Emmanuelle, Emmanuelle 2, and Goodbye Emmanuelle Arrive on Blu-ray.
STREET DATE: APRIL 9, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
The story goes that Dutch beauty Sylvia Kristel advised filmmaker Pim de la Parra to cast her in his next film (1973’s Frank & Eva) because she knew that she was going to be a big star. As sold, Ms. Kristel did indeed find fame and fortune on the silver screen, the world over. The role was Emmanuelle, the title character of a majorly successful trilogy of erotica writ mainstream.
And so went the U.S. trailer:
They call her “Emmanuelle”.
She is the most controversial woman in France.
Her life was a book. The book became a movie. The president of France banned it forever.
On July 15, 1974 a new government set it free. In the first 14 weeks after its released 2 1/2 million Frenchmen stood in line for it.
1/7 of the entire population of Paris has already seen Emmanuelle.
Emmanuelle is today the most popular movie in France eclipsing even The Sting.
It is fast becoming the most written about, argued about, whispered about movie ever.
Right on cue, the now-classic adaptation of established French erotica, 1974’s Emmanuelle, made an unprecedented splash in cinemas. Based on the 1957 novel The Joys of a Woman by Emmanuelle Arsan
(The nom de plume of French actress/author Marayat Rollet-Andriane), Emmanuelle maintained popular cinema’s unspoken tendency to lag a good couple of decades behind the sensibilities of popular literature. That said, the movie shattered a gasping array of mainstream filmic taboos- at least for a brief moment. And believe it or not, mainstream it was. More or less.
As the previous few sentences attest, no one gets through writing a straight-up review of this sort of thing without qualifiers galore. The strangeness one feels about publicly detailing this validly historic trilogy is a testament to how, in nearly half a century since the series premiered, we’ve become more conscious of the taboos therein, as opposed to the then-assumed cultural trajectory of less so. Then there’s the final line of Emmanuelle’s trailer, “The first film of its kind that lets you feel good without feeling bad”. Considering that two out of three of these films tend to end on frozen, glassy-eyed blank stares of its titular character, this aggressive attempt at de-stigmatizing Emmanuelle– going as far as to sell it as some sort of feel-good romance, or some such- may seem heavy-handed (It is. For all three films.) and weirdly inaccurate… but it apparently worked.
Riding the brief early-1970s wave of the X rating going mainstream, Emmanuelle proved to a global box office phenomenon. Key to its success, Emmanuelle acknowledged, targeted, and appealed to the libidos of women during the march of second-wave feminism. As for the male contingency, it’s a no-brainer. For once, raincoats and sneaking around were not necessary- women actually wanted to go see Emmanuelle.
Hence its classification… When it’s for women, we call it “erotica”, when it’s for men, it’s “porn”. Aficionados can surely differentiate the two beyond mere semantics. As one reviewer recently stated, this series (the first film in particular) blurs the line between erotica and pornography. If you read that sentence and ask, “What’s the difference?”, join the club. Is the Emmanuelle series built first and foremost as a turn-on? Oh yes. A glass ceiling of sorts might be shattered in the meantime as the central character takes control of her own orgasm and whatnot. But that’s of course part and parcel to the aforementioned appeal. (It is said, for example, that female Japanese audience members would cheer at the moment when Emmanuelle flips herself on top of her husband during an early love scene).
If all of this makes you uncomfortable, your mileage will vary at best in regard to these three films. For this longtime critic, this review opportunity, as taken in one-two-three succession, proved an exhausting if highly clarifying (and let’s not forget gauze-filtered) dive into the cinematic side of the global sexual revolution.
All of that said, the sexual angle is no longer the most eye-opening aspect of this series. Shot in lesser-developed exotic foreign lands while continuously spewing first-world opulence, the shifting global values of today combined with the far-heightened degree of explicitness that is now broadly available render this trilogy very much a product of its time. There’s a long history of movies linking charged romance with material opulence, and these three Emmanuelle films are no exception. That, combined with more than a whiff of a colonialist attitude make for no shortage of #problematic aspects. That’s to say nothing of the varying levels of male-gaze eroticism that’s forefront to the whole endeavor.
