with at least the impression of empowerment. Being the trash hound that I am, I much prefer D’Amato’s mile-long run in the opposite direction in his many Black Emanuelle instalments (not a typo, the single “m” was supposed to avoid accusations of copyright infringement) where the title character had to endure many a ravishment along the way, usually responding to such an occurrence with shoulder-shrugging matter-of-fact-ness !

These days, it’s hard to imagine that there was indeed an erotic cinema before Emmanuelle as the film’s style as well as its substance have forever influenced and perhaps tainted the genre since with its exotic locations, lifestyles of the idle rich and empty philosophies on the nature of love, fidelity and jealousy. As a matter of fact, both book and (surprisingly, to a lesser extent) movie play like a feature-length excuse for adultery. With its glossy sheen, Emmanuelle can’t help seeming a lot more hypocritical than its many imitators, and yet I still like the movie an awful lot. The reason for this is simple. Sylvia Kristel was, is and always will be a goddess. Having recently published her amazing autobiography, already translated across the globe and an essential read, she was captured at the height of her frail beauty, injecting a comforting down to earth quality into the production’s eye-popping artifice, her subtly acted responses to the often outrageous demands made of her always logical, realistic, recognizable. This movie may have made her an erotic cinema icon but close scrutiny will reveal that her Emmanuelle remains above all a living, breathing human being, a calm center of common sense amidst all the feverish fantasies.

Directed by Just Jaeckin. Written by Jean-Louis Richard, based on the novel by Emmanuelle Arsan. Produced by Yves Rousset-Rouard for Trinacra Films & Orphée Productions. Photographed by Richard Suzuki. Music by Pierre Bachelet. Edited by Claudine Bouché. Starring Sylvia Kristel (Emmanuelle), Alain Cuny (Mario), Marika Green (Bee), Daniel Sarky (Jean), Christine Boisson (Marie-Ange), Jeanne Colletin (Ariane), Gaby Brian, Samantha & Gregory. Running time : 105 minutes.

By Dries Vermeulen

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