Emmanuelle erupted on the scene in 1974 like a breath of fresh air. Nudie flicks at the time favored corny plots that would only excite 12 year-olds. When Emmanuelle's sophisticated cinematography and lush locales legitimized the genre, it caused an international stir in the pants. France was in a fervor over the controversial film; Frenchmen crossed the Spanish border in droves to see it. Emmanuelle was an overwhelming international success that spawned several sequels and dozens of knockers…um, knock-offs.
Emmanuelle indisputably injected class into erotic cinema, stressing the importance of set, plot, and cinematography. But Emmanuelle's dirty little secret is that it isn't very good. The hedonistic agenda and misogyny don't play well today. The sex scenes are tame by today's racier standards. Somewhere along the way, Emmanuelle was replaced by a sexier young thing. We can appreciate her contributions to the genre, though we prefer to dally with others.
Facts of the Case
Emmanuelle (Sylvia Kristel) and Jean (Daniel Sarky) have a decidedly unusual relationship. They have transcended jealousy and live only for the moment in sunny Bangkok. Mario encourages Emmanuelle to take advantage of her freedom, to have as many orgasms as possible throughout the day. But young Emmanuelle is uncertain and timid, leading Mario's friends to criticize his profession of openness. After all, it is only lip service until she actually starts doing the nasty with complete strangers. Lo and behold, she does just that…with women. Mario takes matters into his own hands and ensures that Emmanuelle receives the "education" she deserves: a good old-fashioned gang rape. What a thoughtful husband!
Wise to the ways of the world, Emmanuelle travels about alone. She still digs women, and inexplicably still loves the swinging cat she calls hubby (this time played by Umberto Orsini). She surprises Jean with a visit in Hong Kong after sharing steamy bunk time with her roomie on the luxury liner. Jean is entertaining a young American pilot who is dumbfounded at the couple's open relationship. This is the perfect opportunity for Jean to pontificate his sexual philosophy to the ignorant bourgeoisie buck. The American hides out in the local den of iniquity, a battlefield that Emmanuelle is well suited to conquer.
The ever-worldlier Emmanuelle whiles away her hours in the Seychelles by wooing her seamstress. Jean makes a bravado display of their openness by pursuing a beautiful young blonde. Emmanuelle disapproves; she finds the woman crass and uncultured. Meanwhile a cool director has caught Emmanuelle's eye. She has an unfulfilling romp in the sack with him, then decides to show him a thing or two about sexual politics. Her interest in the director stirs in Jean the most outdated of emotions: jealousy. His old-fashioned values have kicked in too late: ironically, the pursuit of a more traditional relationship turned Emmanuelle away.
Emmanuelle's impact must have been a function of the times. Perhaps I'm spoiled by the lasting effects of Emmanuelle's influence, but the average Skinemax flick is more entertaining. Out of the three movies, I found about four of the scenes erotic. The rest seemed like experiments in artsy camera placement rather than true eroticism.
The problem for me is twofold. One, I just don't buy into the B.S. that Emmanuelle is pushing. As a guy, I can say with authority that men do not dig their wife boinking whomever she pleases. The whole concept is abstract and lacks face validity. Hedonism is a groovy concept, but listening to three movies worth of hedonistic propaganda is not that interesting. As a tutorial on sexual ethics (which it so ardently strives to be), Emmanuelle is suspect at best.
When the characters finally stop talking and put their hedonistic principles into action, the camera finds the least interesting angle and lingers there lovingly. When the camera does happen across an interesting angle, it hurries past in favor of the next artsy shot. This artsiness combined with extended philosophical meanderings somehow drain the erotic impact from what should be hubba-hot scenes. Am I an unenlightened bourgeoisie if I want to see naughty parts?
The second issue is a starkly misogynist bent. Emmanuelle is gang raped, thrust into weird Asian flesh-circuses, and emotionally tormented by all sorts of people. I fail to see how this is a superior form of matrimony. Nothing cools off the trouser snake like a gang of sweaty strangers forcing themselves on a screaming woman. Rape scenes have their place in cinema when they further plot or illustrate character. But setting your wife up on an unwilling blind date with the chain gang because she doesn't fool around on you seems somehow uncouth. I would be more upset over it if the rape had any dramatic weight, but I was hypnogognic by that point.
