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Just Jaeckin's original Emmanuelle not only did huge box office numbers around the world but it also launched countless knock off's from Italy and the U.S.A. which in turn helped bring the softcore sex film into the mainstream. Based on the supposedly autobiographical novel of the same name from Emmanuelle Arsan, the screenplay from Jean-Louis Richard brought some class to the continuous bumping and grinding while Jaeckin's direction shone the spotlight on the female star that gave the film much of its success - the lovely Sylvia Kristel.
Emmanuelle (Kristel) is the foxy young wife of Jean (Daniel Sarky), a considerably older French diplomat working out of the embassy on Bangkok where there is a considerably large community of French ex-patriots. Jean knows that his wife has yearnings for things that he cannot provide her and while he does his best to keep her satisfied he isn't particularly upset when a young woman named Marie-Ange (Christine Boisson) comes calling. Of course, she and Emmanuelle have an affair which opens the door for Emmanuelle to explore couplings with anyone else she desires.
While Emmanuelle is bouncing back and forth between Jean, Marie-Ange, another woman named Bee (Marika Green) and an older man named Mario (Alain Cuny), the butler is having his way with the maid and everyone around the home seems to be giving in to their lust without paying much mind to the consequences. Mario at least ponders the meaning of life and comes up with some interesting theories on why people should enjoy the physical side of life but for the most part, this is a movie about people getting it on with one another - and that's pretty much it.
Very much a product of its time, Emmanuelle was one of the first films to really bring explicit (at least for the time) sex into mainstream theaters. Granted, by today's standards much of the film seems tame but there are still some taboos in the film such as Emmanuelle's affair with the obviously young Marie-Ange that might not fly with mainstream audiences even if much of what happens occurs off camera. And then there's the scene where the Thai stripper smokes a cigarette with her girl parts and the film does end with Emmanuelle having sex with a Thai man in front of an audience. Mario's philosophical musings show that Jaeckin was trying to give the film an air of intellectualism but there's too little of this and too much of the dirty deed being done for his scenes to carry much weight. At the time this was probably unique, but now it comes off as pretentious and rather silly.
That said, Emmanuelle is still an interesting and important film, and from a technical perspective it is quite well made. Kristel carries the film and at times she almost seems like a visitor from another planet. She's always shot with soft light and soft focus giving her a very tender appearance and it's not difficult at all to see why everyone in the film longs for her. The cinematography captures the exotic locations quite nicely and if the central focus of the film is on sex we see most of it from far enough away that despite the X rating nothing here falls into the realm of bad taste. If nothing else, Emmanuelle at least attempted and was somewhat successful at legitimizing the sex film for mainstream audiences. If today it seems hokey and more than a little goofy, it still makes for an interesting curiosity item and if it isn't nearly as smart as it wants to be, it does still work even if the noticeably dated elements make it succeed more as camp than as any sort of cinematic masterpiece.The DVD:
Emmanuelle is presented by Lionsgate in its original 1.66.1 aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer that has been properly flagged for progressive scan playback. The film has always looked fairly soft and that look is maintained on this new transfer. There's a bit of grain here and there and the odd spot of mild print damage but color reproduction is accurate, if a little flat, and flesh tones look quite good. The softness does mar the detail in a few scenes but it's supposed to so you can't fault the transfer for something inherent in the original photography. No problems with compression artifacts though nor is there any heavy edge enhancement to complain about.Sound:
Audio options are supplied in French Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo or in an English dubbed track in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish. Dialogue is fine if a little flat in some scenes. The French language track sounds a little classier than the English track does for some reason thought that's really going to boil down to personal preference. The score sounds nice and the dialogue remains pretty clear throughout.Extras:
Lionsgate has supplied two substantial supplements for this release, the first of which is An Erotic Success: The Making Of Emmanuelle which is a fifty-four minute documentary that explains the history and origin of the film that 'started it all.' Here you'll find interviews with the producer and author Mark Godin, both of whom explain how the film was financed and adapted from the novel. Jaeckin shows up on camera and talks about what influenced the picture and what he was trying to do with it from an artistic perspective, and editor Claudine Bouche talks about some of the confusion that erupted around the film while it was being made. DP Richard Suzuki shows up and talks about how he was brought on board and what he did to help the film find it's 'look' while all involved gush about Kristel. There are some interesting stories here about shooting in Thailand, and there are some interesting observations made about a few of the more prominent characters in the film and their promiscuous behavior. They even cover some of the Italian knock-offs that the film inspired. Interesting stuff!
Also well worth a look is Soft Sell: Emmanuelle In America which has nothing to do with a certain notorious Joe D'Amato film and everything to do with how the film was marketed to American audiences during its original theatrical run. At twenty-five minutes in length it is a pretty decent examination of how the film was able to capitalize on its French origins and its copious nudity. Author John Lewis talks about the film's explicit content and the MPAA's affect on filmmaking, Columbia pictures marketing wiz Richard Kahn talks about the prominence of an X RATING on film's advertising material and how it was used to sell a picture, and professor Camille Paglia talks about how films like Behind The Green Door and the porno chic films of the era brought couples and women to porno movie theaters. Jaeckin talks about his background and what he did before he got into filmmaking, and how important the script and cast were to the film. The interviewees talk about the importance of the 'X Was Never Like This' tag line and how the ad mats and posters were designed to distinguish the film from other X rated films of the time. From there they talk about the success of the campaign and why the film was dubbed into English.
While the featurettes are anamorphic, they're not flagged for progressive scan. The first featurette is presented in French with optional English subtitles, the second in English. Animated menus and a chapter selection sub-menu round out the package. The disc is housed inside a plastic case which fits a little too snuggly inside an embossed keepcase featuring some alternate cover art. Not the most practical packaging as it's hard to get the disc out but it does look quite nice. Sadly the film's trailer is not included.
Regardless of its status as a classic, Emmanuelle is still fairly superficial material. It deserves respect for its historical significance and Kristel is easy on the eyes but the film itself is fairly mediocre even if it is enjoyable. Not great, not bad, just mediocre. Lionsgate has done a decent job on the presentation however and the supplements on this release are actually very interesting making this worth a rental for the curious and recommended for those who already know they like the film.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.