Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Frank Review of Emmanuelle (1974)



The Short Version? The Eurotrash Softcore Classic of female sexual liberation.
What Is It? Romantic Melodrama.
Who's In It? Sylvia Kristel.
Should I See It? Yes.

Since I've already exhaustively covered the plot of Emmanuelle, this review will be somewhat scatter shot. I'll also bounce off the excellent review at 1000 Misspent Hours, where our opinions diverge.

Obviously, Sylvia Kristel made her career with Emmanuelle, and broke it as well. Kristel is incredible at allowing Emmanuelle a naiveté without compromising her womanhood, making it clear this is an adult navigating her way through an adulterating process. It would have been easy to play Emmanuelle as a little girl lost or a bimbo, but Kristel instead makes her not only relatable, but admirable in her questing nature. Despite a good deal of prodding (*ahem*) on many fronts (*ah-aheh-hum*,) Kristel imbues Emmanuelle with a core of personal strength and authorship of her destiny, if not always her circumstances. Many people try to force themselves and their views on Emmanuelle, but she clearly picks and chooses as she sees fit, and does so without spoon-feeding this element to the viewer in the same manner as the often tedious monologues of Jean and Mario. Emmanuelle embodies her beliefs rather than droning on about them.

Kristel is also a wonderful choice physically, the "Sexiest Tomboy Beanpole On The Planet" about three decades before Keira Knightly was given the title. Kristel manages to be both stunning and non-threatening, a sort of "girl next door," if one lives in a rather upscale Dutch neighborhood. Part of what made "Emmanuelle" so dynamic was that she offered a wish fulfillment role to women who, with a bit of spit and polish, could imagine themselves rivaling this beauty (and perhaps avail themselves of the same rewards.) This was an aspect lost on all the other sequels, including the ones featuring Kristel, who became far too glamorous and worldly to serve as a proxy for normal women. The first "Emmanuelle" starred a model dressed down with short hair, freckles, and an overbite; where every other volume starred an idealized super-model that only served the males in the audience. Worse, Kristel sacrificed her greatest asset, dooming her to a softcore fate (though the cocaine habit couldn't have helped.)

I liked Daniel Sarky as Jean. I think he sells the philosophy well, and he offers an old Hollywood charm along the lines of a Clark Gable or Errol Flynn while still being of his time. He's one of those rare men who can rock a moustache authentically. I also feel that the character of Jean is unfairly condemned. I've known plenty of people of both genders capable of great emotional intimacy with one person, but who seek sexual fulfillment outside a monogamous relationship. I don't see the character's emotional breakdown in Emmanuelle's absence as hypocrisy, but the aftermath of his abandonment by Emmanuelle. There's a difference between a willingness to share one's own body, or their lover's, and the sudden loss of their affection.

Alain Cuny, the elder statesman and most experienced actor in the production, is plain terrible. While there is a lot to loathe about Mario, I'm not sure how much of that is what Mario does, and how much is Cuny's unpleasant personage. The actor seems so hateful, both onscreen and apparently off, that it's difficult to see him as anything but an abusive villain. I think that's a shame, as unlike others, I don't believe his iconoclastic philosophy is inherently flawed. There's enough meat on its bones to make me want to see how different the character's representation was in the book. On celluloid, Cuny is stiff, forced, angry, and at times doddering. I seriously doubt that was the intention in his casting.

Jeanne Colletin was cast as the vamp Ariane, and is well suited for the role. She's never terribly subtle, but it seems to me her overtly predatory nature and desperate manipulation are kind of the point. Similarly, Marika Green as Bee is dismissive and judgmental, a career woman whose drive simultaneously accounts for her appeal and her worst character trait. You might be interested to know Green is the aunt of the actress Eva Green, best known for her roles in "Casino Royale," "The Dreamers" and "The Golden Compass." By God, but wouldn't Eva Green make a fine Emmanuelle in a new film?

Speaking of which, I've seen a lot of low rent distributor logos while watching Emmanuelle movies. Color me surprised by Lionsgate, one of the most successful low rent distributors in North America, putting their name behind "Emmanuelle." Maybe they'll team-up with Studio Canal for a PG-13 remake in 2010. That would be fantabulous. Alternately, Studio Canal also holds the DVD rights to the first "Black Emanuelle" film, sadly still unreleased in that format. Maybe Lionsgate could turn it over to the "Saw" guys for a proper Joe D'Amato-style genre patchwork? I'd pray for Rosario Dawson to star, but expect Bai Ling. Say, wouldn't Jason Statham be great in a Gabriele Tinti role?

Christine Boisson is tricky to discuss as the nymphet Marie-Ange. I initially assumed her Lolita affectations were just that, as it was typical to cast thirty-somethings as high-schoolers until fairly recently. Emmanuelle seems meant to be older than Marie-Ange by a bit, but still quite young herself. Turns out Christine Boisson was just eighteen at the time of release, Sylvia Kristel twenty-two, and you figure to deduct a year for production. That means that for all Boisson's impish sex appeal, truly rivaling Kristel's own, discussing it could very well be a sex crime in some states. Further, the real life basis for Emmanuelle was just sixteen when she married her "Jean," and the movie gives the impression the character isn't out of her teens yet, meaning Marie-Ange is jailbait to the nth degree.

It wasn't until after I started researching this series that I became aware of the girls below the age of consent appearing in this movie. I mean, as an occidental porn fan, I'm trained to assume all Asian women are rather petite and often hairless. I was oblivious until the matter was called to my attention by text relating to a documentary I couldn't manage to dig up. I'm rather put off by that, because once you're on the lookout, it's now so plainly obvious I'm appalled. Fuck's sake, the "cigarette smoking" girl looks barely pubescent, and her go-go partner seems at best nubile, so their simulated oral now gives me the heebie-jeebies. I'm the last guy to call for censorship, but how is this legal again? The Black Emanuelle films clearly didn't corner the market on questionable ethics.

I'm also not at all comfortable with the implied rape sequences in the film. I understand there was a time when the rape fantasy was popular amongst women, as it provided a sexual release without the burdens of responsibility, especially in times of great repression and fear of retribution. 1974 wasn't terribly far into the sexual revolution, and modern feminism was really only beginning to take shape. However, the sexual assault "theme music" that plays at various points in the movie seems to fetishize the acts in a manner that seems intended to play more to a masculine desire for physical dominance against any other will. Sans music, the chase involving the servants Jon and Ting seems playful, as the woman is clearly grinning and goading her way through. However, with the tense theme and the manner in which Ting tries to fend off Jon once captured, there's a distateful air to the proceedings. The music softens once Jon is actually on top of Ting, but his forceful thrusts and the surrounding circumstances are a real turn-off. The same problems plague Emmanuelle's rape, but are far worse, as there is nothing resembling consent on her part.

As I mentioned, the music in "Emmanuelle" is prominent and powerful, sometimes to a fault when the material enters problematic areas. The lensing of Just Jaeckin and Richard Suzuki is a mixed bag, often beautiful to behold, while at other times amateurish. The story is intriguing, though it seems to lose its way at the end of the relationship with Bee, possibly due to severe cuts in Alain Cuny's scenes, and the need to excise much of the philosophy of the original novels. I do find my interest in reading the books piqued, but regardless, to fans of softcore "Emmanuelle" remains a critical and commercial milestone. I'd recommend it, certainly.

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