Playing with Fire: The Post-Emmanuelle Career of Sylvia Kristel

The Dutch star brought a potent mixture of eroticism and intellectualism to movies beyond her iconic "Emmanuelle" series.
Dana Reinoos

Playing with Fire (1975)

After becoming an international sensation in 1974 with her for-the-ages erotic turn as the titular Emmanuelle, Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel had the European art world at her feet. Sylvia grew up in Utrecht, the daughter of hoteliers, before shipping off to Catholic boarding school, attending dance school, and finally making her way to Paris. There, she found small parts in movies (including Fons Rademakers’ sleazy 1973 film, Because of the Cats), eventually winning Miss TV Europe, a title that would land her an audition for Emmanuelle. The film changed Kristel’s life overnight, bringing her both opportunities to bolster her sex-symbol image and break away from it. A new home video collection from Cult Epics—which includes Julia (Sigi Rothemund, 1974), Playing with Fire (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1975), Pastorale 1943 (Wim Verstappen, 1978), and Mysteries (Paul de Lussanet, 1978)—highlights the delicate balance Kristel found between her sexy persona and art-house aspirations.

Julia is the closest Kristel would stay to her Emmanuelle role outside of that franchise, and would itself become a video-store classic thanks to Kristel’s sex appeal and popularity. Julia, despite taking its name from Kristel’s character, is mostly about Pauli (Ekkehardt Belle): a boarding school student ready to have sex who uses a trip to pastoral Italy to visit his divorced father as the time and place. Rothemund’s film is a rollercoaster of moods, from the first scene where Pauli unknowingly tries (and fails) to seduce his father’s girlfriend Yvonne on a train, to a stoned speedboat joyride with friends that ends in tragedy, to Pauli’s sexual adventures with the aforementioned Yvonne and, eventually, Julia (Kristel), a childhood friend who casually sunbathes topless and is also eager to lose her virginity. Julia seems like an archetypical cool girl, acting casual and flirty about sex with the men around her, but Kristel renders both innocence and wisdom in these early scenes, a girl who doesn’t fully understand her beauty but is already exhausted by its effect on men.

Julia (1974)

But Pauli and Julia’s experiences coming of age are vastly different, despite their circumstantial similarity. Both are coercively seduced by much-older partners—Pauli by Yvonne and Julia by Pauli’s father Ralph, who chases her through Venetian ruins in a “playful” (yet threatening) way—but only Julia comes out of her experience emotionally scarred, frequently crying and flinching like a kicked animal at human touch. When Yvonne points out to Ralph that Julia was crying after the assault, he hadn’t even noticed, an indictment of both the man’s cruelty and Kristel’s talent for portraying deeply wounded womanhood. Kristel was gifted with a face that reveals everything or nothing, and Julia hides her unhappiness until a final, cathartic sex scene between a muddy Pauli and Julia on a rainy tennis court, sure to satisfy Emmanuelle fans. While there’s no quick fix for Julia’s trauma, audiences can at least heave a sigh of relief when Julia realizes a future as Pauli’s nice little wife is not for her.

Kristel would work with high-profile directors throughout the 70s, including Roger Vadim, Walerian Borowczyk, and Claude Chabrol, but her first introduction to the European arthouse was Alain Robbe-Grillet in 1975. It makes complete sense, as Kristel and Robbe-Grillet have similar artistic sensibilities: mixing eroticism and ambitious intellectualism with a sense of playfulness that you can miss if you’re not paying attention. Playing with Fire is a compelling outlier in the writer-filmmaker’s oeuvre, counterbalancing one of the auteur’s characteristic puzzle box plots with more outright humor than ever, delivered mostly by Jean-Louis Trintignant in a delightfully bad fake mustache. The plot revolves around the fake (or is it?) kidnapping of an heiress; Robbe-Grillet told Anthony Fragola in 1992 that the film is “the story of Patricia Hearst,” the infamous granddaughter of William Randolph Hearts who was kidnapped in 1974 by leftist terrorists and lived with them, seemingly as a collaborator. Kristel has a small part in the film, but Robbe-Grillet’s camera clearly adores the actress; she’s luminous as she spends her time onscreen enduring the bondage and sadism also characteristic to the director’s work. Robbe-Grillet didn’t cast Kristel for pure art; according to Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill in their book Immoral Tales, the director knew that casting Kristel would guarantee the film’s pulling power. It couldn’t have been easy to find a box-office draw that was also interested in his brand of sadomasochistic art film, and for her efforts, Kristel is given billing on the poster despite being in only two scenes. But thankfully Kristel loved her introduction to avant-garde film so much that, according to her memoir, she, Trintignant and fellow co-star Philippe Noiret remained lifelong friends.

