Emmanuelle was an international sensation upon its theatrical release in 1974. It broke box-office records in its native France, and has spawned six sequels and numerous imitations. Less graphic and more sophisticated than other pornography of its day, Emmanuelle still holds up as not just an erotic classic, but a cinematic classic, period.
The film captivates right from the opening sequence: the sexy piano on the theme song; the white draperies billowing in the wind into an apartment full of potted plants and soft lights. It’s all very Penthouse, circa early-’70s. And then Sylvia Kristel comes onscreen and from her first moment she is immediately enchanting as the title character. With short hair, long limbs and high cheekbones, her androgyny coupled with wide eyes makes her seem simultaneously strong and vulnerable. That she was in direct contrast to the usual big-haired, busty sex kitten only increased her appeal.
Emmanuelle is the story of one young woman’s journey through sexual awakening. Emmanuelle is the young wife of a French diplomat, and she has just arrived in Bangkok where her husband, Jean, is stationed for his job. Jean (Daniel Sarky) is a modern, liberated man and encourages what would today be called an open marriage. Emmanuelle, feeling childlike and naïve in the ways of love, is eager to shed her inhibitions.
She falls in with a group of other idle and privileged wives, and soon learns that the biggest diversion for the country-club set is sex. Soon, Emmanuelle is tumbling from one erotic experience to another until she arrives at Mario (Alain Cuny), who becomes her teacher in the art of the erotic. He guides her through increasingly sensual and dangerous situations until her transformation is complete. It is too bad that Mario, who is hailed by the other characters as the ultimate master of the erotic, comes off as sadistic. His idea of sexual liberation includes a level of violence that can easily be read as misogynistic.
Emmanuelle’s romps include lesbianism, ‘mile-high club’, and voyeurism, to name a few; Jean has some romps of his own, including one trip to a brothel where the girl onstage does some very interesting things with a cigarette. Yet, there is absolutely no penetration shown. In fact, nothing graphic is shown onscreen and the film is all the more erotic for it. Instead, the sex is conveyed through some very active frottage and some very creative acting. This is pornography under the less-is-more principle. Comparatively, the pornography of today, which leaves nothing to the imagination, seems crass and childish.
First-time director Just Jaeckin was an interior designer before turning to film, which is perhaps why the film is so visually stunning. The colors are rich, the sets are elaborate, and the natural beauty of Thailand makes an excellent backdrop. From the darkly enticing slums to the smoky brothels to the lush greens of the countryside, the exotic location only adds to the eroticism taking place. The far-away location also allows the audience to suspend disbelief and fall into the fantasy.
Emmanuelle was a watershed moment in pornography. In France, it was shown in respectable movie theatres with respectable men and women lined up around the block to see it. The film encountered some trouble with the censors in the UK and US, which resulted in the deletion of certain scenes, but the movie was shown in mainstream theatres in those countries, as well.
The movie made sexuality seem normal. Not shameful, or dirty, or something to be looked at alone in a dark room, but something to be celebrated and enjoyed. It opened the door for the more graphic Deep Throat, released the following year, to be shown in mainstream theatres, as well. It was a time when cultural inhibitions and repressions seemed to be moving in a progressive direction. It is too bad that by the end of the ’70s, video had allowed the adult film industry to explode, and the sort of sophistication in pornography that Emmanuelle gives us a glimpse of didn’t last.