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Emmanuelle (Jaeckin, 1974)




This review contains mild spoilers.

Emmanuelle is a story about a woman who likes to make love. Okay, that's oversimplifying it a bit. It's a woman who likes to make love, but only with her husband (unless she's on a plane), but over the course of the movie, with both encouragement and hesitation from her husband, learns to expand her erotic horizons. You'll notice I said "make love", for this a classy (read: softcore) affair. This was a massive hit in France and had international popularity as well, getting a release from Columbia Pictures in the US, and spawned several sequels. The star, Sylvia Kristel, reprised the role in two of them (Emmanuelle 2 AKA Emmanuelle, the Joys of a Woman and Goodbye Emmanuelle: Her Last Game of Death...okay, the third one doesn't have a subtitle). It also spawned a series of unauthorized cash-ins, with Emanuelle spelled with just one M to skirt copyright laws, starring Laura Gemser. (I've seen two of them and they are WIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILD.) If the success of a movie with this plot seems baffling in a modern context, it helps to appreciate that this was released in the porno chic era, when sexy and explicit movies could find mainstream popularity.

Now, as I alluded to earlier, the plot of this movie concerns the heroine's erotic awakening, first exploring her desires with female friends and falling in love with a sexy archaeologist (Marika Green, who the back of my Blu-ray copy notes was also in Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, a less sexy but still intriguing picture), and then under the guidance of an older man (Alain Cuny, who the back of my Blu-ray copy notes was also in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, a less sexy but still intriguing picture) who pushes her out of her comfort zone. Now, this is softcore porn, and when reviewing the genre, I don't think it makes sense to approach this impersonally. What I'm leading to is that I found the stuff with women much more engaging than the stuff with men. I suppose it shouldn't matter to a straight dude such as myself, but the movie casts some really good looking women alongside some remarkably unsexy dudes. France has produced such deliriously sexy men as Alain Delon, but judging by the mustachioed husband in this movie, you wouldn't know it. Cuny plays his older man role with a certain conviction, but his dynamic with Kristel plays more like a life coach rather than someone who might be her partner, even in a non-traditional sense.

Now, there's some stuff in this movie that would definitely be considered Problematic (although I chuckle at the thought of a thinkpiece advocating for this movie to be canceled). I don't have an issue with this in theory, as I don't think human desire necessarily reconciles neatly with politically correct notions, but I do think it hurts the movie from a dramatic perspective. Namely, in the movie's worst scene, Cuny takes Kristel into a shack to smoke opium and then has her raped by two of the men present. Perhaps there was a way to have this blend more easily into her character arc, but the scene just feels jarring. Compare this to a subsequent scene where she rewards the winner of a boxing match, and that feels a lot truer to her desires. (For what it's worth, the scoring during the rape scene is terrific. Probably the wrong thing to focus on, but oh well.) However, I suppose I should reward the movie some points for acknowledging the lame-o husband's hypocrisy in advocating for an open marriage and then getting jealous when she follows through on it. I do not write these movies, but I think it would have been a marked improvement had he been taken out of the picture and the heroine gone away forever with the sexy archaeologist. I also would have added car chases and explosions...and it's probably a good thing I don't write these movies.

It's also of interest that the real Emmanuelle, Marayat Rollet-Andriane AKA Emmanuelle Arsan, upon whose novel this movie is based, is of Thai descent. (I understand that her husband might have also written the novel, but I'm just gleaning Wikipedia and too lazy to dig further.) If anything, Gemser, the off brand Emanuelle, resembles her more than Kristel, although I suspect she didn't have any notable run-ins with weapons smugglers and snuff movie rings. I bring this up not just to reminisce about those plot points from Emanuelle in America or the chimpanzee reaction shots in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, but to note how it affects the overall dynamic of the movie. In the movie Kristel's character comes to Thailand to stay with her husband (Rollet-Andriane was married to a diplomat on a similar posting), and the Thai people are viewed from an outsider's perspective, heavily exoticized and given little personality. (An early scene has two servants get worked up watching Kristel make love to her husband and decide to imitate them.) Were the lead character also Thai, I suspect there would have been a more complex dynamic to the proceedings.

That being said, the exoticism does mean the movie has an appealing travelogue quality, even if the locations aren't necessarily places the tourism board would want you to see. (Exhibit A: a trip to a brothel where an exotic dancer smokes a cigarette with her private parts, which is definitely not something I'd seen before. And also pretty hot. Judge not that ye not be judged.) The direction by Just Jaeckin (whose surname helpfully suggests one way to enhance your viewing) renders the proceedings with a nice visual style a bit more sophisticated than I expected. The opening has the gauzy softcore look that I expected, but you can see him taking similar lighting and turning scenes like the one in the squash court into sensual dreamscapes, and he takes a more clear-eyed shooting style to the jungle scenes, the lush greens of which really pop on the Blu-ray transfer. And while I had issues with the story, I think Kristel really sells the material with her performance, playing the role with a certain innocence that makes her easy to sympathize with.