Aside from these obvious targets for such PC-police finger-wagging, this forty-plus year-old trilogy succeeds where it’s meant to. Unquestionably, these softcore character studies are sexy, sexual sex movies. Though each entry is directed by a different man, certain care is taken to actualize the source material’s inherent female perspective, even amid the aforementioned shortcomings.
As they say about actresses that doff their clothes with zero abandon, Sylvia Kristel is a fearless performer. Despite being a tall white Dutch woman as opposed to a petite Eurasian like the real Emmanuelle, series producer Yves Rousset-Rouard says that Kristel proved to be an immediately obvious choice for the part. The filmmakers rightly realized that her rare porcelain physical purity is the precise quality their story of a woman’s bold sexual liberation requires. Vitally, she makes Emmanuelle a fully sympathetic presence. Indeed, the actress can telegraph hesitant naiveté as effortlessly as she can go full lusty. Of course, it’s the latter skill that folks would remember her for, though she did manage a few non sexual roles in her career (she was the female lead in 1980’s PG-rated Maxwell Smart feature, The Nude Bomb). Later in life, Kristel would become a truly accomplished painter, although never completely giving up acting. At age sixty, Kristel succumbed to cancer in 2012.
DIRECTED BY JUST JAECKIN/FRENCH/1974
Bangkok is simply lovely this time of year, particularly for a young sophisticated practitioner of free love coming into her own.
Emmanuelle and architect lothario Jean (Daniel Sarky) have a marriage that is open in every way. While they love each other dearly, they have granted one another complete sexual freedom. Following any outside tryst, they spare no detail in recapping the activity to the other. Bourgeois libertine philosophy freely flows between Jean, Emmanuelle, and their cadre of likeminded bohemians friends. It’s laughable nonsense, but in the confined context of their remote do-nothing/do-anything/do-anyone lifestyle, it make as much sense as anything else. One need only look around in any direction to see impoverished natives toiling, they being the faceless “atmosphere” of the Caucasians far-off paradise getaway. This is the first of three films that, along with their characters, are guilty of exoticising their location in the interest of cultivating a certain romance about it that may well not truly exist.
The whole fantasy allure of Emmanuelle is enabled tremendously by the carefully rendered visuals of first-time director Just Jaeckin, a well-known still photographer at the time. Jaeckin’s approach is one of continuous soft-focus sensuality, a dream world of dry mist and ethereal leisure. One quickly notes the trendsetting impact of the cinematography of Emmanuelle, a style that’s since become cliche, even as few other films or parodies of such films ever truly arrive at Jaeckin’s precision.
Though the intended bottom line is Emmanuelle’s liberating sexual journey from curious girl to experienced woman (which resonated at the time), today’s widely accepted gender politics reveal yet another troubling aspect on a core level. Namely, the fact that Jean urges Emmanuelle into the hands of curmudgeonly sex sansei Mario (Alain Cuny of La Dolce Vita fame)- an old white man in a suit. Emmanuelle eventually willingly turns herself over to his tutelage, which consists of a string of awkward erotic philosophies, phrases and visits to shady places. (“…one must make love without shame or constraint. That virginity is not glorious. That the couple has its limits. And that these limits must be stretched to infinity”).
Ultimately, her lessons culminate with him tossing her to a pack of sweaty local dudes in a dark hut for an orchestrated gang rape. (Maybe pepper spray should be added to Mario’s required materials list?) This action is an undeniably sick way to end a film bearing the central claim that makes you “feel good without feeling bad”. This is the singular wrongest of wrongs in the entire trilogy. Though Emmanuelle 2, the sequel that followed quickly on the high heels of this film is for all intents and purposes a feature-length audience debasement by comparison, Emmanuelle nonetheless sinks lower in terms of any one repulsive sequence. Compounding the unfortunate nature of the end sequence is that it turns out to be the finale to both the film and Emmanuelle’s central journey. Because of this, she is somehow now a woman.
