Sexual escapades in gorgeous Thai locations? Check. Lesbian experimentation? Check. A journey of sexual self-discovery? Check. A Thai woman lighting a cigarette through her vagina? Weirdly enough, check. It could only be the influential softcore classic Emmanuelle. Released in 1974, the French film embraced the X rating it was given, playing to packed theatres worldwide (it played at the Arc de Triomphe theatre for over eleven years) and spawning an ever-growing series of films continuing to this day.
Emmanuelle concerns the titular character, a young Parisian woman married to a French diplomat living in Bangkok. Arriving in Thailand, she is somewhat disgusted by and realises she does not fit in with some of the other expatriate women in her neighbourhood. After various introductions to and from people in her ‘circle’, she begins a journey of sexual experimentation with various lovers and experiences. And that is pretty much all that happens in the film.
The content of the film included masturbation, skinny-dipping, sex scenes, rape and included the ‘mile high club’ which landed it with an X certificate. The feature’s success saw it gross over $26 million and persuaded Columbia Pictures to distribute it throughout the States. After finding that most of the French audience were women, Columbia reasoned that the female interest in Emmanuelle meant it wasn’t mere pornography. Part of the appeal for women was the casting of Sylvia Kristel whose slim build, boy-ish haircut and girl next door looks weren’t a visual threat to women.
All titillation and no promise! These trailers are hard to live up to (excuse the pun…)
The film begins with Emmanuelle flying from Paris to Bangkok to be with her husband. Upon her arrival, she fails to gel with her fellow expatriates, all friends of her husband, who believe that her innocence and naivety are all part of an act. One of the expatriates asks to meet Emmanuelle at her house and the next day they meet and discuss their sexual experiences. Emmanuelle has married young and admits that she was a virgin before she met her husband whom she has never cheated on. To her surprise Marie-Ange opens a magazine and starts masturbating over a picture of Paul Newman (whatever floats your boat…) inviting Emmanuelle to do the same. Emmanuelle admits that whilst she has never cheated on her husband in Paris, she did have sex with two men on the flight to Bangkok which she describes and masturbates over. We flashback to her encounter which shows her to be slightly ambivalent to what is happening. While she is consenting to the sex happening, she doesn’t appear to overly enjoy it and seems to let the men use her body instead.
From here, Emmanuelle begins to break down her inhibitions and explore her sexuality which she hadn’t given much thought of in Paris. She recounts what happened between her and Marie-Ange to her husband Jean who encourages her to develop the friendship. Jean seems to enjoy the openness of their relationship; him having affairs with other female expatriates and his desire to allow Emmanuelle to have sex with other people as she ‘enjoys it… and does it so well’.
Emmanuelle takes a shine to Bee, an archeologist living near her. Clearly in lust, Emmanuelle follows Bee around trying to get her attention and spend time alone with her. After much flirtation and attempts at a brush off from Bee, the two have sex culminating in Emmanuelle telling Bee that she is in love with her. Bee responds coldly explaining that she is fond of her but doesn’t love her and that she is a distraction to her work. At this point it seems that all Emmanuelle really wants is to be loved, perhaps having been neglected by her husband somewhat because of his job and open attitude towards their marriage. Jean meanwhile, is angry that Emmanuelle has left the house without telling him, suggesting that he is only alright with her having sexual relations with other people when it is on his terms.
Upon returning home, Emmanuelle is introduced to an older man called Mario who wishes to teach her his philosophy on sex. He believes that by letting lust guide sexual experiences, a person can achieve greater levels of pleasure and sets about teaching Emmanuelle immediately. The remainder of the film follows her ‘lessons’ which involve her being raped and having sex until she is exhausted.
This one isn’t much better but gives you a glimpse of the Redford scene!
Emmanuelle set the standards for softcore pornography the world over on its release. Director Jaeckin liked to use soft focus lighting in his films and so Emmanuelle was no exception. Its success and influence on following features meant that soft focus lighting, pastel colour schemes and Victorian touches to underwear and interior design became commonplace. Released three years after Deep Throat and Last Tango In Paris, the films softcore approach appealed to a larger female audience and came across as a more couple friendly alternative to the hardcore films that were being released at the same time.
Out of all the sex films I have watched so far, Emmanuelle is my least favourite. embarrassingly, it took me four watches to understand what was happening in some parts because I either couldn’t understand or was so bored I wasn’t willing to understand. Pretty bad for a film which has an incredibly simple plot. I didn’t find Emmanuelle’s journey of discovery interesting or worthwhile. For someone who is naive and eager to learn, she seems very lost in her behaviour, happy to be told what to do and go along with what people think is best for her. She appears to go on a journey of discovery for the pleasures of those around her rather than discovering her own pleasures, even if she feels that she learns them along the way. The infamous scene of a woman lighting a cigarette with her vagina stands out for being such a jarring addition, going completely against the gentle eroticism of the rest of the feature. Clearly it has no real purpose other than to shock and could do with being cut to continue the tone of the picture. That said, there are some beautiful shots, such as Emmanuelle getting ready in her apartment at the start of the film and her nude swim in the pool when she arrives in Bangkok.
For me, Emmanuelle comes across as a confused little girl, her journey of discovery one that I would rather avoid…