Farewell, Sylvia Kristel: The star of Emmanuelle who introduced a generation of men to sex

She transcended the vapid content to project an image of innocence

John Walsh
Friday 19 October 2012 01:11
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Sylvia Kristel, who died of cancer aged 60 yesterday, as Emmanuelle in the 1974 film
Sylvia Kristel, who died of cancer aged 60 yesterday, as Emmanuelle in the 1974 film

The poster for Emmanuelle showed an elegant, short-haired woman sitting topless on an elaborate wicker throne, coolly regarding the viewer while holding one of the strands of a pearl necklace against her lips. For impressionable young British men in 1974, the watchful gamine with the golden flesh was the last word in sexiness.

In fact the late Sylvia Kristel, who played Emmanuelle, wasn't French; she was Dutch, born in Utrecht in 1952. But so convincingly did she play the French diplomat's virginal wife who discovers outré and transgressive sex in Thailand, that she became, for us, a new Bardot.

The film that bore her name gave itself airs as the first of a new genre: the mainstream soft-porn movie. Everything was filmed in gauzy slo-mo, the camera languidly tracking across pastel furnishings, softly-blowing curtains, diaphanous night attire and twining bodies. Whatever ointment was present on set during filming, there was a ton of Vaseline on the lens.

Emmanuelle drifts around Bangkok in a semi-erotic trance, experiences girl-on-girl fondling, joins the Mile High club, is raped in an opium den and licks the blood from a wounded boxer's forehead. Her glossily-shot initiation into carnality ("It looks," said Time Out, "like a softcore version of The Story of O commissioned by Vogue magazine") may sound dreadful now but was considered very chic in 1974 – the Cinquante Nuances de Gris of its day. In France, where it was initially banned, it was the highest-grossing film of the year. And when Columbia Pictures spotted that most of the French cinema audiences were women, they agreed to distribute it worldwide.

Emmanuelle was eventually seen by an estimated 650m people, few of them in dirty raincoats. "The first film of its kind," grated the voice on the US trailer, "to make you feel good without feeling bad." What saved it from being a pretentious tits 'n' arse-fest was Sylvia Kristel. She managed to transcend the vapid content and schlocky style, and project an image of innocence liberated by unguessed-at sensory discovery. And she had clever, appraising eyes which audiences liked to see widening with lust.

Among her many lovers were Roger Vadim, Gerard Depardieu and Warren Beatty. She was offered non-seductive roles but knew that she was only box-office in the buff.

As the sequels (Emmanuelle 2, Goodbye Emmanuelle, Emmanuelle 4) got worse, her career nose-dived. During a turbulent affair with the British actor Ian McShane, she became addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and lost a fortune financing the doomed film projects of her second husband, Philippe Blot. Left with nothing, she agreed in 1993 to star in Emmanuelle 7 as a brothel madame in sharp suit. She was 41. All the sex scenes were left to younger people to perform.

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