How one of the biggest movies of the 1970s was reduced to an endless series of disposable direct-to-video sequels.
Almost five decades after it was originally released, Emmanuelle remains one of the best known erotic films in the world, a byword in sophisticated, liberated sexuality that appeals to men and women alike. It’s a film that is, rightly, one of the most famous – or infamous, depending on how much of a moralising stick-in-the-mud you are – of all time, a massive global hit that should sit alongside Star Wars and Jaws on any list of important, game-changing 1970s movies; that it doesn’t is testament to a prudish fear of sexual pleasure that runs rampant to this day. Yet the story of Emmanuelle is one of wasted opportunities – a franchise run into the ground in pursuit of the quick buck, with a series of increasingly empty and disposable sequels that have spat on the film’s legacy and bolstered the beliefs of those who will dismiss erotic entertainment as artistically and culturally worthless.
If you didn’t know better, you might believe Emmanuelle to be, at best, typical Seventies Porno Chic – glossy porn that somehow crossed into the mainstream. In Britain, where hardcore porn remained forbidden long after every other civilised nation had liberated censorship, the film has long been seen as some sort of benchmark of sexual explicitness, with tabloids slavering over the announcement of belated sequels and laughably referring to the film as if it were the strongest porn flick ever shot. In fact, Emmanuelle was a remarkably tame film, even at the time. Shot a couple of years after American cinema had undergone its hardcore revolution with Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door – and at a time when French cinema was about to take advantage of the newly-liberalised censorship rules with a bevvy of extraordinary porn classics like Pussy Talk and Shocking – Emmanuelle was determinedly softcore. It was this lack of explicitness that would enable the film to become a global phenomenon, showing in cinemas and countries where hardcore remained forbidden. In America, the film might have been rated X, but the advertising made it clear that this was no porn film, but rather a tasteful erotic epic that you could safely take your wife or girlfriend to see. In Britain, socially aware film censor James Ferman was surprised to find that, despite what he saw as the film’s misogynistic content, cinemas showing it were full of women. In France, the film became the number one box office hit of all time and played in one Paris cinema for the best part of a decade.
The film was based on a popular erotic novel, supposedly the memoirs of author Emmanuelle Arsen (in reality French-Thai writer Marayat Rollet-Andriane… or possibly her husband, Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane), and tells the story of a nineteen-year-old woman – the bored wife of a diplomat – who sets out on a voyage of sexual discovery and liberation in Bangkok. Well, where else? Opening up with the now-legendary ‘Mile High Club’ sequence (suggesting that our heroine was already somewhat liberated), the film takes us through a series of glossy encounters with men and women, stopping off along the way at Bangkok nightspots (the infamous ‘smoking’ scene, where a performer uses her vagina to smoke a cigarette!) and seemingly endless tourist traps. In fact, the film often seems more intrigued by Thailand’s scenery than it is with its heroine’s escapades. We can blame director Just Jaekin for this. The former Vogue photographer and TV commercial director made his feature film debut with Emmanuelle, and had little time for porn cinema, finding it repulsive. In trying to avoid the graphic close-ups of his hardcore rivals, Jaekin opted for brief sex scenes, soft-focus photography and a remarkable lack of passion. Most of the characters might as well be playing chess for all the excitement they show. Obviously, Jaekin was determined to make the most inoffensive sex film of all time – strange then that he would include a mean-spirited rape scene as one of the erotic moments. Jaekin would go on to find the right balance of softcore sex and erotic impact with The Story of O a couple of years later, but Emmanuelle is rather too restrained for its own good.
What the film does have going for it, however, is its star, Sylvia Kristel. The tall, slender Dutch model-turned-actress didn’t seem like your typical sex star, but she was undoubtedly perfect for the role, bringing a sophisticated elegance to the character. Her lithe body and penetrating stare proved irresistible in the classic promotional poster art, and it was, without doubt, her presence that made the film. Her career, of course, was hamstrung from this moment on, and her career since was a mix of sequels, imitations and lame Hollywood failures. Kristel was Emmanuelle in the same way that Christopher Lee was Dracula and Anthony Perkins was Norman Bates, a career-defining moment even for audiences who weren’t born when the films were made.
For all my personal criticisms of the film, however, it clearly struck a nerve with audiences. There was, it turned out, a huge market for erotic cinema that was less explicit and more sophisticated than the hardcore movies of the era – and the Emmanuelle films played ‘real’ cinemas where couples could feel safe knowing that there wouldn’t be gaggles of raincoat-clad men masturbating in the row behind them. This was erotica for the masses, and just as literary sex understood the need to be aspirational, so Emmanuelle mixed beautiful people with exotic locations and a sense of upmarket lifestyle that viewers found irresistible. It’s notable that once the films lost their sense of sophistication, they became disposable and anonymous – but more on that shortly.
