"Nobody believed it was possible to do [an] erotic film with talent," Emmanuelle director Just Jaeckin says in a new documentary included on the DVD reissue of the 1974 French soft-porn staple. If anything, Emmanuelle has more talent than necessary. Jaeckin was a first-time director when he shot it, but his stint as an artistic director for Vogue shows in the film's gauzy eroticism. (Roger Ebert's 1975 review noted it "may be the first movie influenced by magazine centerfolds.") Editor Claudine Bouché and screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard, adapting a 1957 erotic novel by Emmanuelle Arsan, came from François Truffaut's stable of collaborators, and co-star Alain Cuny was known for his work in films by Federico Fellini and Luis Buñuel. So why were they making a dirty movie?
The simplest answer: The market demanded it. Screen sex went mainstream in the early '70s, but there was a considerable gap between Deep Throat's hardcore sex scenes and the emotionally wrenching couplings of Last Tango In Paris. Designed to arouse without getting too graphic, and to avoid making its audience think too much, Emmanuelle filled that gap. Other films attempted a similar balance—see the Radley Metzger oeuvre for examples—but Emmanuelle caught on like no other, in the process establishing a template for soft-focus, generally European-produced tales of sexual awakening that would attract audiences in theaters and on late-night cable for decades. (Many of them, incidentally, were Emmanuelle sequels, rip-offs, and sequels to rip-offs.)
Speaking her French lines phonetically, the wide-eyed, long-limbed Sylvia Kristel plays Emmanuelle, the wife of French diplomat Daniel Sarky, who treasures her sexual enthusiasm. He's determined to remain sexually free, and though she gamely plays along, Emmanuelle's attitudes vary from scene to scene: She's prudish one moment, aggressive the next.
In the end, she's punished. While it remains easy to get seduced by the film's slightly druggy, brainless sexiness, the weird subtext hasn't aged as well. Set in Thailand, the film guides Kristel toward a sexual awakening that associates the Thai people—invariably played as primitives—with earthy, violent, and by extension, "realer" sex. While the film makes a lot of noise about sexual freedom, the climactic scene, in which the locals gang-rape Kristel while Cuny's silver-haired lech looks on, the question arises of just whose fantasy this is, and who's supposed to be freed by it.
Key features: New documentaries feature key figures from the film and the inevitable Camille Paglia.