The 1970s were a fascinating time for American cinema. The studio system that dominated the Golden Age of Hollywood was dying by the end of the 1960s and with it, the Hays Code and its internal censorship. The '70s saw a new wave in movies with fresh new directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and host of others. They created films like never before seen in Hollywood. Their films often tackled themes that just a few years prior had been taboo. They were often pessimistic, dark films that didn’t hold back, graphically using violence, sex, and language to tell stories that felt fresh and real. Of course, other less-talented filmmakers churned out movies full of sex and violence and language that were less artful and more exploitative in nature. This is the decade in which pornography became chic after all. Movies like Deep Throat and The Devil In Miss Jones were getting mainstream attention. Even Roger Ebert even wrote a full review of Deep Throat in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Now that sex was no longer taboo, all the movies were having it. Or showing it anyways. It is within this cultural frame of mind that Emmanuelle entered the cinematic picture. Released in 1974, it became one of the highest-grossing French films in its native country and one of the most popular X-rated films in the United States. It spawned numerous official sequels, a bunch more unofficial ones (with the spelling of "Emmanuelle" slightly changed by dropping one M), a couple of TV series (including one set in space), plus untold knock-offs cashing in on the by now famous erotic name.
Based upon a controversial novel of the same name, the film follows the titular Emmanuelle (Sylvia Kristel), a rich, beautiful, bourgeoisie woman who travels to Bangkok with her diplomat husband Jean (Daniel Sarky). They have a fulfilling sex life but he often engages in lurid affairs with other women and encourages her to do the same. She is more shy about these matters having only ever had sex with him. In Bangkok, she meets a lot of other beautiful women who have nothing better to do while their husbands are working than to engage in every sensual delight that pleases them. Emmanuelle learns to loosen up. First by skinny-dipping, then masturbating alongside her friend, and ultimately engages in a lesbian affair with an older women.
At a party, she meets Bee (Marika Green), a beautiful archaeologist who is extremely exciting to Emmanuelle because she is intelligent, strong, and pursuing something that isn’t just her own immediate pleasure. The two have a heated affair that ultimately leaves Emmanuelle heartbroken as Bee tells her plainly that she doesn’t love her. The husband who initially pushed Emmanuelle into sexual liaisons with other people delights in the breakup as he had become jealous of Bee. He didn't mind the sex, but seeing her get emotionally involved drives him crazy.
Up until this point, one could argue Emmanuelle is a feminist movie. As a character, Emmanuelle is a strong women who has taken charge of her own sexuality. She sleeps with whom she wants, when she wants, in the matter that she desires. But the back half of the film rips that to shreds. Humiliated from her heartbreak, she runs away with Mario (Alain Curny), a much older and sophisticated man. Promising to take her to higher levels of sexual awakenings, he instead takes her to an opium den where she is raped by two strangers, then to a boxing match where she is offered as the prize to the winner. It could be argued that this furthers her own sexual awakening and that she has come to enjoy this submissive role but it just feels gross. What started as a feminist film ends in humiliating her in the nastiest way imaginable.
But perhaps that’s looking too deep into a movie that otherwise has the depth of a Playboy centerfold. It is that magazine's spreads that the film takes its visual queues. Shot in and around Bangkok, the locations are in themselves their own sensual pleasure. The set designs were beautifully and lovingly created (they say some of the props became popular furniture items after the film’s release). It is shot in soft focus with luxurious lighting. The actors are beautiful people and are gorgeously shot. It is a film one could turn the sound off and get lost in its visuals.
If you are looking for softcore erotica that is beautifully photographed and very well made, then Emmanuelle is your film.
Kino Lorber presents the unrated 94-minute cut of the film (there have been multiple versions of it so it's always of interest to give those details) with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio and a 1080p transfer. Extras include an interview with director Just Jaeckin and producer Yves Rousset-Rouard; Part 1 of a featurette entitled "The Joys of Emmanuelle" stars Sylvia Kristel, Jaeckin, and Rousset-Rouard who discuss the making of the film (Part 2 and 3 are presumably on the sequels also being released by Kino Lorber). And finally, there are trailers for several films in the series.
Emmanuelle is an important film in the development of erotica. It features somewhat explicit sexuality (there is plenty of nudity but it generally shies away from genital depictions or any type of penetration) with gorgeous photography and an actual story. It set up a photo-type for countless other soft-core films to come, bridging the gap between the prudish films of the Hayes Code era and the hardcore X-rated films that were starting to flourish. It falters in its early-feminist ideals by the end, but it is quite beautiful, sensual, and erotic.