Only in an era in which pornographic content is readily available and seemingly ubiquitous online while mainstream movies feel virtually bereft of sexuality can a movie like Emmanuelle feel almost quaint. An adaptation of Emmanuelle Arsan’s 1967 novel of the same name, director Just Jaeckin’s 1974 debut capitalized on a curiosity developing then in mainstream culture for more sexually explicit material while maintaining safe boundaries for those same audiences who balked at the prospect of joining the trenchcoat crowd for screenings of Deep Throat or Behind the Green Door at their local grindhouse. Following a series of standard and high-definition releases of the three original films, Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray discs offer a new opportunity to examine their respective artistic merits, to reevaluate and perhaps recontextualize their portraits of open marriage and liberated female sexuality, and finally, to reflect on a time when erotica became a legitimate and influential part of popular culture.
Capitalizing on the Hakim Brothers’ brief lapse in annually renewing the rights to Arsan’s novel, French producer Yves Rousset-Rouard optioned the book in 1972 and hired his friend, commercial director and photographer Jaeckin, to helm his film adaptation. Aiming for the tone (and profitability) of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, Rousset-Rouard signed Dutch model Sylvia Kristel for three films and sent her and Jaeckin off to Thailand while trying to secure a theatrical run in mainstream rather than pornographic theaters. The film encountered significant production challenges, including Kristel having to learn her French dialogue phonetically, briefly landing members of the cast and crew in jail after filming at a waterfall considered sacred by Thai locals, and shooting some 80 percent of the movie without having dailies to consult. But Emmanuelle went on to become one of the most commercially successful French films of all time, thanks to a provocative but artful marketing campaign, and as it screened across the globe, a number of cuts to its sex scenes - including shots of a woman smoking a cigarette from her vagina.
But whether at the time the Emmanuelle movies were a gateway for audiences into more pornographic territory or a safe and comparatively artistic space to explore sexuality on screen, Jaeckin’s original feels in retrospect somewhat unsurprisingly like a male fantasy - a soft-lit, beautifully-photographed Letter to Penthouse adapted to feature length. Kristel, cut from a similar cloth as Jane Fonda’s Barbarella, is ideally cast, exuding a sexiness so effortless is often seems like she’s unaware of it; the fact that the actress often had little sense of how best to speak her dialogue only helps preserve the character’s innate, intuitive but entirely un-self-conscious sensuality as she fucks her way across Bangkok. But particularly given the discovery that Arsan’s semi-autobiographical memoir was at least co-written if not fully authored by her own husband, Emmanuelle’s on-screen adventures too often unfold like a man’s ideal notion of an open relationship, and/or his fantasies about what a woman’s sexuality should be.
In particular, Alain Cuny’s role as Mario, a mentor and would-be lover who condemns monogamy and encourages Emmanuelle to open herself completely to lust by subjecting her to gang rape at an opium den, feels the most problematic, and maybe just plain the grossest. But many of the movie’s sexual indulgences proved at the time not just to be eye-opening but inspirational to women around the world: according to an anecdote by Kristel, Japanese women felt empowered by a sex scene between Emmanuelle and her husband Jean (Daniel Sarky) where she is on top of him. Elsewhere, the filmmakers recall receiving a number of letters about the film’s sincere and sensitive depiction of a lesbian relationship between Emmanuelle and Bee, a French archaeologist with whom she becomes briefly involved.
But if Emmanuelle was merely the thought-provoking set-up or introduction to a new world of cinematic sensuality, its sequel, Emmanuelle, The Joys of a Woman gave the character new ownership of her choices and elevated the franchise to a whole a new level of beauty and eroticism. Jaeckin passed directing duties to still photographer Francis Jacobetti, who had taken the photos of Kristel used on the first film’s theatrical poster, and Jacobetti, working with screenwriter Bob Elia, gave the character new agency and identity as a woman exploring her sexuality on her own terms. As an actress, Kristel seems to come more confidently into the role this time around, and her character’s sexual escapades are both undertaken and photographed in ways that feel truly powerful and sexy. At the same time, and certainly with the help of cinematographer Robert Fraisse (The Lover, Seven Years in Tibet, The Notebook) the series begins its transition into a travelogue of sorts, as Emmanuelle freely explores both her own body and the increasingly exotic environments where her husband’s diplomat job takes them.
