Emmanuelle debuted in France on June 26, 1974 amid a flurry of press and promotion stressing that this wasn’t a sex film for the grindhouse raincoat crowd. “No exclusive linage in the sex sheets, no adhesive stickers for the walls of public toilets,” wrote Time magazine’s Jay Cocks, who later went on to collaborate with Martin Scorsese and Kathryn Bigelow, among others. “Emmanuelle is being hyped as a classier breed of porn.” Critics were, for most part dismissive the film, citing its stilted acting, pseudo-intellectual rambling about sexual freedom (the film does not spare us Mario), and in some cases, overly “colonial” attitude toward the local Thais. Marketing and the hopes of producer Yves Rousset-Rouard notwithstanding, there wasn’t much about Emmanuelle that implied it would be much more than a passing novelty; curious enough to become a modest hit but nothing more. That assumption would have to be reassessed when, some nine years later (according to Sylvia Kristel), the film could still be found playing in Paris theaters and on heavy rotation on American cable television. By then, it had also become one of the highest grossing French films of all time, selling 8.89 million tickets in France alone.
“I can’t say it’s a brilliant film, really,’ Sylvia Kristel told journalist Mick Brown in an interview for The Telegraph in 2007, ‘but it was the right time.
As is often the case, critical dismissal combined with censorial finger-wagging resulted in huge success at the box office. In short order, this saucy little film from a rookie producer and a first time director went from hit to blockbuster to cultural touchstone. A large part of Emmanuelle‘s success was the fact that it had been positioned — both in its marketing and in its content — as an erotic film for couples, something more sophisticated than the usual grindhouse sleaze that catered to an almost exclusively male audience. Here was a film which, rather than degrading, uplifted, and one that spent as much time making sure its male stars were as attractive (if not as frequently naked) as its female stars. You could take your wife to it, fellas. And girlfriends could bring boyfriends…or their girlfriends (but not men bringing other men — they weren’t ready for that yet). Emmanuelle became the face of sexual liberation, and an unknown Dutch actress was the face of Emmanuelle.
Born in the Dutch town of Utrecht in September of 1952, Sylvia Kristel grew up the daughter of hoteliers. Living in a hotel provided her with, if not exactly a conventional childhood, certainly an interesting one, as the rotating cast of oddball characters that inevitably show up at a hotel, both as guests and staff, provided a sometimes surreal background for Sylvia and her two siblings. When she left to attend a catholic boarding school — something she herself requested — she discovered just how strange her upbringing had been.
For starters, the nuns now in charge of were aghast that a young girl should think it so common to have a nip of cognac. She learned proper manners, proper posture, and became increasingly interested in her own developing body. When her mother accused her of being in love with herself, Sylvia replied that she was not in love with herself; she was getting to know herself. Occasional clashes over cognac aside (as an alternative, she took up smoking unfiltered cigarettes, which for whatever reason, the nuns considered a perfectly acceptable vice for both the girls and themselves), Sylvia enjoyed her time at school and grew fond of the nun, Sister Marie Immaculata, who took the young teen under her wing. They remained pen pals for decades after, and Sister Marie penned one of the most insightful observations about what it was that would later make Sylvia Kristel so captivating for so many:
“You were different. A kind of angel, innocent and impish at the same time. You were keen to learn, I could see your wings growing without knowing where they would take you. You were beautiful, you still are, my girl, graceful, soft and vivacious, funny and sad, different.”
Outside of the school, however, things were falling apart. Her father revealed to the family that he’d been carrying on an affair and that he and Sylvia’s mother had decided to divorce. His mistress, soon to be his next wife, is described in Kristel’s autobiography Neu in decidedly unflattering terms: vindictive, petty, jealous, condescending, controlling. Sylvia, her mother, her brother and sister had to vacate the hotel, which became the sole property of the father and his new wife. Sylvia’s respite from domestic upheaval — her school — also was forbidden her when her new stepmother decided to flex her muscle and have Sylvia removed from the school, though the woman showed no further interest in parenting Sylvia.
After a brief stint in a Protestant school, where the austere interpretation of life and religion did not suit Kristel (she couldn’t believe how they drained the Virgin Mary of all her vitality and warmth), she enrolled in a dance school and later entered the working world, eventually landing a job as a secretary and a metallurgical company. While visiting the set of the Utrecht Film Festival’s Miss Movies beauty competition with her boyfriend, Kristel was approached by one of the organizers, Jacques Charrier, Brigitte Bardot’s ex-husband and a player in the French movie industry. He was disappointed that Kristel wasn’t one of the pageant contestants, then out of the blue, invited her to Paris, where he promised her an audition for an upcoming film, Closed Shutters, directed by actor-turned director Jean-Claude Brialy. Although suspicious of such promises, Kristel accepted. She enjoyed Paris, and had a Parisian fling with Charrier, but when it came time for the audition, it never happened. Her French, she was told, wasn’t up to snuff.