The huge international success of Emmanuelle meant that a sequel was inevitable, and sure enough, Emmanuelle 2 (aka Emmanuelle – The Anti-Virgin and Emmanuelle – The Joys of a Woman) emerged in 1975. Unfortunately, the previous twelve months had been a rather turbulent time for French censorship. An initial relaxation in the rules saw a massive amount of hardcore being made, threatening to swamp the country’s entire film industry, and forcing mainstream films out of the cinemas. Disturbed by this, the French government changed the law, imposing strict new rules on how X rated films could be distributed, and imposing a hefty new tax on their exhibition. Not surprisingly, this sent the newly liberated porn industry back into the gutter. Emmanuelle 2 would have been expected to join them, but the film was initially banned outright by French censors. The ban would be overturned eventually, but the message was all too clear – porn, even softcore and even when related to France’s most successful movie of all time, was no longer going to be worth lavishing time and money on.
Ironically, the film, directed by Francis Giacobetti, was even more restrained in terms of eroticism than the first, and the reaction of the French censors seemed a knee-jerk response to having been wrong-footed by the first film rather than to anything in this one. The plot differed only slightly, with Kristel this time shagging her way around Hong Kong and Bali, but once again it looked gorgeous, oozed a sense of sophistication and played to packed houses across the world. Interestingly, buried amongst the cast was Laura Gemser, who would soon reach fame as the star of the rip-off Black Emanuelle (note the spelling!) series…
Problems with French censors might have made the film’s producers cautious, but the international success of Emmanuelle 2 meant that the series would continue for at least one more title. Goodbye Emmanuelle was made in 1978 and – as the title suggests – was planned as the final part in the saga. By this time, audiences could be forgiven for thinking ‘good riddance Emmanuelle’, as the film was the worst of the lot by far, with even the Serge Gainsbourg score failing to lift it. Lacking even the exotic production values of the first two films, this tired sequel – made by jobbing hack François Leterrier – often seems to be vying for the title of ‘most sexless sex film ever’, with a bored Kristel going through the motions in a series of limp encounters where mere nudity – let alone passion sex scenes – rarely intruded into events. Goodbye Emmanuelle seemed pathetically coy when compared to the increasingly slick hardcore movies coming out of America and the flood of Euro-erotica, including numerous Emmanuelle knock-offs that increasingly outdid their inspiration both sexually and narratively. In porn-free Britain, the name would still provoke sniggers of excitement – but everywhere else, she was fast becoming a bit of a bore. The copycats didn’t help, of course – whatever loose trademark laws allowed filmmakers across the world to make their own ‘Emmanuelle’ films simply by slightly tweaking the spelling of her name (and some didn’t even bother to do that), for audiences it must have seemed that there was an endless stream of Emmanuelle movies, most of which could hardly match the aspirational feel of the official series. By the time Goodbye Emmanuelle played cinemas, even the most enthusiastic fan must have felt overwhelmed, and convincing viewers that this wasn’t just another copy was inevitably hard work.
Goodbye Emmanuelle was the last time we would see the genuine character for several years, though assorted imitators ensured that the name was kept alive, and Emmanuelle remained a byword in erotica for most people. Aware of this, producer Alain Siritzky bought the rights to the character in 1983, and immediately set out to relaunch the series. Emmanuelle 4 would be the last of the films to play international cinemas and notably sets out to reinvent the character, replacing Kristel – who by now was trying to put her erotic film days behind her, with limited success – with a new, and notably younger actress. The film saw Kristel making a brief (fully clothed) appearance as Emmanuelle, seeking to escape a tired love affair and sexual burn out by opting for the kind of plastic surgery that Hollywood starlets can only dream of: after going under the knife, she re-emerges as an entirely different person, the Scandinavian Mia Nygren.
