Synopsis: Beautiful newlywed Emmanuelle tires of life in Thailand with her ambassador husband and embarks on a series of sexual adventures. Keen to learn the intricacies of desire, she places herself under the tutelage of the elderly Mario, and starts off down a path which leads her to new heights of physical ecstasy. French President Georges Pompidou tried unsuccessfully to ban this film, which later became a cult and France’s all-time top grossing film. X was never like this.
eyelights: the abundant nudity. the beautiful locales.
eyesores: the direction. the script. the cast. some of the “erotica”.
Much as try, I don’t fully understand the appeal of ‘Emmanuelle’. Every time that I’ve watched it, I’ve found it lacking passion, fire, being hardly erotic despite the massive amount of nudity and simulated sex on screen. When I discovered that there many cuts of the picture, and that the North American one had been edited down, I figured that perhaps all these years I’d been seeing a shortened, and weaker version of the film.
So I went on a quest to find the longest cut possible – which would presumably be the French version. Online, including on the imdb, there is a 1h45m version listed. I tried my best to find it somewhere, but it’s been near-impossible. Even the latest blu-ray edition that was released boasts the 105-minute version but actually features the 94-minute cut. As it stands, I can’t seem to confirm the existence of the longer cut. Is it a misprint? Or is it simply elusive?
I spent months trying to find this uncut, uncensored version, hence why the review took so long to hammer out; I wanted to give the film a fair shake. But it was not to be, it seems. maybe it’s simply never going to be possible. But, having now seen the 1h34m version instead of the 1h30m one, I felt compelled to write more detailed notes on ‘Emmanuelle’. Better this than nothing, right?
Truth be told, I still don’t fully understand why it’s the phenomenon that it is. And was. I guess you had to be there; while the film remains extremely popular to this day, it was back in 1974 (almost 40 years ago!) that the film was all the rage, that it changed the face of erotic cinema forever. The film was released in regular cinemas and was an internationally smash, playing in France’s Arc de Triomphe cinema for an incredible 11 years straight!!!
It is said that it was just a question of timing, that ‘Emmanuelle’ was in the right place in time and benefited from a loosening up of societal morals, that it’s not a film that could have worked at a different moment, either before or after – at least, not to the degree that it did. I agree. ‘Emmanuelle’ is nothing exceptional at first glance, so the only explanation is that it came out at just the perfect time.
The fact is that even porn had invaded popular culture by then. ‘Deep Throat’ broke down barriers two years prior and was talked about in all social circles. People went to see it in droves. But it was a hard core film, whereas ‘Emmanuelle’ is a softcore film, more erotic than pornographic. There are a few scenes that would shock audiences, but, for the most part it was merely the story of a sexually-liberated woman, and audience relished every moment.
I can sort of understand that angle, looking back. Back then women were only beginning to take over the reigns of their sexuality, after decades of being subservient to men. A film that explores and celebrates sexual emancipation was likely exactly what was needed at the time. The book had been a terrific success, but not everyone reads novels, so this was an easy way to get the story and its message to the masses.
And it sure did. it was so popular that it not only spawned two more films featuring Sylvia Kristel as Emmanuelle, but an unbelievable number of rip offs were released under the banner of “Emmanuelle”, sometimes purposely mispelling the name to trick audiences. In the following years, Emmanuelle would return in dozens of features, including 7 official films, 7 as “Black Emanuelle”, 7 French TV movies, 7 “Emmanuelle in Space” films, and two dozen American TV movies.
Personally, I find ‘Emmanuelle’ a rather poor film on many counts: while the story is good, the script is contrived; while it features a LOT of nudity and sex, it’s not sexy; while it features real actors, their performances are weak; while it takes place in exotic Thailand, the shots aren’t always making the most of the settings. And let’s not forget Sylvia Kristel, a girlish beanpole who is vacant throughout and looks like a girl playing at being a woman.
Furthermore, there are objectionable moments like the rape scene, which have little place in an erotic film – unless one is into rape fantasies, which I’m not. I guess this was more common at the time (as Nancy Friday discovered in her research), I suppose, back in the day, but I see it as a total turn off, especially in a film that purports to be about a woman taking control of her body, her sexuality; rape is the complete opposite of this.
The filmmakers were lambasted for making the film at the time, for exploiting women, and always defended themselves by saying that it’s based on Emmanuelle Arsan’s semi-autobiographical novel – that they didn’t invent any of it, a woman did. The irony is that Arsan may not have written it, after all: there are reports that it was her husband who wrote it, and who was behind the works published in her name. I’m not really surprised, given the material.
However, it doesn’t change the fact that the film had a major impact. It was exceedingly popular with women and helped tear down barriers that were already crumbling; for instance, it had an unjudgemental view of female homosexuality and bisexuality, which was applauded by some women. I’m sure that the masturbation scene was also a groundbreaker, because women didn’t do such things, did they? And ‘Emmanuelle’ certainly popularized the “Mile High Club”!!!
But I don’t find it particularly erotic. Sexual, yes, but not erotic. Thing is, some of the sexuality defies credibility, such as when Emmanuelle makes love with her husband and they’re both straight, making it impossible for them to connect, or when Emmanuelle is groped by her friend in the squash court, or when she is taken by the Thai boxer in the middle of a public place. I liked the ideas, but felt that the execution was seriously lacking.
But it was photographer Just Jaeckin’s first film, and they actually couldn’t watch the rushes because the film had to be sent to France immediately after being shot, so Jaeckin basically shot the film blind. Frankly, it’s hardly surprising that it comes off as shaky, incompetent. As for the acting, Kristel couldn’t speak a word of French so she had to learn her lines phonetically, not knowing what she was saying and what others were saying back. And the male actors were apparently difficult.
So, all in all, given the context, ‘Emmanuelle’ is alright – it’s not a total disaster, which it could have. But it could also have been far better and it’s certainly a weaker film than its success and acclaim would otherwise suggest. Personally, I find it extremely cold, dispassionate, and not entirely conducive to feeling sexy. But it has its moments and it helped foster a genre that has improved over the years. It’s a landmark. For that reason alone, it’s worth a look. Or two.
Date of viewing: December 28, 2012