After nearly two decades of this site kicking around in an assortment of formats, certain stories have emerged as a sort of personal folklore; tales told over and over because one never quite knows when a reader is coming across them for the first time. Of the many stories that pop up time and again, few have played as crucial a role in the development of Teleport City as the one of my friend Rob, the satellite his father installed in the back yard, and the wonders to which it gave us access, enabling us to become sophisticated consumers of exotic cinematic fare at a time when we were supposed to still be watching Sesame Street. Rob’s family was the first I knew to have a VCR. And they were the first to get satellite television. This was in a time when having satellite television required you to install a shed-sized dish in the back yard and then learn how to aim it, calibrate it, compensate for solar winds and solar flares and bouncing signals off the stratosphere. Maybe I made some of that up, but I know it was a lot more complicated than the DirecTV satellite I have today. Satellite television back then was a bit more wild west in how it worked. There were licenses you were supposed to purchase, giving you the right to pull HBO or Playboy Channel down out of the aether, but a clever techie — and Rob’s dad was the sort of fellow who built computers from scratch in the 1970s — was usually able to figure out all the ways to tease strange and forbidden signals out of the atmosphere without a license.
This being the era that it was, there was also very little parental oversight of our viewing endeavors, which meant among other things that after 11pm or so, we were left to our own devices with those wondrous television signals ours for the taking. Most of the time, we did what any kids our age would do: scanned the airwaves for stuff like Excalibur or Conan the Barbarian, or something with ninjas, or anything with a ratings screen that contained four-for-four sure thing warning of “Language, Violence, Nudity, Strong Sexual Situations”. We were both of us more dedicated film fans at that age than most of our peers, which meant that even when it wasn’t just barbarians and boobs and space aliens, we’d stay up until dawn watching whatever came on. This led to us being the only kids in third grade who knew a lot about Blood for Dracula and David and Lisa. And when we were sure Rob’s parents were asleep and his older sister wasn’t spying on us, we’d hazard a peek at the verboten adult channels. That was when I first encountered Sylvia Kristel.
Just as we knew more about experimental art film from the 1960s than the average eight-year-olds (or at least knew of them), at a time when the definition of beauty in America was Farrah Fawcett, my youthful inclination was toward Sylvia Kristel. I don’t remember exactly which movie of hers it was I first saw on one of those illicit marathon movie nights. One of the Emmanuelle films, I am sure. But it made an indelible impression on me, and not just because it was an early encounter with explicit sex and nudity. Those counted, but at that age, they were more of a badge of honor than any sort of erotic coming-of-age. Nudity was more about having seen it when I knew I wasn’t supposed to, thus beating the system, than it was arousal, though I admit freely that Kristel instantly struck in me a boyish crush. What entranced me far more was the adventurous spirit and the fabulous places she visited. There was a continental exoticism to the eroticism, something that spoke of decadent European jet-setters in romantic old locales, strolling amidst the ruins of ancient civilizations, wearing glamorous clothing, talking about esoteric intellectual things. Rome. Paris. Tokyo. The jungles of Thailand. I wanted that.
I grew up in a transitional part of Kentucky somewhere between suburban and rural. The kind of town where everyone knows everyone and the big news was that Pastor Miller had dinner Tuesday at the Morris household, where they had meatloaf. My life was by no means of poor quality. I had loving parents, good friends, and hundreds of acres of undeveloped woods to explore. But it was not a life of elegance, though admittedly I didn’t know I wanted a jet-set life of elegance (or at least shabby chic) until I encountered Emmanuelle. If the science fiction and fantasy films I so adored were pure escapism, then my first glimpse at these weird European sex films provided escape into a (theoretically) more obtainable world. At the very least, these were real places, and I soon became obsessed with far-away lands like Thailand, the Seychelles, Venice, and for some reason, Norway and Finland (icy extremes have always held an attraction for me). It was through my exposure to them that I decided I wanted to travel, that I wanted to be a writer, that I wanted to trod the earth with nothing but a typewriter, an old camera, a bottle of booze, and a beautiful woman by my side.
