Emmanuelle (1974)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Emmanuelle</strong> (1974)

(In French, On Cable TV, July 2018) So-called erotic movies aren’t particularly interesting to review—we know what they’re for, and so do they—whatever plot surrounds the set-pieces is either perfunctory or ridiculous. But Emmanuelle is interesting to comment as a movie. At one point, it was featured in the Guinness Book of records as the longest-running theatrical feature, as a theater in Paris played the film for more than a decade (I just checked, and the current record-holder is either a film shown at Disneyland since the seventies or a feature that has been playing at a Chinese theater for three decades). Records aside, Emmanuelle has a place in movie history for having been part (along with Last Tango in Paris, and other) of the seventies “porno chic” era, when it looked as if mainstream cinema and erotic cinema were fated to merge. That didn’t quite happen, but the film led to a dizzying profusion of more than fifty sequels or unauthorized spinoffs, and (at least in French-Canada) remains a bit of a shorthand reference for artistic softcore adult cinema. It still plays regularly on French-Canadian cable, which explains this review. Alas, there’s a lot more to the hype than to the film—Emmanuelle has not aged well. The atmosphere of the film remains stuck in the hedonistic free love era, with characters egging each other on to sexual freedom at the expense of just about every other concern. To its credit, Emmanuelle is executed with a patina of respectability—the cinematography takes advantage of the Cambodian scenery, the dialogue is polished to the point of pretentiousness and there’s tact to the film’s atmosphere that definitely sets it apart from crasser approaches. This being said, much of the material feels ridiculous, offensive or hopelessly naïve by today’s standards. Heroine Emmanuelle is portrayed as quasi-chastely faithful until she reveals that she joined the mile-high club twice on the way from Paris to Bangkok. Depictions of Asians are brutally Orientalist, with Asian women being the object of quiet exotic contemplation and Asian men always using force in their sexual encounters. The film plays with the “erotic awakening” plot without much conviction (see: mile-high double) but has at least an awareness that there’s a double standard at play between Emmanuelle and her husband. Sylvia Kristel became a superstar based on her role, but she’s exceptionally boring here—only Alan Cuny as a Mephistophelian older mentor is interesting as a character or a performer. Everyone else ranks on looks, which isn’t saying much given early-seventies French moustaches for the men. (Even Kristel herself would look much better with longer hair in the sequel.)  Trivia fans may appreciate that a striking secondary character, Bee, is played by Marika Green—the aunt of notorious clothes-removing actress Eva Green. I was a bit surprised to feel more exasperated than charmed by Emmanuelle, especially toward the end as the genial hedonistic atmosphere of expatriate wives entertaining themselves was replaced by a much darker testing of the heroine in evermore sadistic episodes. It barely leads anywhere, which is admittedly not as much a problem for erotic films where the journey is the destination. But it does reinforce the idea that there’s little to say about the film or its genre. (For the record: Yes, I saw the first sequel Emmanuelle II. No, there won’t be any review—there’s even less to say about it.)

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