Cashing in on the brief 1980s fashion for 3D, the film was shot in this format – a good way of encouraging reluctant audiences in a more prudish age where erotic films could increasingly be enjoyed on VHS in the privacy of your own home back into the cinema perhaps. Whether it is down to Siritzky’s demands or hardcore veteran director Francis Leroi’s instincts, here was an Emmanuelle film with some sexual heat. French censorship had relaxed since the mid-Seventies, and the film was surprisingly steamy by softcore standards – but it still maintained the high production values audiences had come to expect. It suggested – wildly wrongly, as it turned out – that the character was safe under the new regime, and showed that there was still a market for genuinely erotic softcore films in theatres. But while a success at the box office, the film didn’t make anywhere near the amount of money that the 1970s movies had – times had changed, and the days of erotic films playing cinemas were coming to an end. Interestingly, the film would later turn up on video and pay-TV in France with added hardcore scenes – never featuring the title star, it must be noted – and so set a trend that would continue for the next few films in the series. Shown soft elsewhere in the world, the French hardcore versions are curious collector’s items if nothing else.
Emmanuelle 4 seemed to offer new life to the character. Sadly, it was all rapidly downhill for there. Subsequent films would become increasingly shoddy, using exotic outdoor locations as a way of masking their general ineptness, and featuring plots that seemed to be lifted from the Black Emanuelle series – a sad turnabout. Siritzky seemed determined to milk every franc from the character, and to hell with the film quality or any sense of consistency, with the role switching actresses from film to film. From 1987, the films would enter a downhill spiral for which there seems to be no end.
Emmanuelle 5 had the potential to be even more impressive than its predecessor, helmed as it was by erotic movie genius Walerian Borowczyk, but his typically languid and slow-paced work was chopped and changed by Siritzky and co., with new material shot by useless American hack Steve Barnett and spliced into Boro’s typically lush images. While hints of Borowczyk’s visual style poke through, the film is a fairly incoherent mess that is all too clearly the result of movie-making by committee, and the white-slavery narrative that has been grafted onto the story seems lifted from one of Joe D’Amato’s knock-offs. The splicing in of hardcore footage for the French market just muddies the waters even further. This interference and disregard for artistry would become the hallmark of the Emmanuelle series from now on, as every aspect of the series that had made it successful was brutally stripped away. The final film, naturally, made little sense, and blonde American scream queen Monique Gabrielle was completely ill-suited to the role of the sophisticated French libertine. It seemed odd that all the potential shown by the previous film and its star (Mia Nygren, despite being an impressively sexy performer, would make just one more movie in her career, the Emmanuelle role notably failing to rocket her to the same level of fame that it did Kristel) would be cast aside in favour of a generic and anonymous softcore production.
Emmanuelle 6 was initially directed by erotic horror maestro Jean Rollin, but although the latest title star Nathalie Uher looked a little more the part, the movie itself was a tedious mess. Repeating the disasters of the previous film, Siritzky replaced Rollin – a director who, given the chance, perhaps could have brought some visual style to the plodding tale of models, jungle princesses and kidnappers in the jungle – mid-production with Bruno Zincone, a plodding hack who had previously made the movie version of gross-out comic book Gros Dégueulasse – an amusing one-joke movie, but hardly the sort of thing that suggests suitability for helming sophisticated and stylish erotica. While Emmanuelle 5 had at least maintained a slight sense of sophistication thanks to Borowczyk’s footage, Emmanuelle 6 seemed to suggest that the character was now being seen as nothing more than a cash-cow, with no interest in whether the films had any quality at all. For Nathalie Uher, this was the last film in a brief career – being cast as Emmanuelle at this point seemed a curse more than a blessing.
Things seemed to have reached the bottom of the barrel, but Siritzky had a final stab at a theatrical release with Emmanuelle 7 in 1993, which saw the return of Kristel as Emmanuelle (though notably still not taking part in any nude or sex scenes) and Francis Leroi as director. The film was entirely anonymous, and in most countries slipped out, barely noticed, on tape – the days of erotic films, even Emmanuelle films, playing theatres were long over. No doubt being aware of this, Siritzky not only made the feature film but also produced seven TV movies – again directed by Leroi – the same year, most of which then emerged on tape masquerading as movies in their own right, immediately muddying the waters further over what was and what wasn’t an actual Emmanuelle movie. This time – totally disregarding all that had gone before – Kristel would appear as ‘old Emmanuelle’ while her younger incarnation is played by Marcella Wallerstein. Along for the ride was an embarrassed-looking George Lazenby, representing the last connection that the films had with anything even remotely mainstream. Leroi shot the lot between his two Leather Dreams hardcore films, and it’s notable that those porn movies have more visual style and sense of directorial commitment than any of this collection. The series seemed designed to milk every last drop of profit from the series before the whole world lost interest (it’s worth noting that the passing of the torch from Kristel to Wallerstein made tabloid headlines in the UK, even though the original actress had already been replaced several times, which shows how potent the Emmanuelle name remained), but in retrospect, these films feel like the final gasp of the authentic Emmanuelle. What would come after this was truly embarrassing.