The First Emmanuelle
Before there was Emmanuelle, there was Emmanuelle. Emmanuelle Arsan, to be slightly more precise. Marayat Rollet-Andriane to be even more precise still. Born Marayat Bibidh in January 1932, in the city of Bangkok, she was the real-life Emmanuelle, the one on whose life the novel Emmanuelle was based and which she purportedly wrote (she didn’t), or at least contributed to in some degree. She was possessed of a stunning beauty, a sharp intellect, boundless curiosity, and an uninhibited free spirit. Together with her husband, French diplomat Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane, she cut a path through the emerging jet-set that cemented her as an icon of sexual liberation and the queen of globe-trotting decadence. And yet we still know so little about her. She remains an enigma despite how much was written about her or by her. She transcended rapidly into the realm of the mythological, and as a result, she remains a bit of a cypher.
Though Emmanuelle was at least based in part on her, and likely at least to some degree written by her (though the bulk of the novel is now attributed to her husband), it can hardly be taken as biography. Most articles that reference her repeat the few scant confirmed details of her life. She co-starred alongside Steve McQueen in a movie (and in bed, or so the rumors say), served as the model for one of the most famous works of jet-set erotica, and yet primary sources about her are difficult to come by, at least in English. Interviews seem almost non-existent, or where they do exist, are very brief entertainment puff pieces. There seems to be no thorough examination of her life, very little beyond rumor and gossip. The tragic circumstances of her final years are known, however, and provide a harrowing end to an outrageous life. In a way, perhaps, it is for the best that we know so few hard facts about her. She remains, always, Emmanuelle.
But before that, when she was still Marayat Bibidh, she was just a smart girl who left Thailand to pursue education in Switzerland. While there, in 1948, she met hyphenated name aficionado Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane, a French diplomat nearly twice her age (she was sixteen at the time; he, thirty). Louis-Jacques was already a budding libertine. One of his closest friends was another member of France’s diplomatic brigade, Philippe Baude, who was himself attached to a woman named Suzanne Brøgger. Brøgger became one of the preeminent voices of the sexual liberation movement, championing the causes of free love and polyamory. The young Thai expatriate must have been impressed with the world Louis-Jacques offered her, one filled with exotic locations, interesting people, glamorous parties, and sexual frankness. Marayat and Brøgger became friends and lovers, even posing nude together in a playful series of shots. Marayat and Louis-Jacques, similarly, fast became an item. In 1956, when she was in her early twenties, the two wed. They remained married — though not monogamous — for the rest of her life. Now Marayat Rollet-Andrianes, and following Louis-Jacques’ assignment to Thailand as part of UNESCO, she returned to her native Bangkok, where the couple quickly made names for themselves.
At the time, Bangkok was a significantly different city than it is today. Its reputation as a mecca for strip clubs and sex tourism would not develop until it became the default for American servicemen on leave during the Vietnam war. But when Marayat and her husband arrived in town, things started to change. They were unabashed, outspoken proponents of the growing sexual revolution, free love, and swinging, and a small but growing cabal of like-minded decadents gravitated toward the free-spirited couple, consisting mostly of the sort of jaded diplomats, intriguers, amateur adventurers, and decadent jet-setters you would want in such a situation. Among their associated was Italian prince Alessandro “Dado” Ruspoli, the archetypal globetrotting playboy. The decadent’s decadent, philosophizing on the virtues of a lack of virtue and counting among his friends Brigitte Bardot, Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, and Roger Vadim, among many others. His life is said to have been the inspiration for Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The Rollet-Andrianes adopted him as their sexual guru, their ‘high priest of love’ as they described him. Through the prince, the couple expanded their social sexual circle to Rome, Venice, and Paris. In 1959, a chronicle of their libertine escapades appeared, though at the time it did not name them by name, nor in fact was there an author attributed to the novel. It was circulated through the underground and simply titled Emmanuelle.