DIRECTED BY FRANCIS GIACOBETTI/FRENCH/1975
Hong Kong is simply lovely this time of year, particularly for an insatiably lusty sophisticate looking to educate a young girl in the ways of sensual gratification without restriction.
With clear intentions of upping the ante on all things sexual, Emmanuelle 2 (Emmanuelle: L’antivierge) ranks as the most gratuitous of the bunch. It’s alternate title, Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman, is an ironic monicker, considering how one needn’t look too hard into the eyes of Sylvia Kristel to see that whatever joy she had in performing this part is being stripped away. Indeed, she’d say in a later interview that director Francis Giacobetti was even more of a visual stylist than Jaeckin, albeit with a far more misogynistic streak. For this reason, combined with its embarrassing disregard for both story and character, Emmanuelle 2 becomes an icky, grotesque kind of thing. Simulated sex takes over the movie, escalating as it goes on. More bodies are added to the frame, more writhing flesh all over the place. This priority forces Emmanuelle herself into the role of unrelenting nymphomaniac. While perhaps this is a presumable extension of where the end of part one brought her, it doesn’t make for much of a movie.
What little story there is revolves around Emmanuelle now becoming the sex sansei for a new naive young virgin, Anna-Marie (Catherine Rivet, somehow retaining a sweetness amid all the ridiculous carnality). Emmanuelle, in dragging Anna-Marie to nude go-go bars and full-on massage parlors, is buttering her up for a truly creepy goal: sleeping with her husband, Jean (now played by a more commanding and charming Umberto Orsini). Only then, will Anna-Marie be “a real woman”. On one hand, at least Emmanuelle isn’t forcing her into a gang rape the way Mario did with her. On the other hand, though, a line seems to have been crossed into brainwashing cult-leader territory. Jean’s own wife is recruiting and grooming his sexual conquests.
Perhaps of interest to some, Laura Gemser of the Italian Black Emmanuelle films (One of many, many adult films and series’ to blatantly rip off the name) fame turns up as a masseuse. There’s also masterbatory acupuncture, icky brothel scenes… the list goes on. For Giacobetti, the film seems to a checklist more than an actual movie.
DIRECTED BY FRANÇOIS LETERRIER/FRENCH/1977
Seychelles is simply lovely this time of year, particularly for a veteran bohemian sophisticate awakening to the restraints of her chosen life path.
In some ways the worst and in some ways the best of the series, part three mercifully backs off of the crude raunchiness of its immediate predecessor, settling instead for the most dramatic storyline of the bunch. Fitting, as Goodbye Emmanuelle is all about the title character arriving to the fact that a life of continuous free love in beautiful locales does not deliver true fulfillment. Though she never gets as far as exploring alternatives, or even forsaking the life she’s been living, she does begin to note how her husband Jean has been using the lifestyle to A) keep her tethered while B) he gets to do as he pleases. Of course she’s always gotten to do as she pleases as well, under his oft-repeated pretense that “I love her and want her to be happy. I do not own Emmanuelle”. And, yet- even in the first film, Jean displays moments of jealousy.
Director François Leterrier (Bresson’s star of A Man Escaped and the father of Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier) helms this final chapter with an increased if pedestrian sense of class. In this disc’s edition of the multi-part retrospective “The Joys of Emmanuelle”, Kristel speaks of what a relief it was to have a director who’s focus was the acting as opposed to being a visual stylist.
While not skimping on the requisite nudity, Goodbye Emmanuelle almost completely backs off of the simulated sex scenes that so ate up part two and aroused audiences of part one. So marked was the comparative taming that the French ratings board was prepared to grant it their equivalent of the PG-13. (Executive producer Rousset-Rouard laughs recalling his reaction that news, “No, no, no…! That would be disastrous! It too must have a ‘restricted’ rating!”).