Back home, she auditioned for Dutch director Wim Verstappen, fresh off the success of his 1971 film Blue Movie. It’s Wim who suggests that Kristel try her hand at modelling, which will give her experience in front of a camera, with lighting and make-up and the sundry parts shared by still and moving photography. She was a successful model, and at the behest of her mother entered a Miss TV Holland contest, which she won. Kristel’s goal was still the movies, though. At the behest of her modelling agent, she reached out to a casting director named Elly Claus. After a bit of hustling involving Kristel moving to Amsterdam, Claus secured a role for Kristel, who thus made her cinematic debut in a hard-edged Eurocrime film called Because of the Cats.
The Cats Won’t Like It
Based on a series of books by Nicolas Freeling and with a screenplay by Sylvia Kristel’s eventual landlord/lover Hugo Claus, Because of the Cats begins in a shockingly explicit fashion that makes one think one is about to embark on a particularly sleazy bit of exploitation. A group of well-dressed, apparently well-to-do young men surprise a middle-age couple returning home. They then force the husband to watch while they gang rape his wife, a scene shot in leering, unrelenting fashion. Rape in exploitation filmmaking is often used not so much as a plot point or even as motivation for a character as it is a cheap and easy excuse to fit a little more nudity into a film. The context is unimportant, as far as these films are concerned. And initially, it seems like Because of the Cats is going down that route. But rather than being a perverse attempt at grotesque titillation, this rape proves increasingly harrowing and upsetting. The camera, rather than leering it turns out, is being forced to watch this horrible violation in the same way the hus band is, in the same way the wife is forced to endure it. It becomes increasingly disturbing, and rather than working in the way it so often does in exploitation film, the rape becomes something more akin to the rape in the 2009 Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. By the end, the viewer is unnerved and exhausted and more than a little pissed off.
And then the film shifts gears dramatically, backing away from its opening brutality and settling into a slower, but no less tense, police procedural as the story follows the efforts of inspector van der Valk (British actor Bryan Marshall, who played a cop on more British television shows than a person would want to count) to bring these vile young men to justice. The trail leads him away from Amsterdam and into the affluent suburbs, where tennis courts and seaside resorts put a smiling mask on a rotting core that cannot or will not accept that such senseless, awful thrill crimes could have been committed by boys who are so rich, so well-bred, and so thoroughly provided for. Crimes are committed by filthy hippies and immigrants; not by white boys in Lacoste sweaters and wingtips.
Although best known today as an early role for Sylvia Kristel, the film is surprisingly good for something most people probably go into with low expectations. It’s opening scene was obviously inspired by a similar scene in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial science fiction classic A Clockwork Orange (1971). But as the film continues, it’s less A Clockwork Orange and more an example of the sort of socially conscious “Eurocrime” films being made primarily in Italy during the same time. These films were forged in a cauldron that contained the Red Brigade,the profound corruption of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s administration, recession, and a dramatic increase in violent crime.
Most of them centered on a police inspector who find himself stymied at every turn by corruption, incompetence, and bureaucratic red tape and so must step outside the bounds of the law in the service of justice. The stage was set as early as 1968, with director Carlo Lizzani’s The Violent Four, AKA Banditi a Milano starring genre staple Tomas Milian and Gian Maria Volontè, who had been in Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti westerns A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More (alongside Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood) as well as early Eurocrime films Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and Jean-Pierre Melville’s French noir Le Cercle Rouge (both 1970).
Although an Italian genre, the template was perfected in the United States, in 1971, with the release of Dirty Harry. In 1973, the genre saw one of its biggest releases, Enzo Castellari’s High Crime starring Franco Nero. Although often criticized as fascist vigilante fantasies, many of these poliziotteschi were left-leaning in their politics, casting corrupt businessmen, the idle wealthy, and the powerful as their villains. It is into this mold that Because of the Cats fits, although it packs substantially less action (and substantially more full frontal male nudity — emboldened no doubt by Oliver Reed and Women in Love). Inspector van de Valk is frustrated by the social prejudice that gives the rich and clean-cut the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t take the law into his own hands to quite the extreme degree as Dirty Harry or the anti-heroes of the Italian poliziotteschi, but he definitely find she needs to circumvent the system when the system is stacked in favor of the guilty. With its Eurocrime bone fides thus established, Because of the Cats then throws yet another monkey wrench into the works, veering off in it’s final act into the realm of another crime that was still fresh in everyone’s memory: the Manson murders.
In her small role as a member of a female clique that hangs with the roguish young posh boys, Kristel has only a couple scenes, but each of them is key to moving the film along. One involves aquatic group sex that turns into murder, while the other is a desperate and teary-eyed confession. Still new to the game, she’s prone perhaps to overdo it a little, especially when sharing the screen with understated pros like Bryan Marshall and Sebastian Graham Jones (who, as the owner of an arcade and nightclub, looks like he was dipped in pure essence of Peter Wyngarde). But she acquits herself all right for a newcomer, and there’s a reason she was chosen to be the one gang girl with a more substantial presence. Coincidentally, the film’s female lead is Alexandra Stewart, a Canadian actress who would later star alongside Kristel again some years later in Goodbye, Emmanuelle, the third film in the series that turned Sylvia from wide-eyed starlet to international icon.