The Mile High Book Club
From its very first sentence, Emmanuelle places the story and its central character in the midst of the burgeoning jet age. Which, for those of us traveling in the age of microscopic economy seating, inedible food, and fellow passengers shuffling on board in flip-flops (which they will invariable remove so they can prop their filthy bare foot up on your arm rest once they sit down behind you), the early days of international jet travel can seem an alluring golden era. Certainly the daring Emmanuelle would find it challenging, even in first class, to indulge in the saucy escapades that initiate us into her world. One simply hasn’t the leg room these days to complete any but the simplest of clandestine dalliances. Though to be honest, I would be far more forgiving if my seat was being bumped by two people in the throes of an amorous coupling than I am when it’s just a bored child kicking the seatback. Even the bathroom of a modern aeroplane provides inadequate respite as they are often tiny and, worse, filthy. While sex in a filthy bathroom has its place, that’s not the image one usually conjures when daydreaming about joining the Mile High Club.
But when Emmanuelle steps off the Heathrow tarmac and aboard a plane bound for Thailand, one can forget the shabby conditions of modern jet travel and the daunting logistics of aeroplane sex and simply revel in a fantasy world where it’s all much easier and much more elegant. or it would be if Emmanuelle, upon admiring the shapely stewardess, doesn’t have her impish machinations derailed by the arrival of two obnoxious school children who plant themselves in the seats across the aisle from her. I Guess the golden age of travel wasn’t always so different from our own. Luckily, her seat-mate is a handsome, salt-and-pepper haired man who shields her from the presence of the children. Eventually, the subtle vibration of the plane and the novelty of flight — jet travel was still a rarity in the 1950s — lulls Emmanuelle into a languid, aroused state in which she cannot help but do a little personal exploration. When the man next to her catches on what is happening, he is more than willing to provide assistance (the kids across the aisle are, mercifully, asleep) and she to reciprocate his ministrations. A second, less covert coupling occurs after their layover (err, so to speak), this one involving Emmanuelle giving herself over entirely to her lust, stripped completely naked, stretching out and straddling the mysterious man in his seat, in full view of the rapt kids across the aisle. The explosive conclusion to their flight serves as a perfectly irreverent baptism into the world of Emmanuelle. This is not necessarily a reflection of reality — even the reality of jet-set glamor pales in comparison to our impression of it. So let’s stick to the realm of fantasy, where the winking stewardess is complicit in letting you pull off your escapade and when you ask whether or not one can enjoy a bath on the flight, the answer is, “Yes, but the baths in the airport are much more luxurious.”
After Emmanuelle’s dalliance aboard the aeroplane, the book and its heroine settle into an episodic recounting of Emmanuelle’s sexual escapades through the world of bored European expatriates and professional bon vivants, both men and women. The first half of the book is given over to Emmanuelle settling into the groove of daily life among the jaded wives of the diplomatic corps. For the most part, Emmanuelle vacillates between finding them amusing and tedious and is annoyed that they regard her somewhat condescendingly as a prude because she doesn’t throw herself at every man who comes her way or measure her success as a woman purely on how many men she can seduce. The only women Emmanuelle finds tolerable are a saucy young teenager and a boyish American model. Most of her sexual encounters during this portion of the book are either with her husband, sessions of mutual masturbation with the young libertine Marie-Ange, or fumbling experimentation with the American model Bee or Emmanuelle’s fellow diplomat’s wife, the athletic and occasionally irritating Ariane. Ariane is, in many ways, the anti-Emmanuelle. They are both open to sexual adventure, but for Ariane, it’s a competition. But Emmanuelle finds it distasteful to use sex as competition, as a source for bragging. It should be a celebration, an education, a pleasure, but as free of the crass vulgarity of politics as of religious hang up and guilt. Emmanuelle is free of the predatory appetite that makes Ariane and the other wives seem petty and manipulative, less interested in enjoying sex than in simply getting it over with so she can add another notch to her belt.
In the second half of the book, Marie-Ange introduced Emmanuelle to the older Mario (a very thinly veiled Dado Ruspoli), who the teen hopes will help Emmanuelle realize her full erotic potential. Mario is responsible for most of the book’s ham-handed and at times ludicrously pompous sexual philosophy. Unfortunately, as breezy and fun and arousing as the first half of the book is, the arrival of Mario stops it dead in its tracks, trading in the sex and playfulness for endless, redundant, largely nonsensical rambling that seems never to end and turns the entire book flaccid. One desperately yearns for the return of any other character, even Ariane, if it will free us from Mario’s interminable self-indulgent waxing on the nature of love versus sensuality versus the erotic arts. Even one sympathetic to his philosophy will find themselves sorely tested by Mario’s endless blathering. even Emmanuelle considers him a pompous windbag, but for some reason, she still spends time with him and considers him worth listening to — this despite that he is in many ways no different from the chattering wives around the pool: all bragging, no shagging.
