Well, this is very sad.
On Wednesday 17th,Sylvia Kristel died. Sylvia Kristel was of course the star of Emmanuelle, the revolutionary French soft-core sexmovie.
It all seems so long ago now, so we need to go way back…..
Emmanuelle was the erotic sensation of the Seventies. It was a soft-core movie about the sexual hedonism of French diplomats and businessmen in Thailand in the early Seventies. Into this lush and glamourous mix is added Emmanuelle, a beautiful yet innocent young wife of a handsome French engineer. The movie had no pretensions to art, it was about sex and pleasure and it had been under a ban for six months by the French government, since its release. The French censor relented and the movie was released. It immediately became a huge sensation in France and long queues of French cinemagoers formed wherever it was showing.
It is difficult today to understand what the fuss was about. But for the early Seventies, it was racy stuff, with The Mile High club, Lesbian sex for fun and lots of bed-hopping in luxurious Thai villas. Just Jaeckin was the director and he realised that the time was right to show sex as part of a classy and highly desirable lifestyle. So all the parts are played by attractive actors, the clothes, cars and locations were all high-style. Like the English director Ridley Scott, whose Duellists was also a Seventies sensation, Jaeckin used a lot of advertising cinematics to make Emmanuelle lushly beautiful. Soft focus, richly colourful locations and some very clever lighting for night scenes all added to the effect.
But without Sylvia Kristel it would all have been for nothing.
She was luminously beautiful.
At 22, she radiated an innocent sexuality that gave Emmanuelle a critical difference, it gave the movie a credibility that other sex movies just did not have. This was not some cynical aging stripper playing a part badly, this was a young woman with elegance and class. She had the most beautiful eyes, perfect pale skin and the body of a young goddess. Sylvia Kristel had been a nude model and she was sensual, graceful, comfortable being naked. All these characteristics brought her character and the movie to life. Actors from Anthony Quinn to Sean Connery talk about how important the physical character is to the movie and the audience. How embodying the character correctly helps the audience believe in the character and the movie. Sylvia Kristel brought a lightness, a playful sexuality and a sense of humour to her Emmanuelle, attributes which were very natural . Producers and Directors talk about whether an actor is “strong” enough to carry a picture. From her very first movie Sylvia Kristel was strong enough.
And so it began.
Emmanuelle made millions in a matter of days. Every European movie producer wanted in on the act. Suddenly there were a million Emmanuelle movies, pretty much all cheap copies, with woeful acctresses, all with a variety of spellings of the name Emmanuelle, just in case of legal action by the producers of the original. The French loved Emmanuelle. For them it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the French were the sexiest race and the greatest lovers. Snarky English journalists took delight in reminding the French that Sylvia was Belgian, born in Utrecht.
Sylvia Kristel became a star overnight and at first handled it very well. She clearly had a brain and did not take herself too seriously. And yet she understood she had made a significant movie and was capable of discussing the more serious implications of Emmanuelle’s sexuality. She did a nude photoshoot for Lui (a French men’s mag) which was remarkable in its beauty and for its portrayal of her delicate and vulnerable sexuality. At one time I owned a copy of this mag, but somewhere I lost it. I wish I still had it.
After Emmanuelle came out, “Julia” followed swiftly. A slightly odd German/Swiss co-production, “Julia” has almost disappeared from record. The timing suggests that Sylvia Kristel made it in the period after she made Emmanuelle and before Emmanuelle was released. It was coming-of-age soft-porn movie about a beautiful teenage virgin (Kristel) who is ready to change her status. I remember only two things about it. The first was that it had a truly execrable soundtrack, a kind of sub-Mommas and Poppas happy-clappy euro-pop sound track, very loud. It was so appallingly bad that by the end of the movie you were aching to turn the sound off. The second thing was how wonderful Sylvia Kristel’s breasts looked in closeup.
Then, in 1975 came Emmanuelle 2. I like this movie more than the first Emmanuelle. The difference was in the Director of Emmanuelle 2, Francis Giacobetti. Giacobetti was, and is, a wonderful photographer, one of the greats. By the time he came to make Emmanuelle 2, he had photographed a very sexy-beautiful Pirelli calendar (1970) and had a track record as a real artist who truly understood female beauty. So the sex scenes became sexier, more kinetic, more alive. Giacobetti’s camera loved Sylvia Kristel, and he photographed her beauty, even as she stripped and made love. And Giacobetti had the wit to realise that Emmanuelle had grown up. Still soft and romantically seductive, Emmanuelle is now a woman. She is now less hesitant, more knowing, more truly her own sexual person. It is a great movie, sexy as few movies are, and has aged well.
My only criticism of Emmanuelle 2 is that the actress who dubbed Sylvia Kristel into English was atrociously bad. If you can watch it in the original French, do so. But it is a sexy movie, I would recommend it above all the other movies Sylvia made.
