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What’s Wrong With Being Sexy?: Revisiting “Emmanuelle”

The revival of the soft-core classic by New York’s most provocative repertory theater feels like an intentionally subversive move.
Emmanuelle
Who is Emmanuelle? In the 1970s, the name was synonymous with sophisticated sensuality. French director Just Jaeckin’s 1974 film, based on a 1959 erotic novel and starring Sylvia Kristel as the sexually adventurous title character, launched a soft focus empire leading to two more canonical installments, the fabulously titled Emmanuelle II: The Joys of a Woman (Francis Giacobetti, 1975) and Goodbye Emmanuelle (François Leterrier, 1977). Emmanuelle is playing in a sparkling new restoration at New York's Quad Cinema, alongside the other films in the trilogy and a handful of the more dubious spinoffs (the Kristel-less Black Emanuelle, Emanuelle’s Daughter, and Emanuelle in Prison are all playing, though the series could encompass even more, considering how many other films attempting to enter the Emmanuelle canon—some more hardcore than others—came out in the 70s and 80s). The Quad is also showing six other films by Jaeckin, among them his similarly porno-chic The Story of O (1975) and the wild Indiana Jones rip-off-meets-S&M-cartoon The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984), starring none other than video vixen Tawny Kitaen. Emmanuelle was Jaeckin’s first film and remains his best known—and while it may not be great cinema, its aesthetic impact, defining the Me Decade as a time of exposed flesh presented under the guise of liberation, is undeniable.
With retrospectives celebrating erotic thrillers, X-rated films, and sex in underground New York cinema, the Quad has carved out a niche as Manhattan’s most provocative repertory theater. To have a series devoted to Emmanuelle in 2019 feels like an intentionally subversive move. While the narrative of Emmanuelle is a thin pretext for sensual adventures, two uncomfortable themes emerge: colonialism and nonconsensual sex. The film takes place in Bangkok, and the postcard-ready setting is populated with locals who are treated as props—they act as servants, sexual objects, or observers, but none of them have names or personalities, beyond the catchall of being “foreign.” Emmanuelle’s ability to go to a foreign land and devote her life to sex is pure fantasy, and it’s a type of fantasy awarded only to the most privileged bodies. Emmanuelle’s life is so leisurely it’s borderline absurd. While she’s married to Jean (Daniel Sarky), a mustachioed diplomat, we don’t see any work being done. In this cinematic fantasy world, the protagonists live for pleasure, and everyone, male or female, is absolutely ready to drop everything and have sex at any moment. Kristel—with aquamarine eyes, an alluringly bunny-ish mouth, and a slender frame—is like an insouciant model constantly wandering through the pretty pages of a contemporary Playboy spread. She is thinly characterized so as to become an avatar for sundry viewers’ fantasies. Her marriage to Jean is a open one, of course, and as he describes her, “No one I know enjoys making love more.”
Sex in Emmanuelle is the opposite of how it so often is in life—everything is seamless. In the first big sex scene, Emmanuelle and Jean writhe in a bed covered by a white mosquito net. Emmanuelle sighs, “Pleasure, pleasure…” as the score (which features a leitmotif ripped off from a King Crimson song, of all things) swells, and everything looks dreamy and voyeuristic. Literally saying “pleasure” during sex might be the closest thing the film has to a thesis statement. This is a French film for an audience whose favorite French phrase is “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” The patina of foreign decadence is a large part of what made Emmanuelle so appealing. An early scene in which Emmanuelle and a group of women loll about poolside in colorful bikinis may as well be ripped from an influencer’s Instagram page. The tableau is aspirational—freed from the demands of work and monogamy (two of the most classic American concerns) the women can enjoy their world of sunny luxury and trade sexual favors with one another whenever the mood strikes.
No one’s likely to mistake Emmanuelle for a secret feminist masterpiece, and looking at the sex scenes between women versus the heterosexual ones is, to say the least, revealing. When Emmanuelle has sexual encounters with women, they feel playful. One woman seduces her during an erotically charged game of squash, filled with gleaming white surfaces and barely-there skirts. Another one frolics with Emmanuelle by a waterfall and rips her jeans. At the film’s climax, Emmanuelle embarks on a new relationship with Mario (Alain Cuny), a much older man whose combination of suit-wearing seriousness and borderline ridiculous philosophizing about the ways of lovemaking makes him seem like a caricature of Frenchness. The other women speak of Mario in reverent tones. He is posited as a kind of sexual shepherd, and the film concludes that his knowledge and experience will take Emmanuelle (and by extension, the viewers) to heretofore-unseen levels of eroticism. The film lays its dark side bare as Mario treats Emmanuelle as an object to be ogled at and raped by locals. Rape and colonialism blend into a queasy cocktail that challenges any goodwill built up by the earlier, prettier scenes of Emmanuelle’s bisexual exploration.
Some may ask why Emmanuelle films should be revived in this day and age. It’s a fair question, but part of what makes the series compelling is how rooted it is in a time and place. Soft-focus has given way to hard, digital surfaces, and within seconds you can find something far raunchier with a Google search. The most recent analogue to the Emmanuelle trilogy is probably the Fifty Shades trilogy. Emmanuelle, for all its problems, feels a lot more adventurous than Fifty Shades. The most recent soft-core phenomenon is all about business. Emmanuelle is all about some idea of pleasure. Things become thorny when we consider just whose pleasure we’re looking at. It’s fun to watch Emmanuelle wordlessly induct a man into the mile-high club with a knowing glance and a reveal of her garter strap—she can wield her seductive power expertly, and her husband is awed by her skill. She’s presented as a sexual magnet, drawing all lusty energy directly towards herself. In the parlance of 70s feminism, she is on the surface a liberated woman, but her path to freedom ends up pushing her to dark moments.
Emmanuelle begins and ends with the protagonist getting ready. We see her in a stylish home, lounging and enjoying an interstitial moment—there’s a charge to the notion of privacy here, to the fact that she’s nude under her robe. At the end, she’s changed. She’s putting on makeup and donning a white feather boa, sitting in a wicker peacock chair that became its own 70s icon. By Emmanuelle’s end, our heroine has become more powerful. She smolders into the mirror, but her pout is enigmatic. What were the stakes of her sexual journey? What does she want? There’s no satisfying answer. Emmanuelle never gets emotionally naked, and for better and for worse, her ability to serve as a sexual avatar and embody a moment in time is part of what makes her so fascinating.
Kino Lorber's 2K restoration of Emmanuelle is showing January 25 - 31 and the series "Beyond Emmanuelle: Just Jaeckin" and "Erotic Journeys: The Many Faces of Em(m)anuelle" are showing February 1 - 6, 2019 at New York's Quad Cinema.
Films have ceded a lot of eroticism to low-bitrate internet streaming. The return of the Emmanelle films is welcome, frankly, even if they are comically single-minded.

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