Once the Sexual Revolution was in full swing (pun intended), hardcore porn enjoyed a brief moment of mainstream acceptability, with skin flicks including Deep Throat (1972) becoming part of the national conversation. Yet plenty of moviegoers remained unwilling to patronize full-on porn, thereby creating a market opportunity for purveyors of softcore pictures. (The success of 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, a “real” movie starring Marlon Brando that carried an X-rating even though it did not include explicit content, also helped make sex-themed movies fashionable.) Enter Emmanuelle, a lavishly photographed French movie that enjoyed phenomenal box-office success worldwide and kicked off a seemingly immortal franchise. As of this writing, something like 70 Emmanuelle movies have been made, including official films and knock-offs.
Moreover, Emmanuelle set the template for the hundreds, if not thousands, of softcore films that followed in its wake. All of the genre’s now-familiar elements are present in the first Emmanuelle—gauzy cinematography, languid music that speeds up in tandem with onscreen characters’ sexual excitement, scandalous behavior ranging from exhibitionism to group sex to sadomasochism, and so on. It’s as if producer Yves Rouseet-Rouard, writer Jean-Louis Richard, and director Just Jaeckin set out to make a training film for softcore entrepreneurs. As is true of nearly every subsequent softcore flick, however, Emmanuelle is boring and silly, thanks to insipid dialogue, repetitive scenes, and vapid acting. Whether the movie actually provides erotic stimulation is a highly subjective matter, but it’s clear that helping viewers get their jollies is the film’s sole raison d’être. After all, it’s hard to take the picture seriously as a political statement about people unmooring themselves from old-fashioned social restrictions, because the lead character’s “liberation” largely comprises acquiescence to a series of humiliating encounters in order to please the men in her life. Even the heroine’s least fraught sexual relationship—her lesbian affair with a friend—is filmed with a male gaze.
Emmanuelle was based on a French novel written by Emmanuelle Arsan. The story depicts a fictional Frenchwoman named Emmanuelle, who travels to Thailand, where her husband is employed. Beginning on the plane trip from Paris to Bangkok (cue snickering laughter) and continuing after her arrival in the Far East, Emmanuelle has a series of wild sexual encounters. Eventually, she leaves her husband for another man, and her breadth of carnal knowledge expands to include—well, just about everything, actually. Director Jaeckin, a top fashion photographer before he made Emmanuelle, handles the film’s images beautifully, so each composition is artful and delicate. Unfortunately, this sophisticated veneer hides enervated storytelling. Characters in Emmanuelle speak in cryptic and/or pretentious fragments, and the story makes very little sense; instead of balancing their sexual exploits with such real-world concerns as jobs and money, the people in Emmanuelle act like they’re in some sort of erotic theme park. (At one point, Emmanuelle’s female lover asks the heroine about her activities since their last tryst: “Have you had sex since squash?” As if spending time any other was is unimaginable.)
Dutch model-turned-actress Sylvia Kristel became a sex symbol and a minor international star by portraying Emmanuelle, but her work in this film hardly qualifies as a performance—though she simulates sexual delight with gusto. The way the filmmakers objectify Kristel is just one of many distasteful aspects of Emmanuelle, because the picture also portrays Thais as primitives driven solely by animal instincts. Ultimately, Emmanuelle is significant because of how many imitators and sequels came afterward, but it’s negligible as cinema. FYI, Kristel appeared intermittently in Emmanuelle sequels until 1992’s Emmanuelle 7, the last “official” movie. Additionally, the Italian-made Black Emanuelle series (note the different spelling) is a knock-off franchise starring Laura Gemser, and therefore unrelated to the Kristel pictures.