Emmanuelle is involved in two sex acts with Mario, and neither of them manage to be the least bit arousing or even interesting. One is downright uncomfortable, as the otherwise breezy sex-positive explicitness of the book is somewhat undone when Mario takes Emmanuelle on an odyssey to a seedy phallic temple where she is forced to give some stranger a blowjob. The writing desperately tries to make us think she begins to enjoy it, but it rings false and is a misstep that fouls somewhat the entire book. The second go-round is a threesome with Mario and an anonymous Thai guy, and while the writing in that section is flat and uninteresting, at least Mario shuts the fuck up for a little bit while he bangs the other guy. And thus does the book end, without recovering the erotic glory of its first half, without ever making up for all the time we spent being phenomenally bored by Mario.
Emmanuelle maintains a prose style somewhere between Anais Nin and a particularly eloquent Penthouse Forums letter: playful, sexy, explicit, tastefully vulgar, but occasionally opting for a curiously unappealing description of something that shouldn’t be unappealing. A woman becoming wet when aroused probably shouldn’t be described as “moistened my mucous membranes,” regardless of how impressive the alliteration. Maybe that’s just a problem with the translation. Even if you drop the “mucous,” saying something like “moisten my membranes” will tend to stop a lovemaking session as sure as Mario showing up to ramble about “sensuality versus the erotic arts”. But when the book sexy, it’s really sexy. The entire encounter on the aeroplane is sublime, as is Emmanuelle’s first halting masturbation session with Marie-Ange, though the youth of Marie-Ange might make some readers hesitate (she is described as being thirteen — an age at which many people become sexually active but also don’t want to discuss). The discovery that Louis-Jacques was responsible for most, if not all, of the book’s content (however much it might have been based on the real-life indulgences of him and Marayat) has seen the book largely framed as male wish-fulfillment, the story of a beautiful and intelligent woman who gives herself with abandon and without regret or inhibition to any act of pleasure. And while that’s a pretty heavy dose of male fantasy, one could argue that just because it’s male fantasy doesn’t mean it can’t be female fantasy as well. Well, at least until Mario arrives. I can’t imagine spending time with him being anyone’s fantasy. Luckily, the first half of the novel is light and sensual; just stop reading when Emmanuelle leaves for the diplomatic party.
The late 1950s were a time of sexual upheaval, if still largely behind closed doors and in the underground. But the deluge of sexy pulp paperbacks that began to hit the clandestine markets often punished their characters for their sexuality — especially if they were gay or lesbian characters. Sure, no one really takes the moral lesson of such books seriously. They were usually there as a transparent (and rarely successful) means of deflecting potential condemnation by moral watchdogs. It’s a trick as old as smut literature itself: wallow in hundreds of pages of sex and sin, then dedicate the last few pages to the sinners getting a terrible comeuppance for their indiscretions. What sets Emmanuelle apart from its pulp novel bedfellows is that at no point is Emmanuelle expected to feel shame for what she does. At no point it she punished. Emmanuelle posits a world in which men and women can writhe about with one another in various unclothed combinations without it being sinful and without it calling for some sort of retribution. As would later become the tagline for the eventual film adaptation of the novel, here was something that allowed you to feel good about feeling good.
Whatever posturing was being done in the open, behind the bedroom door, men and women were shedding the sexual hang-ups of the immediate post-war years and thinking that it might be fun to have a little fun again. For all the reputation the 1950s had for buttoned-up repression, it was also the era in which new populations of suburbanites started experimenting with swinging and spouse swapping, or with heading back into the big, seedy city to sample the polyamorous thrills of clubs like Plato’s Retreat, a one-time gay bathhouse that was turned into a heterosexual swinger’s club (must to the consternation of its gay clientele). The free love movement is usually attached to the more obviously liberated 1960s, but it started in the 1950s. Hell, one could even say what was happening was just a revival of the brief flirtation with sexual frankness that occurred during the roaring 1920s, when people — especially women — rejected pent-up Victorian attitudes and started celebrating life and pleasure, something that was sorely needed after the horrors of the First World War. The 1950s were the era of daring publishers releasing banned books like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (and sometimes going to prison for it). This was the era of “art and photography” magazines and “educational” films about nudist colonies. This was the era when a shy young magazine man in Chicago lucked into ownership of a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe and built around it the first issue of a magazine he decided to call Playboy.
