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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Emmanuelle (Blu-ray)
Emmanuelle (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // April 9, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 23, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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More a cultural curio today, Emmanuelle (1974) was a (if not the) seminal film of 1970s erotic cinema, spawning countless official sequels and imitators. It's always referred to as "softcore pornography," but the French-made adaptation of Emmanuelle Arsan's (and/or husband Louis-Jacques Andriane's) 1959 novel bears little resemblance to other, emphatically softcore films, and it's certainly light years away from the cruder, more clinical hardcore that eventually supplanted it. Rather, it's basically a well-crafted French melodrama whose plot revolves entirely around sex.

Just Jaeckin, the director, had been a photographer and here makes his feature film debut. It's beautifully shot, unlike almost all soft- and hardcore porn, and benefits from its gorgeous, unspoiled Thailand locations, about 95% of the picture, and from the perfectly-cast Sylvia Kristel's beauty and performance. It's by no means a great film, but it's easy to see why it was such a worldwide phenomenon when it was new.

The story revolves around Emmanuelle (Kristel), the beautiful young wife of a French diplomat, Jean (Daniel Sarky) stationed in Bangkok. At the beginning of the film, she flies to Thailand and is introduced to the French community there. As in the novel, the film emphasizes then prevalent notions of Asian exoticism and colonialist fantasy, with the Thai people viewed in hedonistic, simplistic terms, while the French expatriates living there indulge their sexual fantasies.

Jean is a pseudo-sophisticate who boasts to his friends and colleagues about what, in American terms, would be described as his "open marriage" with Emmanuelle, he actively encouraging her sexual awakening with other men (and women). Emmanuelle herself enjoys sex and is relatively adventurous, but inexperienced.

Over the course of the film she meets Marie-Ange (Christine Boisson), who sucks on lollypops like a little girl, and masturbates in front of Emmanuelle, incredibly using a magazine photo of Paul Newman for inspiration. Emmanuelle later reveals to Marie-Ange that she did indulge in sexual trysts with strangers during the flight over.

At a party, Marie-Ange is anxious to introduce Emmanuelle to Mario (Alain Cuny), a handsome but older man about 65, whom Marie-Ange claims has the sexual experience and authority she requires. Mario is instantly attracted to Emmanuelle, but she is much more interested in Bee (Marika Green, aunt of actress Eva Green), a 30-ish blonde archeologist. They agree to meet for a short visit at the Wat Sai Floating Market (Bangkok's canal network) but Bee must leave for a two-day drive and horseback ride to her dig site. Undeterred by Bee's ambivalence, Emmanuelle hops aboard Bee's Jeep at the last minute to accompany her, and they become lovers, though Bee forthrightly tells Emmanuelle that she does not love her, which devastates the young woman.

As Jean becomes increasingly jealous of Emmanuelle's activities, she next turns to Mario for a proper education in the art of sex.

Emmanuelle was filmed primarily in Thailand, finishing just two months before the big-scale James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun began filming there. Despite its much smaller budget, Emmanuelle is the more attractively photographed, making Bangkok and its environs appear more exotic and permissive, a paradise then far beyond the reach of most western-world travelers. The global success of Emmanuelle probably contributed to Bangkok's subsequent reputation as the sex tourism capital of Asia, though that was already beginning to change even in 1973-74, when American GIs on R&R where flooding Bangkok in search of cheap sexual encounters.

The movie follows the novel's basic plot and themes pretty closely, though it does largely omit Mario's bisexual nature. The "real" Emmanuelle was actually Siamese, from a wealthy family distantly connected to the royal family, and educated in Switzerland, though it's generally believed her French diplomat husband actually wrote the supposedly autobiographical novel, rather than his wife.

In prudish 21st century American terms, Emmanuelle still has its shocking moments, none more so than a short sequence inserted at the producers' insistence and over director Jaeckin's objections: at a sex club a young woman is seen smoking a cigarette from her vagina, impressively inhaling and exhaling. Though undeniably startling, Jaeckin felt the scene cheapens a film he rightly describes as erotic rather than pornographic.

The film's very ‘70s notions of sex resonate in some respects but are very dated in others, though this depends upon the culture. Most notably is that it perpetuates the concept of rape-fantasy, which doesn't wear well today but, to point to one example, Japanese women generally found Emmanuelle quite informative and liberating (particularly the scene that finds Emmanuelle on top of her husband during sex), and in much of the world it was women, rather than men, that made up the majority of the picture's audience. In Japan, for many years it was even broadcast over commercial television annually.

Distinguishing Emmanuelle from cheap porn is the cast. Alain Cuny, for one, was a major French film and theater actor, his credits including Fellini's La dolce vita, Buñuel's The Milky Way, and Bruno Nuytten's Camille Claudel. Christine Boisson later appeared in movies directed by Antonioni, Claude Lelouch, Oliver Assayas, and even Jonathan Demme. Personal problems and bad management thwarted Sylvia Kristel's movie career ambitions, but she's a luminous presence here, with just the right combination of beauty, innocence, and adventure.

Video & Audio

Licensed from Studio Canal, Emmanuelle looks stupendous on Blu-ray, its 1080p transfer presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen theatrical format. The disc defaults to the English-dubbed version, but the audio is far inferior to the preferred original French version, where the dialogue and music score benefits from the DTS-HD Master Audio (mono). Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region "A" disc.

Extra Features

In addition to trailers for the first three films in the series, supplements include two excellent making-of documentaries ported over from their original Anchor Bay DVD versions: "Talking About Emmanuelle" and "The Joys of Emmanuelle: Part 1." They feature invaluable interview material with the late actress Kristel, director Jaeckin, and producer Yves Rousset-Rouard and are entertaining and insightful.

Parting Thoughts

Not for everyone, but a fascinating artifact that, in many respects, still plays well even now. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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