Don't get me wrong, Emmanuelle does plenty right and packs the occasional erotic punch. Sylvia Kristel is perfectly cast. What she lacks in thespian gifts, she makes up for in…forgive me, that rhyme is just to passé to complete. Kristel has sex appeal, innocence, and animalistic carnality in one lithe package. It is understandable that she became an international sensation.
Kristel firmly holds the line, but is periodically upstaged. For example, erotic honors in Emmanuelle go to Christine Boisson as Marie-Ange, the hot pants-wearing, lollipop-slurping sex fiend. Emmanuelle 2's Laura Gemser played a bit part, but was so smoking onscreen that she would up starring in more Emmanuelle rip offs than Kristel did official films.
The Emmanuelle Collection's strength is carefully selected settings. The trilogy evokes a Bondian sense of the exotic. Grass hut palaces within vast beachside savannahs are the perfect backdrop for hot monkey love. Kimono-clad vixens dance in mystical rhythms. Waves crash on sandy-white beaches and milky-white bottoms. This juxtaposition of the classy and erotic was groundbreaking for its time.
Speaking of time, the films show their age. The video quality is not as lush as the settings. There are jitter and focus problems with the original photography, marred by dust, scratches, and faded colors in the transfer. There was no edge enhancement or digital noise reduction that I could detect, which is a plus. The transfer is adequately handled with no real clean-up effort or restoration.
The mono audio warbles at times, but is relatively stable. At times it was hard to hear dialogue, and I noticed constant lip synching problems. (Perhaps dubbing is the culprit?) The real sonic issue is not the mix, but the source. Emmanuelle attempts to class up the action with a plaintive piano score. This theme quickly grows old as it cycles monotonously throughout the film. Even more annoying is that the second film uses the same melody in the same way. Soon, exasperation filled me with every piano note.
The Emmanuelle Collection suffers because of the directorial merry-go round. Just Jaeckin and Francis Giacobetti helm the first two efforts. These men are primarily visual artists. Thus, Emmanuelle and Emmanuelle 2 show a decided focus on set and shot composition over story. I was suitably impressed by the creative lighting and funky angles, but not aroused. Making human bodies resemble a kaleidoscope is a nifty trick, but I don't lust after kaleidoscopes. By the time Francois Leterrier arrived to direct the third film, the pattern had already been established. Although the acting takes a sharp climb under his guidance, the philosophical pontificating follows along.
In the end, Emmanuelle simply cannot overcome the paper-thin plot. The idea of unattached romantic dalliances within lush tropical settings is theoretically pleasant, yet unfulfilling…as is the notion of a marriage without jealously or commitment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One thing I unequivocally enjoyed was the featurette "The Joys of Emmanuelle." A radiant Kristel and the people responsible for the series reminisce about its creation. The political issues, social impact, and cinematic history are fascinating. Sylvia discusses her reputation and thoughts about being a notorious soft-core actress. The producer discusses his thoughts and goals at length. Some of the stories are unbelievable, such as when the entire cast was arrested in Bangkok and bailed out by the royal prince. If you are a fan of the series, this featurette will give you many pleasant tidbits to ponder.
The rest of the extras are serviceable examples of their genre. The stills gallery is extensive. The radio spots are amusing throwbacks. The Sylvia Kristel biography is quite involved—a real biography and not just fluff.
There are many enjoyable erotic moments in The Emmanuelle Collection, but it is more of a historical curiosity than an effective erotic film. Transparent attempts to espouse hedonism bog down the picture. By the time part three wrapped, I was sick of these bickering sexual intellectuals. When an archaic peep show cartoon is the most erotic thing in your movie, you've got problems. However, Emmanuelle is one of the most popular erotic films of all time, so forgive my l'esprit d'escalier.
Emmanuelle, mon cheri, I cannot find it in my heart to punish you. Vive la différence!
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• "The Joys of Emmanuelle," A Three-Part Featurette
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