The Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, star of the Emmanuelle film series that became a staple of late-night cable airings and many an adolescence, died last night after a long bout with cancer. Kristel was 60.
Before becoming an early queen of softcore cinema, Kristel was a multilingual model and beauty pageant contestant. Her big break came when she was discovered by French director Just Jaeckin (a name that would strain the very limits of credulity if we made it up) who immediately cast her in 1974's Emmanuelle, a film about one woman's erotic awakening, over and over again, in various exotic locales with nary a pause for an erotic nap. The movie became a smash hit worldwide, helping to usher in the "porn chic" trend of the 1970s, and spawning many imitators. It also led to dozens of ongoing sequels that found Emmanuelle (as well as her counterpart, Black Emmanuelle) exploring the limits of pleasure everywhere from Dracula's castle to islands overrun by cannibals to outer space.
Kristel herself starred in several of those sequels, as well as numerous movies that traded on her Emmanuelle image—including Mata Hari, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and perhaps most notably to American audiences, 1981's Private Lessons, her Hollywood breakthrough. The comedy, in which Kristel plays a sexy French maid who seduces a 15-year-old boy, became a surprise hit in spite of—or because of—the controversy it generated. (It also undoubtedly gave thousands of teen boys way too much optimism, not to mention a "French maid" fetish.)
Sadly, Kristel saw none of the profits for Private Lessons, having (as she later admitted) signed away all her rights to her agent for a mere $150,000—just one of many regrettable decisions she made while nursing an increasingly expensive and out-of-control drug habit. During this time she appeared in films like the Get Smart update The Nude Bomb, The Fifth Musketeer, and The Concorde… Airport '79, but failed to break out of erotic fare, albeit co-starring in increasingly "mainstream" examples like the Phoebe Cates-Matthew Modine teen sex comedy Private School and women-in-prison tale Red Heat.
Although Kristel had begun dating and eventually moved in with Ian McShane (whom she met while filming The Fifth Musketeer), later saying she did so because he'd promised to help develop her career in America, Kristel never really broke out beyond that world of softcore, continuing to star in Emmanuelle films and their imitators well into the 1990s. Nevertheless, she remained one of the most prolific and successful actors to come out of the Netherlands, and in 2006, she also tried her hand at directing with the animated short "Topor And Me," which went on to claim a special jury prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. Kristel made her final on-screen appearances in 2010's Two Sunny Days and the Italian TV movie The Swing Girls, though she'll live on in the eternal soft-focus fantasies of generations to come, pun sort of intended.