R.I.P., Sylvia Kristel, the Original Emmanuelle

Sylvia KristelIn 1974’s Emmanuelle, the Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel — who died in Amsterdam on Wednesday, at 60, of esophageal and lung cancer — plays a young model who moves to Thailand with her husband, a French diplomat, and embarks on a journey of erotic self-discovery.

If you’re straight and male and your own journey of erotic self-discovery began sometime between the dawn of premium cable and the advent of the Internet, there’s a good chance you knew that already. Today every 14-year-old who can work an iPad is perpetually about three taps away from a firehose blast of HD-quality smut graphic enough to put Caligula in the mood for a Silkwood shower. But back in the ’80s, to see people doing it on film, you had to either tune into the Playboy Channel’s scrambled signal and squint for glimpses of Cubist nudity, or stay up late, like Linus waiting on the Great Pumpkin, until that magic hour when Cinemax’s programming turned bleu.

Swedish naughty-schoolgirl sex comedies. Innumerable erotic thrillers that all seemed to star Shannon Tweed as a no-nonsense vice cop whose beat required her to make love on a billiards table in a room lit by abstract neon boomerangs. And, sometimes, Emmanuelle, which began its cultural life as the highest-grossing domestically produced French film of 1974 and became the Citizen Kane of softcore, a landmark that shaped the aesthetic and tone of the countless silk-sheets-and-sax-solos adult films that followed.

Kristel was born in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 1952. Her parents owned a high-class hotel; she lived with her sister in Room 21. She was raised Calvinist and educated in a convent. According to her 2006 autobiography, Undressing Emmanuelle, she was sexually abused by a hotel guest at 9, tasted alcohol and took up smoking at 11, and was 14 when she caught her father in bed with another woman. He abandoned the family, and Kristel quit school to support her mother by working as a secretary and a waitress.

By the early ’70s, she’d moved to Amsterdam, done some modeling, won some beauty pageants, and started a relationship with Hugo Claus, a Belgian writer and filmmaker 27 years her senior. At Claus’s suggestion, she started acting; she’d already taken her clothes off in three Dutch films by the time she met producer Yves Rousset-Rouard.

Rousset-Rouard had purchased the rights to Emmanuelle, an infamous pseudo-memoir published and banned in France in 1959 and credited to “Emmanuelle Arsan,” which — depending on which account you believe — was either the pen name of Marayat Rollet-Andriane, a Thai writer and sometime actress who’d later appear in The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen, or her husband, a free-love-advocating UNESCO diplomat named Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris had broken new ground for eroticism on film two years earlier; Rousset-Rouard thought Emmanuelle had similar potential as an art-house sex odyssey.

Rousset-Rouard hired director Just Jaeckin, a fashion photographer who’d shot models like Twiggy for British Vogue (and had a name that could cut glass); after trying unsuccessfully to find a French actress willing to do what the role required, Jaeckin went to Amsterdam, where he spotted Kristel, then 21, at a casting agency, and flew her to Paris for a screen test.

“I thought, ‘Well, knowing directors, they’ll probably ask you to undress,'” Kristel says in Emmanuelle: A Hard Look, a 2000 documentary by Repo Man director and exploitation-cinema enthusiast Alex Cox. “So I picked a very slinky, beautiful silky dress with spaghetti straps, and while [the producer] was interviewing me, I was telling a story — I don’t know, about my family, or whatever — and then dropped the dress in the middle of the speech, and just went on talking.”

The script described Emmanuelle as a dark-haired Eurasian woman; Kristel was Dutch and 5-foot-9, with short blonde hair. She got the part.

What’s most striking about the original Emmanuelle is how classy it’s clearly trying to be, how serious; in the non-sex scenes, everyone floats around in a languid post-colonial torpor, like they’re in a Merchant-Ivory adaptation of a letter to Penthouse Forum.

Here’s Emmanuelle, preparing herself an elaborate petit dejeuner in her chic Paris apartment. Here’s Emmanuelle with her husband, riding through the streets of Bangkok in a yellow 1961 Jaguar convertible. Here, playing “Mario,” the tuxedoed older sybarite who mentors Emmanuelle in the ways of love, is Alain Cuny, who’d been in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Fellini Satyricon. (It’s with Mario’s arrival that the movie detours from good-natured lasciviousness and gets a little creepy; there’s a rape scene in an opium den, and a sequence in which Mario gives Emmanuelle to the winner of a kickboxing match as a prize.)

The score, by Pierre Bachelet, is oddly melancholy, somewhere between the more pensive passages of Serge Gainsbourg’s L’histoire de Melody Nelson, Frances Lai’s Love Story theme, and Air’s wispy pop-fromage; it isn’t bad. Neither is the gauzy, dreamy cinematography. And neither is Kristel.

“She’s a slender actress who isn’t even the prettiest woman in the film,” Roger Ebert wrote in a thumbs-uppish 1975 review, “but she projects a certain vulnerability that makes several of the scenes work. The performers in most skin flicks seem so impervious to ordinary mortal failings, so blasé in the face of the most outrageous sexual invention, that finally they just become cartoon characters. Kristel actually seems to be present in the film, and as absorbed in its revelations as we are.”

For six months, the French government had barred Emmanuelle from theaters; after the ban was lifted, the movie began raking in money. It ended up playing at a theater on the Champs-Élysées for more than a decade.

“It became like a monument in Paris,” Kristel told journalist Mick Brown in a 2007 interview. “The Japanese were stuffed in the bus and then they were taken to the Eiffel Tower, [the] Arc de Triomphe and Emmanuelle.” By the time it became the first X-rated movie released in America by Columbia Pictures, the trailer could proudly announce that “2 1/2 million Frenchmen have already stood in line to see it” — although, supposedly, Emmanuelle did the business it did because French women went to see it, too.