Goodbye Emmanuelle is generally not a particularly “fun” film in any kind of escapist manner. The entire second half is dominated by Emmanuelle’s growing detachment to everything and everyone. Everyone, that is, except for visiting film director Grégory (Jean-Pierre Bouvier), her paramour of choice this time around. Emmanuelle keeps Grégory around even after he treats her like a prostitute, deeply upsetting her. Anyhow, he may be good for a feature film’s worth of sandy beach frolics, but Bouvier is a bona-fide non-presence onscreen.
The atmosphere is sexed up in amusingly dated disc fashion by the hammy musical score by the celebrated Serge Gainsbourg. The film’s closing use of a repeated shot of Emmanuelle turning and waving goodbye over a groovin’ whispered refrain of “Emmanuelle…! Emmanuelle…! Emmanuelle…! Goodbye!” is the unintentionally laughable height of the whole series. For those watching the Emmanuelle films for ironic laughs, it could be said that Goodbye Emmanuelle goes out on top.
On the first of the three-part “The Joys of Emmanuelle” mini-docs that appear across the three Blu-rays, Just Jaeckin comes on immediately to clear up an issue from a few paragraphs ago. Out of the gate, in this 2003 retrospective, he explains that erotica is implicit; pornography is explicit. In the context of his original film, the comment holds water. (One could also apply it to Goodbye Emmanuelle).
For those who must know or are simply curious, the approach to sex and nudity in these films is like their musical scores: continuous, constant, eye-rollingly retro; groovy and altogether dated. It’s frequently full frontal but never, ever gynecological. It’s also never equal-opportunity, as any such male nudity is scarcely fleeting. Careful camera angles, leg positioning, and a tendency to focus on facial expressions go a long way in keeping any of the Emmanuelle films out of hardcore territory, though 2 skirts it far too uncomfortably, even for Kristal, who claims in “The Joys of Emmanuelle” that she felt very used in making that film. In any case, the threshold of explicitness in the Emmanuelle series may not always manage the filmmakers’ initial intention of dodging vulgarity, but it nevertheless does not surpass what’s readily available today on HBO and the like.
Whatever ones own bar for this kind of thing is, binging all three of these films back to back to back is not recommended. It’s the kind of experience that leaves one asking questions like, “Did the go-go dancer smoke the cigarette with her vagina in the first film or the second…?” Obviously this sort of thing isn’t conducive to sensible day-to-day conversation. So clearly, Emmanuelle hasn’t been as boundaries-breaking as it’s commonly put forth. The closest thing we have to it today, the Fifty Shades trilogy, took all the wrong lessons from this series. Among them, there’s the lesson that excessive materialism plus excessive sex equals female liberation and gratification. By part three of her trilogy, even Emmanuelle knows that that is baloney.
Although the transfers for these new individually sold Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray editions of the Emmanuelle trilogy are said to be sourced from the scans prepped for 2003’s standard definition DVD releases, these films look and sound pretty darn good here. There’s detail and clarity even when you might not really want it.
If this series has any value beyond the prurient, it likely lies in its continuing theme of female independence- however misguided its narrative semantics may be. More often than not, the films succeed in celebrating the true physical pleasures of sex and the beauty of human bodies, albeit mostly of the idealized Caucasian variety. Humiliation and crude debasement are, with the very glaring exception of the climax of the first film, not in the mix. Do not confuse this trilogy with the many, many hardcore name-only imitators. Even so, these films, as films, are not all that good or even memorable. Today, they’re noteworthy solely for their novelty aesthetics and status as premiere vintage mainstream erotica. Kino Lorber, leaning on recycled transfers and bonus features, has put little if anything new into these Blu-ray releases, though perhaps they didn’t need to. With these high-definition releases, for better and worse, (and with all the subtlety inherent in the statement) Emmanuelle has come yet again.