Pastrorale 1943 (1978)

In 1978, Kristel would appear alongside the other Dutch international breakout star, Rutger Hauer, in two films. Pastorale 1943, a tragicomic story of well-meaning but bumbling Dutch Resistance members during World War II, features Kristel and Hauer in roles with little screen time but towering consequences. Kristel’s Miep Algera is an English teacher in a Dutch village who has been seen around town with a German soldier, leading the other teachers to assume she’s a collaborator and shun her in performative resistance. But the film resists easy answers about good and evil and Miep is actually a British spy, literally sleeping with the enemy in order to get details to her lover, underground with the Resistance. Unlike the teachers who say nothing but also do nothing, Miep silently accepts the scorn of her colleagues while putting her own life in danger; by the end of the film, Miep’s lover has been executed by firing squad and she’s been whisked away by the secret police, never to be seen again. Krystel’s deeply expressive face again brings complexity to her mostly-silent scenes, and her performance is a painful reminder of the profound dangers regular people faced standing up to the rise of fascism.

Kristel’s other 1978 movie with Rutger Hauer has both actors in much larger roles in a very different project, an adaptation of Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun’s early modernist novel Mysteries. With lush cinematography from Robby Müller (verdant colors and textures reminiscent of Herzog’s Heart of Glass and Hurz’s Morgiana), Hauer stars as Johan Nagel, who wanders into a remote Norwegian coastal village with seemingly no purpose and insinuates himself with nearly every villager. This includes Dany Kielland (Kristel), daughter of the local vicar, whose icy nature apocryphally causes the suicide of a student at the beginning of the film; and Martha Gude (Rita Tushingham), an isolated older woman overwhelmed with grief. Johan becomes obsessed with Dany and her cruelty, and sets out to woo her in a misguided attempt to punish her; soon, he too is obsessed with her, though she remains utterly immune to his charms, even claiming to be otherwise engaged.

Mysteries (1978)

In the film, Kristel is nearly a ghost, startlingly thin and pale, with that inscrutable face shrouded underneath a netted veil. As Hauer’s Johan pours his heart out to her, declaring in increasingly poetic language how he cannot live without her, Dany simply looks at him implacably and declares, “You’re missing a button.” Her low, husky voice—Kristel has more substantial dialogue here than in most of her films—delivers the message with a beautiful sting, and it’s clear why Johan is among countless other men who have fallen head-over-heels. With the exception of one erotic dream sequence (most notable for a full-frontal Hauer), the film is technically chaste: Kristel is covered from head-to-toe in red velvet, prim yet suggestively vulgar. When Johan finally thinks he’s won Dany over, he leans in for the kiss; she lifts his bandaged wrist and licks his bloody wounds, a much more kinky move. Kristel does this impeccably, adding something extra, something more than just sex to her boundlessly erotic performances.

In the midst of her 1970s success, Kristel also illustrated under avant-garde artist Roland Torpor (a mentorship she recounted in her animated 2004 short, Torpor et moi), lived and collaborated with author Hugo Claus (two decades her senior; Kristel admits in Torpor et moi, “Men have always been very important in my life, especially older, learned men”), and was photographed by Irina Ionesco. She would continue to work steadily, if not as prolifically, until her death from lung cancer in 2012; Kristel would return to the Emmanuelle franchise eleven more times, (including a series of seven 1993 Dutch TV movies), worked with Curtis Harrington (Mata Hari, 1985) and Just Jaeckin (Lady Chatterley's Lover, 1981), and kicked ass alongside Linda Blair in Red Heat (1985). Not just Emmanuelle by any stretch of the imagination, Sylvia Kristel had a long, varied career, especially fruitfully during the mid-70s, when she was able to collaborate with directors who understood her unique mix of sex appeal and acute perceptiveness.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Sylvia KristelSigi RothemundAlain Robbe-GrilletWim VerstappenPaul de Lussanet
Criar conta para adicionar um novo comentário.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.