At this point, any lingering suggestion of the Emmanuelle films being a ‘series’ ends – the TV movies immediately muddy the water and form their own individual narrative, and that would be the case for the subsequent films, all of which are essentially Emmanuelle in name only. It’s quite something when even films like Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals start to seem less outlandish and more authentic than the official movies (if we can call Siritzky’s films ‘official’ in anything other than rights to the name), but that’s what has happened. From now on, the Emmanuelle name would be attached to an increasingly cheap and disposable collection of straight-to-video releases, always produced as series of films to help sell them as TV series to cable broadcasters.
The first of these new, entirely throwaway series was Emmanuelle in Space (aka Emmanuelle Queen of the Galaxy), with Krista Allen playing the titular character over seven movies. here, Emmanuelle is mixed up with aliens in a collection of dull erotic space operas that even rather ineffectual 3D scenes couldn’t liven up. The 3D was created using the Pulfrich effect and viewed through the same purple and yellow glasses that had previously livened up episodes of sexy game show Tutti Frutti, and added little to what were very static and tedious erotic scenes. These films were exclusively shown on cable and satellite TV channels (in the UK premiering on low-rent cable broadcaster L!ve TV) before vanishing into video obscurity. Allen, interestingly, seems to have had the best career of all the Emmanuelle actresses, working steadily in TV and film – perhaps testament to how insignificant the role had become by this point. Starting here, the once iconically European Emmanuelle would be almost exclusively played by American actresses. This is not, by and large, an improvement.
Holly Sampson, better known for her hardcore and bondage movies, took on the role for the Emmanuelle 2000 series, which was perhaps the lowest ebb for the character. Made between 2001 and 2003, the films were anonymous softcore video fodder, lacking even the sense of absurdity found in the other series. These are, deservedly, the most obscure of the Emmanuelle films and you had to wonder just what the thought process behind them was – surely whatever meagre profits that the films made were barely worth throwing the character’s legacy under the bus for?
Yet it seemed as though the Emmanuelle gravy train would keep on rolling. The Emmanuelle Private Collection was another series of TV movies, now starring Dutch model Natasja Vermeer (the producers perhaps hoping to channel Kristel) in the title role. In these films, Emmanuelle encounters ghosts, Count Dracula and more, and is often just a supporting character to the lightweight sexual adventures of others. It all feels a depressingly long way from the globe-trotting hedonism and sophistication of the original series.
This felt like the lowest point for the character, and at this point, you assumed that Siritzky would finally let Emmanuelle slip away. But no – there was still more to come. Once again, the world’s press lined up to cover the 2010 Cannes announcement of a new series, though by this time there was surely no prestige and little public recognition left for the name. The implication was that the new series would be a reboot for the character, following the popular trend for reinvention and new beginnings. But invariably, the films themselves – released between 2011 and 2012 under the Emmanuelle Through Time banner – went virtually unnoticed. Adult movie star Allie Haze did her best with the now-thankless role, but the movies – directed by Rolfe Kanefsky, who has had his fingerprints over several of the TV incarnations of the character – were just more anonymous softcore video fodder, with Emmanuelle time-hopping to battle vampires and slip into Alice in Wonderland musical adventures. By this point, the character was so degraded that some of the films were retitled to remove the Emmanuelle name entirely in some territories – and if that doesn’t serve notice that the character has been well and truly trashed, I don’t know what will.
The irony is that there was probably a brief window for Emmanuelle to be resurrected as a mainstream character during the Fifty Shades mania – a classic erotic tale, with a powerful and sexually confident female character leading the story, seems as though it might have had a market. That the original novels were not republished or updated is bad enough, but you have to wonder why Siritzky – who, if nothing else, had a certain gift for getting press coverage, with new Emmanuelle actors given the same coverage as a new Bond well after the series had slipped into terminal decline – didn’t take advantage of the new market for glossy, lightweight erotica to reboot the whole series, stripping it of the sci-fi and fantasy elements and going back to basics with a properly-budgeted, theatrical movie. I suspect that the window of opportunity for that has now closed – whatever brief liberation Fifty Shades fever brought about seems to have been replaced with fretting about sexual exploitation or moral corruption, depending on which side of the culture wars you sit on. I fear that we have not yet seen the last of Emmanuelle and that what will come next will be an even further degradation of the classic character.
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