Emilienne: An Underrated Classic Of 1970s French Erotica

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Guy Casaril’s lesbian-themed sex drama deserves to be seen as more than just another Emmanuelle imitation.

Director Guy Casaril was hardly a newcomer by the time he made this classy softcore pic in the wake of the flabbergasting box-office success chalked up by Just Jaekin’s legendary Emmanuelle (1973). Having done A serviceable job on the Brigitte Bardot vehicle Les Novices (1970), he seemed all set to helm everyone’s favourite animal rights activist’s next effort, a monumentally silly western spoof entitled Les Petroleuses (1971, probably more familiar to UK audiences under its alternative moniker The Legend of Frenchie King), teaming her with equally gorgeous pasta princess Claudia Cardinale and such soon-to-be Eurotrash icons as Emma Cohen, Patty Shepard and Teresa Gimpera. Following one argument too many with the film’s producers, he was replaced with veteran director Christian-Jaque, best remembered for many a costume drama usually starring Martine Carol in the fifties. Casaril bounced back however with Le Rempart des Beguines (1972), based on the long-winded novel of the same name by Françoise Mallet-Joris, which sounded a lot saucier under its Italian title Gli Amori Impossibili (literally: The Impossible Loves).  The story of a young girl (the very pretty Anicée Alvina who starred in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s scandal inducing Glissements Progressifs du Plaisir two years later) being seduced into a lesbian liaison by her widowed father’s latest mistress (Nicole Courcel), a tactical move by the latter in order to obliterate her future step-daughter’s resistance to the upcoming wedding, sometimes played like a first draught for the Sapphically saturated Emilienne. Though Rempart received fair notices at the time, it was Casaril’s next film which really put him on the map as a director of merit. A sweeping biography of the popular French singer, Piaf (1973) boasted some US production support which secured it an American release (as Piaf: The Early Years), unfortunately accompanied by a largely indifferent reception.

As Emmanuelle had in the meantime created an upscale market for (soft) pornography by drawing in the bourgeois audiences who – prior to this landmark event in the history of erotic cinema – would never have dreamed of frequenting the sex theatres where similar flicks had been playing until then, formerly marginal movie-makers like Michel Lemoine (who had quite literally revealed his wife Janine Reynaud in the under-appreciated 1972 should-be classics Les Desexes/The Disrupted and Les Chiennes/The Bitches) and Jean-Marie Pallardy (the dark secret in the past of respected Dutch actress Willeke Van Ammelrooy, star of late Nineties Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Antonia’s Line) were quick to cash in on the carnal craze by cranking out their own low budget renditions of Jaekin’s most famous, if not best, film. Casaril might’ve been the first more or less esteemed director to attempt the same and, perhaps as a result, Emilienne – though hardly without its faults – is not exactly the cynical cash-in one would expect it to be and frankly deserves more than the few condescending footnotes (if any) it is usually accorded in reference works. The only positive notices I could find were in Raymond Murray’s Images in the Dark: an Encyclopaedia of Gay and Lebian Film and Video (1994, TLA Publications, Philadelphia) which lists it as Emilienne & Nicole and mistakenly credits it with a 1970 release.

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Forsaking the exotic locations which made Emmanuelle such a visual feast, Emilienne opts for reasonably solid character motivation instead. Although the title seems to scream rip-off, the film was actually based on an obscure novel of the same name by one Claude Des Olbes. The screenplay, credited to Casaril, Philipe de Balène and adventurous editor Eric Losfeld (who supplied Ftrench readers with the ‘scandalous’ works of Boris Vian and was subsequently put out of business by the local Home Office), while occasionally stilted, does a fair job of getting the audience interested in its characters’ plight, even though the competent writing is at time let down by long stretches of amateurish acting. But more on that later.

The elegant Emilienne (Betty Mars) is a highly successful gallery owner – predating Kim Basinger’s cushy job in 9½ Weeks by more than a decade – and the wife of university professor Claude (Pierre Oudry) who teaches a course in Etruscan art. Not the most sensitive husband in the world, he is seen to buy a scarf from a prostitute (as he has forgotten his wedding anniversary) and the try to pass it off to his way-too-understanding wife as an antique! Actually, Claude’s having an affair with one of his students, Nicole or Nouky for short (Nathalie Guérin), and she has been bugging him to introduce her to his wife, a prospect he’s obviously apprehensive of. Armed with a portfolio filled with erotic drawings, Nouky takes the initiative and goes to meet her rival on the opening night of a new exhibition. Relatively deprived on connubial bliss, as we’ve been shown earlier when Claude briefly banged his wife to top off their anniversary, Emilienne finds herself drawn to the free-spirited girl who lures her back to her place with the offer to paint her in the nude – on canvas that is, not body painting as the period might lead one to assume. Nouky has little trouble seducing the needy woman though she also has no qualms about still bonking her husband on the side. As a matter of fact, she freely admits to Claude that, to some extent at least, she is using his wife to get back at him for not getting a divorce. Emilienne becomes more and more dependant on her female lover, begging her to give up her boyfriend (of whose identity she’s still unaware) and suggesting she should come live with her and Claude.