Jacobetti was an erotic photographer whose style had already appeared in the French magazine Lui as well as Playboy, and went on to influence even mainstream fashion photography. The visual work he does here is nothing short of stunning, and it truly seems to find the exact right tone - and tableaux - that defined “softcore” pornography then, and perhaps even now. Though he never directed another film, The Joys of a Woman celebrated the physical form (both female and male) and indulged in its undeniable sexuality via framing, lighting, technique and texture without ever sliding into graphic, prurient imagery. Where the first film scrambled to discover its own belief system in the editing room, allowing Emmanuelle in her final moments the ambiguity of whether or not her sexual encounters were real or fantasy, Jacobetti’s film confidently indicated that this young woman was going to unapologetically do what - and who - she wanted, and by extension, the audience could enjoy and perhaps be inspired by her.
Goodbye Emmanuelle completed the original cycle of films starring Kristel and produced by Rousset-Rouard, and it’s hard to tell if the culture had shifted away from its predecessors’ free-love ethos or the filmmakers simply begun to run out of new ways for the character to have sex in picturesque environments, but as a whole it certainly makes a strong turn towards more conventional if not necessarily puritanical views of love and sex. (Undoubtedly it didn’t help that Italian filmmakers decided in 1975 to capitalize on the franchise’s success and embarked on the Black Emanuelle film series - unrelated, slightly changing the spelling to avoid copyright infringement - that directors like Joe D’Amato nudged more firmly into hardcore territory, diluting the brand.) In the film, directed by Francois Leterrier (father of Incredible Hulk director Louis), she finds herself increasingly alienated from her husband (Umberto Orsini, reprising his role from The Joys of a Woman) even as she is drawn to a filmmaker named Gregory (Jean-Pierre Bouvier) with more traditional views about relationships.
All things considered, writers Leterrier and Monique Lange skillfully push forward the ideas introduced in the previous two films, exploring them in a way that doesn’t retroactively impose a more conservative sense of morality but suggests how they can drive healthy relationships into toxicity. In Goodbye, Jean’s free-and-open approach to fidelity becomes not just selfish and insensitive but actively tiresome, as he seems to spend more and more time looking for new conquests than he once did trying to find a harmonious balance between his trysts with Emmanuelle and his extramarital ones. Emmanuelle conversely tries to participate when she wants, and cultivate her own stable of lovers, but Gregory’s combination of sexual desire and emotional indifference to this woman who seems to be chasing something she doesn’t even know if she wants anymore forces her to face an important and intriguing quandary between the life and lifestyle she leads, and the ones that she truly wants.
That the final movie in this erotic trilogy actually attempts to explore some complex emotional ideas - and makes us care about their outcome - is no small accomplishment for a franchise that, for better or worse, lives on as an emblem of erotica in the early days of “mainstream pornography,” and these Blu-rays have come along at what feels like a particularly vital moment in our culture to examine the boundaries between what is, can and should be sexy or provocative, and what is artless and purely gratuitous. Though there seem to be few widely-available bonus materials - including Alex Cox’s 2001 documentary Emmanuelle: A Hard Look, which has never been available in the U.S. - these Kino Lorber discs carry over extras first produced for Anchor Bay’s 2003 box set, which is good, but unfortunately not An Erotic Success, an hourlong documentary previously added to a 2007 Lionsgate DVD. But the transfers on all three are truly beautiful, and especially on The Joys of a Woman, Giacobetti’s images look rich, vivid and sensual in widescreen without the mastering or small-screen presentation making his compositions unintentionally graphic.
Emmanuelle was a watershed moment in movie history, and a unique turning point in popular culture’s relationship with sex - both in cinema and beyond. Shrewdly sold with the tagline “X was never like this,” Jaeckin’s film was indeed (and in spite of its technical shortcomings) a unique piece of entertainment, distinguished from titles that were part of the “porno chic” era (The Devil in Miss Jones, Radley Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven, etc.), and focused on a progressive view of sex that absolutely tittilated but not without provoking thought in mainstream moviegoers, much less ordinary couples. Though I’d ultimately recommend The Joys of a Woman first among the three - and what I’d consider the platonic ideal of a film that understands how to communicate sensuality through tone and imagery - they together form a frequently hot, sometimes troublesome, but always intriguing trilogy. Because somehow, remarkably, after 45 years, dozens of copycats and imitators and countless other films both more and less explicit, Emmanuelle still serves as a singular erotic safe space. Then and now, these films allow audiences to test the limits of artistic, sexual and emotional convention - not only for themselves and their romantic lives, but in the entertainment that gets made and they choose to watch.