Europe, for all its air of decadent sophistication and looser attitude about sexuality, wasn’t so different from the United States at first. But following a predictable cycle, the austerity and social conservatism of the World War II years blossomed into a period of liberation and experimentation once the war was over and rebuilding was underway. Books banned in the United States found publishers in France, and American servicemen and tourists were willing smugglers when it came to bringing these books back into the United States (oh for a time when the transportation of “pornography” included James Joyce). European movies began to re-introduce sex (among other “vices”) to their movies at a time when the United States was itself struggling to slip the shackles of the Hays Code. Such was the mood when Emmanuelle appeared in the finer underground adult bookstores of France. Years later, the work would find a more legitimate publication and finally have an author assigned to it: Emmanuelle Arsan. It wasn’t long before it came out that the character “Emmanuelle” was Marayat Rollet-Andriane, who was also the author of the saucy book. It wasn’t until much later that it came out her husband was the author, though if and how much input she had into the writing of the novel is one of many pieces of speculation that it seems will remain unanswered.
At the time Marayat was officially connected to Emmanuelle, she was supplementing her freewheeling lifestyle by dabbling in acting. She appeared alongside Steve McQueen (with whom she reportedly had quite the saucy relationship), Candice Bergen, and Richard Attenborough, in 1966’s The Sand Pebbles and popped up in an episode of the long-running American televisions series The Big Valley, which starred Lee Majors, Linda Evans, and one of the legends of Hollywood’s golden age, Barbara Stanwyck. The Sand Pebbles was a prestige picture from director Robert Wise (who worked with everyone from Orson Welles to Val Lewton) following up the massive success of his previous films, The Sound of Music and West Side Story, as well as the less blockbustery The Haunting (one of the best horror films of all time). McQueen plays a typically iconoclastic US Naval engineer on a boat patrolling the Yangtze River in 1926, a time of tremendous unrest in China in which the success of the 1911 revolution to end the dynastic era gave way to a period in which bandits and local warlords ran roughshod over the people and a weak central government. This further led to foreign powers, most notably Britain, France, Russia, the United States, and Japan, carving up huge slices of China as their own unofficial territory — well, unofficial until Japan just full-on invaded, claiming a giant section of the country as its own and setting up a laughable local puppet regime.
Marayat appears as a local girl who falls in love with Richard Attenborough (The League of Gentlemen). Inexperienced and hired primarily for her looks and her multilingualism, Marayat manages to hold her own in a powerhouse film surrounded by an experienced, world-class cast and, if not Steve McQueen’s most popular performance, certainly his best (he even got an Oscar nomination). His nomination was one of eight the film received, which also included nods for best picture, best supporting actor (a young Mako, later in Conan the Barbarian), and best score (Jerry Goldsmith). Attenborough won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor and the film was nominated for an additional seven. Unfortunately, the role of “local girl who falls in love with a member of the main cast” is often a thankless one, so the success of the film did not translate into further cinematic success for our not-so-secret Emmanuelle. Despite being signed to a contract with Paramount, acting didn’t really stick for Marayat, either because she just wasn’t that dedicated to it, she wasn’t that good at it, or most big productions were still unwilling to cast minorities. Other than The Sand Pebbles and the one episode of The Big Sky, Marayat’s only other screen appearance was in Laure, a film she and her husband co-wrote and directed after they became dissatisfied with the level of control they had on other films based on the writing of Emmanuelle Arsan. In the end though, it hardly mattered. The book Emmanuelle was doing big business, and before too long it would find itself being adapted for the screen.