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While the latter appears tolerant of his wife’s liaison, presumably because it fulfils the generic male fantasy of seeing his partner with another woman, he really wants to get in on the act though Nouky playfully rebuffs him at every turn. It’s only when an early showing of her paintings to the press goes disastrously wrong that Nouky surrenders to Claude’s desires in a tender three-way with him and Emilienne. Now a full-fledged ménage-à trois, they lock themselves in the house over the Easter holiday period to fully partake of each other’s physical attractions. Witnessing Claude and his wife rekindling their long-lost romance under her involuntary tutelage, Nouky becomes jealous of the couple’s new-found intimacy and resorts to the one trick still up her sleeve by blurting out the truth to an astonished Emilienne about the affair she had with her husband before entering their threesome. This devastating confession leads to one of the film’s strongest dramatic moments when a dazed Emilienne gets out of bed and butters some toast, only to have it break under her trembling hand with the knife cutting into her palm. Instead of pulling away, she pushes the knife deeper as if to diminish the psychological pain by inflicting physical pain upon herself. Fighting the tears, she orders Nouky out of the house.

Lesbian activists may not approve of the film’s subsequent depiction of their lifestyle as some sort of destructive addiction, with the lonely Emilienne going out at night in search of cheap and degrading thrills. One should take into account however that this is more an indictment of her middle-class upbringing which has led her to regard her suppressed sexuality as sinful and aberrant. Besides, it was most unusual for any sex flick at that time to even acknowledge the existence of a Sapphic subculture with its own codes of conduct, superficially similar to (and yet profoundly different from) male homosexual enclosure. In a somewhat stereotyped dyke bar she’s accosted by an older woman who takes her to a private gathering of same sex enthusiasts, the thirty-ish Emilienne being considerably younger than the rest of them, all of them pairing off with some hard-bodied honey for the night. Disgusted by what appears to be a glorified slave auction, our heroine finally storms out after being submitted to the hilarious sight of a scene-stealing Great Dane by the name of Hugues half-heartedly slobbering over the genitalia of a pre-hardcore Claudine Beccarie of Exhibition (1975) fame! Some solace is provided by a sympathetic streetwalker Emilienne picks up afterwards.

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Overcome by guilt, Emilienne confesses her indiscretions to Claude and they jointly decide that a little break in the quiet coastal village of Ouessant in Bretagne is just what they need. Naturally, they don’t count on the small town being a pussy-muncher’s paradise as they rapidly learn whilst seeking shelter from the rain in a Home for Widows of the Sea. With the exception of one nearly fossilised matron, none of these alleged widows – buxom blondes the lot of them – appears to be a day over twenty-five and they all have the hots for Emilienne. That night, she returns alone to the blondes’ abode where she’s thoroughly ravished by four comely lasses while Claude sneaks a peek through the window. Upon his wife’s return, he brutally rapes her in a fit of despair. In tears, she pleads with him to bring back Nouky. Hold the puns!

Far from thriving herself since she left them, Nouky’s only too willing to return but this time as the ‘wife’, relegating the subservient Emilienne to the part of interloper. Now fully aware of the frustrating alternatives, the couple complies. Swallowing every mean-spirited indignity Nouky can dish out (sometimes literally as when she forces the poor woman to blow one of her classmates), Emilienne slowly becomes the outcast in the relationship, especially when the girl gives Claude the one thing she couldn’t, a child. With both women acting as competing mothers, the situation soon turns unbearable, with Emilienne this time the one to be ordered out. Separated from his wife, Claude marries Nouky, only to have his new spouse realise it’s the old model she truly loves! Just before the end credits roll, we get to watch all three of them up their old tricks in the bedroom. Don’t you just love a happy ending?

