Is Emmanuelle the Godmother of Softcore erotic cinema? Although there were plenty of films of that nature before this one, you could certainly make the case for it. This was one of the first (and few) X-rated films to be a huge box office hit when it came out in 1974 (that’s right-it was considered an “arthouse” film which means it was shown in smaller US theaters that showed foreign films). And yes, the film is also considered “softcore”. Believe it or not, this is also the start of one of the longest running (and strangest) film series in the history of cinema-over 20 films so far and still counting. Only the Red Shoe Diaries comes close to that claim in softcore terms but it was never in theaters. And unlike the main character in that series (Jake Winters, played by David Duchovny), Emmanuelle has been played by more than 4 actresses. So if it’s not the Godmother, then Emmanuelle is the James Bond or at least the Dr. Who of softcore.
Emmanuelle is based on a book of the same name by Emmanuelle Arsan, who is also the main character in the film. What you’ve really got here is one great classy, hot little piece of European Erotica (commonly referred to as Eurotica .) Emmanuelle (Sylvia Kristel), the wife of a French diplomat, visits her husband in Thailand and is quickly swept up into an erotic lifestyle. Now one might think that she would be very reluctant to try this way of living. Oh no, no, no mon amie. The first sex scene in this flick is a steamy little male/female scene in an airplane bathroom featuring Emmanuelle and the guy she seduces while the plane is en route to the island. Plus, when they show her at home in France before she takes that plane trip, there are a few sexy pics of naked women on her living room wall. Talk about a conversation piece. Wonder what their dinner parties were like. The main reason Emmanuelle takes this “sexual journey” (in case you are curious) is because her husband refuses to be possessive of her and is too busy with work to attend to her sexual needs anyway. Excuse me, but IS HE KIDDING? We later find out he’s got a lady on the side so I guess that makes his reasoning a little more uh, plausible. Nevertheless, poor Emma has no choice but to take up with other lovers. And this island is dripping with sensuality. Sensual men, women, jungle locations, mansions, tennis courts-you name it. In fact, one of the first persons she meets on the island is the daughter of one of her husband’s friends, and she masturbates right in front of her while they’re having tea on the front porch. So let’s cut to the chase:
Emmanuelle has some great sex scenes, both female/female and male/female. All of the women in this film are hot and show off their heat generously. Sylvia Kristel’s acting talents have been said to be “nonexistent” but let’s give her some credit here; after all, she is supposed to play a innocent/naive/ingenue housewife (housewaif?) turned sexual adventuress and Kristel is totally convincing in this role. She does have that occasional “deer caught in the headlights” look which can be a little annoying, but when her “needs” are being met she is totally caught up in those moments. And she has some cool music backing her during those scenes too-namely a spindly, ascending, ethereal guitar riff that haunts the entire picture (and you for at least a week). If you’re looking for a wall-to-wall’er this ain’t it but your patience is rewarded. Trust me. Many have called this film “silly” and you will really see their point towards the end of the film. Emmanuelle seeks out a sexual guru named Mario (Alain Cuny) and once you hear Mario talk about the philosophy of his way of life you will nearly be on the floor with laughter. I usually don’t have a problem with film characters and their philosophy (I’m a fan of Star Wars & The Matrix, after all) but let’s say Mario was stretching it pretty thin.
Film critic Roger Ebert once noted: “Its style of photography seems directly ripped off from the centerfolds in Penthouse, including the props and decor.” And I completely agree with him here. You would swear that Bob Guccione was either producing it or giving the director of cinematography a few tips while hanging out on the set. I don’t know how director Just Jaeckin did it but the eroticism of this film has a Penthouse-ish feel while attaining a level of sensuality that most Penthouse videos can’t match. But the weirdest thing about Emmanuelle is that it really is charming in a way that many of its sequels aren’t. The European dreamlike quality of this film makes it more of an adult fairytale with Kristel as Alice in an Erotic Wonderland.