Sex on the Screen
Despite the best efforts of prudes, decency leagues, and other opponents of humans enjoying themselves, film in the 1960s was becoming increasingly liberated from the constraints that had been placed upon it in response to the cinematic sins of the silent era. The willingness of the films of the 1920s to indulge, to revel in the depiction of drinking and sex and vice, was crankily chased off the screen in the 1930s, when the austerity of the Great Depression and the turmoil of World War II inspired a move toward “good, clean morals.” Sexy films were left to the maverick second generation of exploitation filmmakers (the first generation having plied their trade in the 1910s). Filmmakers like Dwain Esper and Louis Sonney created a new film industry, one that resembled the ballyhoo and operating procedure of your sleazier carnival sideshows. They shot cheap movies with inexperienced casts, usually with minimal plots revolving around sex and drugs. They bought the rights to nature films that featured nudity “for anthropological reasons” and edited those into features. They’d then show the films in the theaters they themselves owned, or go on the road to exhibit them in theaters in need of programming, however shoddy and sleazy it may be. It turned out, despite what moral watchdogs hoped for America, that a lot of people were willing to sit through a really bad movie if it delivered sex and violence. When they were done, these exploitation impresarios were pack up their prints and high-tail it out of town, usually one step ahead of the law. Then they’d give their movie a different title, maybe edit together a couple different movies, and start the whole thing over again.
During the 1950s, underground filmmakers got increasingly brazen. It seemed the country had an unquenchable desire for education as pertains to nudist colonies. By the 1960s, after a slew of landmark cases regarding the definition of “obscenity”, filmmakers were regularly churning out “nudie cuties,” inexpensive films usually structured around a series of burlesque performances and stripteases or plots consisting entirely of “a journalist goes to investigate nudist colonies.” By the middle of the decade, everything from the free love movement to swingin’ London, women’s lib, underground hardcore pornography, and a youth movement looking to cast off the hang ups of their parents formed an uneasy alliance in the assault on old sexual mores. Enterprising Americans like Radley Metzger were searching for Europe’s most provocative films and importing them into the United States to play in the country’s new crop of arthouse cinemas. The mythical “raincoat crowd” that became the personification of the grindhouse era wasn’t quite the same population turning out to see banned films by “pornographers” like Ingmar Bergman, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Vilgot Sjöman, and Metzger himself, who transitioned in the latter half of the 1960s from importing richly appointed erotic films into directing his own, including hallmarks of the genre like Carmen Baby, Therese and Isabelle, and the dizzying pop-art wonder Camille 2000.
Around the same time, Italian director Tinto Brass (who would rise to fame/infamy in the 1970s with the Nazisploitation film Salon Kitty and the big budget smut film to end all big budget smut films, 1979’s Caligula) was exploring increasingly explicit territory in sexually charged experimental films like The Howl and Attraction. In France, Roger Vadim had graduated from the scandalous Brigitte Bardot film And God Created Woman to the campy sexiness of Barbarella. 1969’s controversial Women in Love dared to show full frontal male nudity (which is still controversial and depressingly rare, even in supposed daring films) in the beefy form of Oliver Reed wrestling with Alan Bates. Doubtless films such as these in the late 1960s helped pave the way for Emmanuelle‘s transition to screen, at least in part by paving the way for the sexually explicit mainstream film that Emmanuelle‘s producers site as their inspiration (or permission slip) for making Emmanuelle: Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. Before the end of the decade, the world had what it thought was going to be the first cinematic adaptation of Emmanuelle — but 1969’s Io, Emmanuelle wasn’t exactly what fans of the book might have been looking for.