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While I’ll be the first to admit that many of the film’s occurrences past the halfway point stretch credibility somewhat (and that’s putting it mildly), Casaril usually handles them with admirable restraint, playing down their inherent camp value, though even this subdued approach can’t prevent the May/December part sequence from turning ridiculous very fast. On occasion, he does achieve a level of honest-to-goodness emotional resonance, due in no small part to an extraordinary performance by classy-looking blonde Betty Mars in the title role. A French songstress of considerable talent and some popularity (she supplied the vocals for leading lady Brigitte Ariel in Piaf and was usually pointed out as being the best thing about it), she never made it all that big in either one of her chosen professions, her acting career limited to just this one indifferently received film. It seems to have been very much our loss. At times resembling a youthful Michèle Morgan, she imbued her character with vulnerability as well as dignity, even whilst decked out in some of the more baffling Seventies fashion statements. Fortunately, she looks far better au naturel and a lingering shot of her beautiful bar behind provided the film with its most lasting image. Soon after completing Emilienne, Mars faded into undeserved obscurity and tragically chose to end her own life in 1989 at the age of forty-four.

Nest to the leading lady’s impressive intensity, the rest of the already less than stellar cast pales even further. As the man caught in the middle, Pierre Oudry tries hard to justify his character’s constantly shifting affections but he’s too poor an actor to engender much audience sympathy in the process. He did live to work again though as his appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s provocative Numero Deux (1975) can attest. Worst of all must be Nathalie Guérin in the pivotal role of the scheming Nouky. Although she looks presentable enough in the nude, her tendency to through a badly over-acted tantrum every five minutes or so will give the average viewer the irresistible urge to slap some much-needed sense into this profoundly irritating filly. Too bad neither one of the characters so foolishly in lust with her ever get the same idea. One of the most spectacularly inept actresses (and I use the term loosely) to ever get her kit off on screen, Guérin mugs shamelessly as well as monotonously, her repertoire comprising all of two none too appealing facial expressions, making the sexual spell she supposedly casts over Claude and Emilienne a bit hard to swallow.

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Production-wise, there’s good news and bad news. The good news consists of Jean Monsigny’s glowing cinematography, making the most of some fairly drab settings and even drabber clothes. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the soundtrack – for which Nino Ferrer was actually brave enough to take credit – contains what must be a few of the worst examples of then-contemporary French rock, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, as any music lover will be well aware of.

No amount of audio pollution could ever hamper the extremely erotic sex scenes however, with Casaril clearly favouring femme couplings over routine hetero humping. Though she stinks as a thespian, Guérin does work wonders in the body language department, seducing the more demure Mars with serpentine agility. The absence of explicit penetration shots is more than made up for by teasing close-ups of graceful hands unbuttoning blouses, eager tongues playfully circling nipples and heads suggestively buried in crotches. Despite the bourgeois trappings the film occasionally falls prey to, such as the allowance of a lesbian liaison only within the confines of a predominantly heterosexual threesome, its attitude ultimately turns out to be surprisingly positive towards what is in these PC-infested times referred to as alternative lifestyles. Emilienne experiences her first real orgasm with another woman and, following her exile from the ménage-à-trois, opts for another female rather than male lover in the shape of family friend Diane (Françoise Dorner), glimpsed earlier on while chastising Claude for cheating on his wife. Personally, I would’ve been quite happy to see the film end with Claude coming to see his ex-wife, only to be confronted with her new girlfriend, making it clear he has arrived too late and that Emilienne’s affections can only be toyed with for so long. Present in just two brief scenes, Diane projects a strong and sympathetic presence, casually flirtatious with Claude yet almost maternally protective of his wife. Together with Marika Green’s confident Bee in Emmanuelle, she’s one of the few unapologetically lesbian characters in Seventies softcore. Utterly in tune with both films’ attempts at winning over the not altogether broad-minded middle-class audience, neither Emmanuelle or Emilienne end up with this soon to be stock character of the loving yet self-effacing dyke, dictated by male minds (even Emmanuelle Arsan’s supposedly autobiographical writings turned out to have been ghosted by her husband, a one time French ambassador in Thailand) to return to the safety (?) of a socially more acceptable heterosexual relationship after having experimented erotically with members of the same sex. The tagged-on epilogue here with Emilienne renouncing what looks like a caring relationship with a woman who actually seems worthy of her affections in favour of picking up where she left off with Claude and Nouky rings false and should’ve been jettisoned for a more realistic (and ultimately more pleasing) conclusion where the girl, well, gets the girl! But that would’ve taken some courage on the maker’s part and, for all their effrontery in bringing growing amounts of bare skin to cinema screens across the country, softcore pornographers weren’t all that keen on taking chances, preferring to abide by society’s all-too-rigid rules and regulations instead.

DRIES VERMUELEN

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