Sylvia Kristel and the late Seventies
Then for a while in the 70s, she really hit her stride as an actress. She made the La Marge (titled The Streetwalker, in English) for cult erotic director Walerian Borowczyk. I think this is her best performance ever. Sylvia plays a street prostitute in this dreamlike, brooding movie. In The Streetwalker she has a liaison with Joe D’Allesandro, a man who has suffered a terrible tragedy. She was marvellous here, tentative, tender and sensual, giving the part an ethereal complexity that was perfect.
Then she made a psychological thriller, “Alice or the last fugue”, a Hitchcockian story for Claude Chabrol, the French director of crime and mystery. Not a great movie, it was cold to the point of unpleasantness, vintage Chabrol but maybe a bit too much Chabrol, too much malice overpowering the story. Sylvia Kristel was very good as a vulnerable woman in an atmosphere of menace. Again, strong enough to carry the movie.
She came to England to promote “Alice” and I remember her being interviewed by some fat pompous interviewer on the BBC. He treated her as a cross between a prostitute and a mental defective. However she was very brave and stood her ground, talking about the movie, even when the interviewer tried to infer she was a stupid slut for being naked on film.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
However if she pissed the Brits off by getting naked in Emmanuelle, that was nothing to the outrage she caused when she starred in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. The novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, had gone from being a reviled piece of filth in the Sixties to a kind of British literary mascot in the Seventies. I think Lady Chatterley gave middle-class Brits the idea that they were pretty sexy after all, under all that cold reserve. To have a French bimbo play a titled lady and a national icon caused convulsions in the national press. The reviewers massacred the film and it sank without a trace.
Many years later I saw Lady Chatterley’s Lover and it was not so bad. It was directed by Just Jaeckin (again) and it was clear that the old dog had kept an eye on his protégé. Sylvia did bring some real gifts to her Lady Chatterley. Sylvia’s demure elegant attitude, her warmth, gave her some of the characteristics of D.H. Lawrence’s Constance Chatterley. Her ability to portray an innocent surface repressing a powerful, loving sexuality also made her a good fit. However her inability to play the role in English (she had to be dubbed) dragged the portrayal down. Just Jaeckin’s ability to build and film aristocratic high-style scenes was exploited to the full here, so what we got was a movie that was faithful after a fashion but very flat.
And in the same year as Lady Chatterley’s Lover she made her most financially successful film “Private Lessons”. Private Lessons is a sex comedy about an adolescent boy whose rich father had left him in the care of a sexy French housekeeper. As the housekeeper, Sylvia showed that, given a good director, she had a real gift for light comedy. Private Lessons is another good movie which has aged well.
Hollywood and the Eighties were not good for Sylvia. By that time she had a cocaine problem, was being cheated out of her royalties and had a series of disastrous love affairs. She made other movies, they were not good. At the start of the Nineties she was bankrupt and had lost everything and had pretty much dropped off the radar. By the end of the Nineties she was at last in a stable relationship. She did some independent film work and she painted.
Then in 2001 she was diagnosed with cancer. Sylvia had always been a heavy smoker and in 2001 had the first of a number of serious surgeries which would leave her badly scarred and with permanent physical impairments.
Around 2006, there was a revival of interest in Sylvia Kristel and she gave some interviews. She was intelligent and witty, just as she had been when she was younger. I was struck by how kind and level she was about her past and how self-aware she was. She made it plain that she knew her own mistakes had contributed to making her later life tough.
A couple of months ago I read about how ill she was and in my heart I wished her all the best.
And now she is gone.
Sylvia Kristel and me
I am immensely saddened by Sylvia Kristel’s death. I feel like I owe her a debt and am hugely grateful to her.
When I saw first Emmanuelle I was a boy, an adolescent who had sex on the brain, all the time. This was bad, because sex in England in the Seventies was dirty, soulless and misunderstood. England had started teaching “sex education” in schools. It was
mechanical, medical and empty. I remember it as completely joyless.
Emmanuelle was a revelation that changed my life. It showed sex as fun, intimate and passionate. It showed sex as sexy, for Heaven’s sake. In the main English people are not good with sex, they do not understand it. I do, and my education started with Sylvia Kristel as Emmanuelle. In England, Emmanuelle was a blip on the radar, and most people in England have never heard of the movie nor do older people remember it. Not for me. Emmanuelle shaped my life. And not just me. Maybe not in England, but in Europe, where she was adored by so many men.
For me, Sylvia Kristel was beautiful and sexy but most of all she had a naturalness that I adored. I fell in love with her in a way I have never done with any other movie actor. She helped me to realise that I was both sexy and sensual and that sex could help me (as an adolescent) find out who I was. Emmanuelle gave me a big boost on my early journey to becoming cultured, worldly and a good lover. It showed me the world of good sex that existed outside of the cold confines of England. It showed me that sex can develop your character, your spirit and your life. I am so very grateful for this.
Goodbye Sylvia. I cherish the memory of you. Thank you and much, much love to you.
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