That Cesare Canevari remains largely unknown even among fans of obscure movies isn’t a huge crime against the history of the industry, but it is nevertheless something that should be rectified. Although not at all prolific, certainly not when measured against the output of a man like Jess Franco, most of Canevari’s films are historically significant for anyone who considers themselves aficionados of the gloriously disreputable world of European cult cinema. In 1970, he directed ¡Mátalo!, a bizarre, psychedelic deconstruction of the spaghetti western (a genre which had itself started out as a deconstruction of classic American westerns). His 1976 film The Nude Princess introduced audiences to stunning Ajita Wilson, a transgendered performer from the New York underground who forged a fruitful career for herself in Eurocult films, working with directors like Jess Franco and Lucio Fulci, among many others. Canevari’s 1977 shocker The Gestapo’s Last Orgy is considered something of a high water mark for the Nazisploitation subgenre, if you think Nazispoitation is a subgenre capable of having a high water mark. His 1968 film A Hyena in the Safe is a curious and entertaining mix of heist film, giallo, and krimi. Six thieves with six keys meet eleven months after stealing a safe full of diamonds (the wait has something to do with radioactive material used as a security measure) to open it. It seemed the perfect plan at first, but things start to go immediately awry. One of the thieves is unable to make it, sending instead his mysterious and beautiful girlfriend (Karina Kar). Another lost his key in a poker game, and its new owner (Ben Salvador, later in Io, Emmanuelle) arrives instead of the expected thief. Handsome young hotshot Albert (Alex Morrison) shows up with a new girlfriend (Cristina Gaioni, veteran of caper and Eurospy films like The Assassin, FX-18, Operation Atlantis, and Fury in Marrakesh, as well as the Paul Morrissey film Flesh for Frankenstein) in tow. But the biggest shock of all is the discovery that the mastermind of the entire heist is dead. Or so says elegant Anna (Maria Luisa Geisberger), who claims he passed his key on to her.
Suspicions flare immediately, especially around Albert’s girlfriend Jeanine. In the end, though, they decide to put suspicion aside and just open the damn safe — which is a fine plan until Albert discovers he no longer his key. The others suspect him of treachery, of holding the diamonds hostage in hopes of getting a larger share. Albert’s lack of trustworthiness becomes more acute when they discover he is a drug addict. But then Albert turns up dead, having fallen, jumped or been pushed out of a tower window. Around this same time, a quiet diamond fence arrives and serenely witnesses the descent into chaos. The situation is about much more than just the missing key, and the remaining thieves begin to form and dissolve alliances as they try with increasing desperation to unravel the mystery of the key’s location, who might be a murderer, and what to do with the mysterious new person who shows up, hovering the villa in a helicopter and ranting about being “the boss” and having Albert’s key and wanting half the diamonds.
Although Canevari’s later output would be rough and sleazy, this early film in his career is a breezy delight. The cast, almost none of whom seem to have many other films to their credit, are uniformly good. Working with Claudio Catozzo, who would remain Canevari’s go-to cinematographer, the film achieves a delirious pop-art sensibility full of offbeat camera angles and oddly framed shots. Why film a man walking through a door when you can film it framed by the white go-go boots of a reclining woman? The fashion is pure late 60s glory, and along with the playful yet occasionally violent atmosphere of the film, it places A Hyena in the Safe alongside outre heist films like Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik!; the wave of French noirs spearheaded by films like Rififi, where a carefully crafted heist goes wrong thanks to one small flaw that cascades and ignites creeping paranoia among the thieves; and to Bava’s proto-giallo films like Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) and even Bay of Blood (1971). Despite the murders and the slapping around (mostly of poor Jeanine, by just about everyone at some point), there’s not much in the way of meanness or angst in the film, at least not much more than in the average Italian fumetti-inspired film of the time. Most of what’s on display is simply groovy fun and a bit of macabre mischief.
In 1969, for his next film, Canevari made Io, Emmanuelle. It’s often listed as the first adaptation of Arsan/Rollet-Andriane’s Emmanuelle — though it’s incorrect to do so. If it has any connection to the erotic novel, it’s as a reaction to rather than adaptation of the material. At no point in her life did Marayat Rollet-Andriane express regret when it came to her sexual escapades. Why would she? Nor did the character of Emmanuelle feel any regret for her escapades. The entire idea of feeling guilty over luxuriating in pleasure would never occur to her. Emmanuelle and her husband, both in book and real life, seemed to regard Emmanuelle as a free-spirited celebration of decadent living. But Canevari’s film is a melancholy meditation on a woman’s desperate attempt to find meaning in life through a series of unfulfilling sexual relationships. Perhaps influenced by fellow Italian Michelangelo Antonioni, Canevari lays on the existential crises and upper class ennui. Most of the time, it seems to have a lot more in common with Antonioni’s bleak Red Desert than it does the steamy pseudo-autobiography of Emmanuelle Arsan. As Emmanuelle, Eurocult icon Erika Blanc (Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby…Kill!, Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet…So Perverse) wanders hopelessly through a series of gorgeous Roman locations and interiors in her quest for some modicum of fulfillment, meeting with different men in search of some degree of hope or happiness, but finding none. She suffers from nervous stomach issues. She is prone to acts of violence as a reaction to emotional alienation. She spends most of the movie contemplating suicide, motivated it seems by equal parts existential despair and simple boredom. In the background of it all, worker unrest, student protests, and the Vietnam War paint a stark portrait of a world as damaged as the film’s main character. Working with Claudio Catozzo, who would remain Canevari’s go-to cinematographer, the film achieves a delirious pop-art sensibility full of offbeat camera angles and oddly framed shots that disturb more than thrill. There’s lots of off-putting angles, zooms, and a tendency to let the camera settle on seemingly inconsequential pieces of set decoration or body parts, especially Blanc’s knees and stomach.