Let’s talk about that trailer for a minute:

So, OK: As a society we’re no less weird about sex than we’ve ever been, but we seem to have come to a kind of culture-war truce with pornography. This is partly because technology has made porn so ubiquitous that being opposed to it is like being against leaves or nitrogen or radio, but it’s also because porn tends to stay in its lane, audience-wise. When sex is depicted graphically in mainstream or mainstream-art-house movies it’s usually pretty disturbing; we’ve let Shame and Irreversible and Storytelling be part of the regular movie-culture discourse because we sense that their sexual content isn’t supposed to turn people on.

What I’m saying is that it’s almost impossible to imagine a major studio trying to sell this kind of movie this way in 2012 — as Pure Porn for Now People, important because it’s titillating and not in spite of that. I guess we’ll see what happens with the movie version of 50 Shades of Grey, the book that taught your mom about ball-gags — but I’ll bet the price of a comically oversize popcorn the trailers pitch it as a love story — The Vow with handcuffs — and that Coldplay’s “Fix You” will be involved.

Anyway: Emmanuelle spawned multiple franchises, legit and otherwise. Kristel starred in 1975’s Emmanuelle 2 and 1977’s Goodbye Emmanuelle, which was released in America by a fledgling film-distribution company called Miramax. In 1975, the Indo-European actress Laura Gemser starred in the first of six increasingly hard-core Italian-language Black Emanuelle films. “Emanuelle” (spelled with one “M” to skirt copyright law) quickly became an open-source brand name, and distributors slipped the name into the title of countless unrelated sexploitation films, hoping to boost foreign-market sales by evoking the original series’ globe-trotting, bed-hopping joie de vivre.

Kristel appeared in one more Emmanuelle film in the ’80s, Emmanuelle IV, in which she handed off the role to a Swedish actress named Mia Nygren via a plot I can’t describe better than Wikipedia does:

“Sylvia (Sylvia Kristel) is involved in a tormented love affair with Marc. She has tried to end their love, and escape, but always ends up back with him. After an encounter at a Los Angeles party, she decides she’s had enough — she will go to Brazil and get extensive plastic surgery. This way he will never recognize her again, much less find her, and it will make for a great article which she promises to hand in to a California newspaper.”

Nygren was replaced by Monique Gabrielle in Emmanuelle 5, re-cut for U.S. distribution (and heavy late-night-cable rotation) by Roger Corman, who added machine-gun fights, because Roger Corman is a genius.

The most famous post-Kristel Emmanuelle was Krista Allen, who parlayed her mid-’90s stint in the eight-film made-for-cable Emmanuelle in Space series into recurring roles on Days of Our Lives and Baywatch Hawaii, dated George Clooney for a while, and turned up this year on The L.A. Complex.

At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, longtime Emmanuelle-franchise producer Alain Siritzky announced that he’d signed a 25-year-old Vivid Video contract player known professionally as Allie Haze to star in nine new Emmanuelle films.  Haze (born Brittany Sturtevant, billed as “Brittany Joy” in her Emmanuelle work) is from Montana, but she’s half-Dutch.

Emmanuelle Through Time: Emmanuelle’s Forbidden Pleasures (“Time-traveling Emmanuelle treks into the past to prevent Earth’s destruction at the hands of the sexiest alien invaders ever seen”) airs this Saturday at 1 a.m. — on Cinemax, of course.

Between sequels, Kristel tried to build a mainstream film career; she worked with directors like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roger Vadim, and Claude Chabrol. In 1979, on the set of The Fifth Musketeer (co-starring Beau Bridges as both Louis XIV and his long-lost twin brother, Philippe), she met the British actor Ian McShane (Yes, Al Fucking Swearengen Ian McShane). They fell in love and moved to Los Angeles to jump-start their careers.

Everything went bad from there. In the Maxwell Smart spin-off movie The Nude Bomb, Kristel played a secret agent. In Concorde … Airport ’79, Kristel played a stewardess who stops Charo from bringing her dog on a plane that’s also carrying Eddie Albert, Jimmie Walker, John Davidson, and denture wearer Martha Raye. Hollywood didn’t crack.

“I was disappointed and a little hurt,” she wrote in Undressing Emmanuelle. “I was dressed but people preferred me naked. I realized that the public had been deeply affected by Emmanuelle and wanted to prolong their fantasy, to keep me within it, symbolic and naked, idealized and necessary.”

She left McShane and ran off to Buenos Aires with George Hamilton. She dated Vadim, Gerard Dépardieu, and Warren Beatty and hung out (platonically, she claimed) with Harry Nilsson. She did a lot of coke.

“The parties are many, similar,” she wrote. “I snort, I slip on my silk-lined Chanel clothes, drink and fall over.”

Eventually she got clean. By the ’90s, she was playing Emmanuelle again, taking non-sexual roles in Emmanuelle 7 (in which an older Emmanuelle runs a virtual-reality brothel, because, um, 1992) and in the framing sequences of a series of French made-for-TV Emmanuelle movies, as an older Emmanuelle recounting her sexual exploits to a businessman (George Lazenby) on a plane.

Lazenby played James Bond, just once, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, then walked away, because he didn’t want to be James Bond forever. In a way, Emmanuelle was the James Bond of porn — a character who endured, worldly and fearless and synonymous with a certain naughty-yet-upscale strain of jet-set glamour, immune to time and shifting social mores and franchise mismanagement. And Kristel, in that analogy, is Sean Connery, because nobody did it better.

Filed Under: In Memoriam, Obituary

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.