The only reason the moody, nihilistic Io, Emmanuelle is classified an “Emmanuelle” film is a coincidence of naming when it comes to the main character. Io, Emmanuelle is an accidental “Emmanuelle” film at best, named as one by people who have not seen it and are only repeating what they’d seen elsewhere. There is no mention of Emmanuelle Arsan or the book in the film’s credits. Instead, the screenplay is credited to Canevari and musician Graziella Di Prospero, based on a story by Di Prospero called Disintegrazione 68. True, both Emmanuelle and Io, Emmanuelle involve a woman drifting through a series of sexual encounters, but whereas one is a celebration of free love among the jet set, the other is a grim affair about sadness and loss, containing nothing reflective of the novel. Canevari’s film is not without its eroticism — neither were many of the films of Antonioni, after all — but Blanc’s smoldering look and frequently artful nudity is purposefully undercut by the film’s somber attitude and exploration of emotional desperation. Where the Emmanuelle of the novel revels in her sexuality, Erika Blanc’s Emmanuelle uses it as a lifeline, a last-ditch effort to assuage or forget the pain of abandonment, of loss, of shallowness. Whereas the book’s Emmanuelle receives as much as she gives from the men and women with whom she has sex, Blanc’s Emmanuelle remains largely dead-eyed and unengaged as the men (and one woman) fumble about their business. Her partners are not presented as predators or exploiters, mind you; it is simply that none of them offer the emotional connection Emmanuelle craves and that none of them seem to notice how forlorn she is. It is a fascinating movie; gorgeously shot, stylishly dressed, and artfully mounted; but it is most definitely not what people think of when they think of an “Emmanuelle” movie, because it was never meant to be so.
That first true “Emmanuelle” movie, the first straight-forward adaptation of Emmanuelle Arsan’s sensual underground classic, wouldn’t be made for a few more years, after the way had been cleared by a shift in French governmental attitudes toward censorship and filmmakers started testing the waters of more overt sexuality. And then Last Tango in Paris‘ explicitness achieved on a much more mainstream level what filmmakers like Radley Metzger had been attempting for years. It moved sexuality out of the realm of the stag reel and the cheap nudie movie and into the domain of respectable, even award-winning film. Granted, more than a few parts of society reacted with appalled horror that such a degenerate work of filth should be granted any degree of public acceptance. Sex and nudity, after all, was something best kept in the bedroom of dutifully married men and women, who engage in it with a sort of emotionally disconnected tolerance that affords them the constitution needed to partake in such an unsavory act so long as it results in the creation of a precious little miracle that can be raised to be a good religious boy or girl with a healthy disdain for and guilt regarding sex. In other words, it is a dirty, guilty secret that you look at pornography, but you should repent for your transgression by making sure you loudly condemn the same transgression when committed by others. But howl as they might, there was no putting the genie back in its clothing. No sooner had Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider finally kicked open that locked bedroom door than producer Yves Rousset-Rouard found himself in possession of the rights to adapt Emmanuelle, at a time when the world seemed, at last, ready to enjoy sexually explicit films without committing acts of self-flagellation in the morning.
But who, then, to play such an iconic character?
This is part one of a three part series. Additional parts will post soon.