From Model to Movies
In Amsterdam, Kristel moves into an apartment owned by poet and novelist Hugo Claus, the ex-husband of Elly Claus. She found Hugo a warm, erudite older man, one who introduced her to a growing circle of intellectuals, artists, and celebrities. Her pursuit of a film career was interrupted in 1973 when she was chosen as a contestant for the Miss TV Europe competition. She won, narrowly edging out Ms. England Zoe Spink (a victory Kristel attributed to Spink answering a question about interests with the response, “I like ponies” instead of the more sophisticated, adult “horseback riding”). The victory put Kristel on the radar across Europe, including contracts with Mercedes Benz (when they offered to give her a car, she asked for the cash equivalent instead, citing her Dutch thriftiness). She began a romance with her friend and landlord Hugo Claus. Two more small film roles come her way, in Living Apart Together (AKA Frank en Eva) and Naked Over the Fence, in which Kristel gets naked and climbs over a fence, among other things. All three of her film roles that year required some degree of nudity, a demand that Kristel accepted as part of being a professional though she considered herself modest in real life.
But these had all been small parts, brief (if memorable) nudity. On the strength of her success as Miss TV Europe and her few small film appearances, Elly Claus secured Kristel an audition for a daring new movie, one in which the charming young Dutch girl would be the star — and one in which she would be asked to perform nude quite frequently. The movie was based on an erotic book, popular in the underground and only recently legitimately published, Claus explained, and the film crew intended the film to be daring but not vulgar, erotic but not pornographic. Returning home after the meeting, Kristel asked Hugo if he’d ever heard of the book. Hugo laughed. Yes, he’d heard of it. Even read it. But, he maintained, there was no way European censors would ever allow a film to be made of Emmanuelle.
Teddy Girls in Love
In the United States, we harbor an image of Europeans, especially the French, as more sexually liberated than we of dour-faced Protestant Pilgrim stock. We look across the Atlantic and see the Marquis De Sade where we had Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. This impression, however, is a false one. Like the United States, and like most places on Earth, the countries of Europe experience brief flare-ups of liberation and anything-goes revelry in between long periods of social conservatism. France had tsk-tsked Louis Feuillade in the 1910s for his at times surreal adventure serials full of sinister assassins and modern women. In 1956, Roger Vadim drew the ire of critics and censorial moral watchdogs when he put Brigitte Bardot on the sunny beaches of St. Tropez in And God Created Woman, a modern day twist on director GW Pabst’s silent era classic Pandora’s Box starring American Louise Brooks (itself the source of no small amount of controversy). In 1960, Georges Franju’s haunting Eyes Without a Face was regarded by French critics and censors as vulgar, tasteless, and so very unbecoming of a Frenchman. There were certainly aspects of Continental living that were more liberated than in the united States, but when it came to wagging an admonishing finger at film, well, some things are universal.
The 1970s was one of those brief periods of liberation, an “enclave between censorship and AIDS” as Sylvia Kristel described it. By 1970, there were a slew of directors pushing the boundaries of what was permissible in film: Roger Vadim, Radley Metzger, Tinto Brass, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michelangelo Antonioni. Two films in particular, however, played the most important role in diminishing, at least for a time, the power of censors, watchdogs, and others who felt that sexuality had no place in film, or if it did, that place was in a grimy “trenchcoat crowd” grindhouse theater. These two films — Ken Russell’s Women in Love and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris — were not small-scale productions. They were massive films, the former by a promising young documentarian and the latter by a man emerging as one of the new masters of Italian cinema.
These were big-screen prestige projects, not meant for the grindhouse or the arthouse, where films with such explicit content had thus far been more or less confined. Emmanuelle producer Yves Rousset-Rouard, director Just Jaecken, and star Sylvia Kristel all name Bertolucci’s bleak, erotic Last Tango in Paris as the movie that got Emmanuelle made. But before Last Tango in Paris, director Ken Russell teamed up with actor Oliver Reed to make Women in Love, a film famous not only for introducing male nudity into mainstream productions, but also for the number of accolades it garnered alongside the number of condemnations. Tellingly, it’s an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel, and D.H. Lawrence novels played a major role, alongside the works of James Joyce and Henry Miller, in finally battering down the Hays era censorship plaguing American films and foreign films distributed in America.
English director Ken Russell assumed when he was young that he would be a dancer. He adored the ballet and grew to love cinema. When World War II broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force and later the Merchant Navy. After his stint of service, he attempted to launch the dancing career of which he had dreamed. It proved an unsuccessful effort, however, and so he cast around for a new artistic pursuit and landed on photography. In 1955, he shot a series which, in the 21st century, would become his most famous. Working freelance for the Picture Post, Russell shot a series of photos that became one of the first documentations of British youth culture. Titled “The Last of the Teddy Girls,” Russell’s photos were of young, mostly working class girls who were part of the “Teddy” style. Teddy boys and girls favored a combination of American rockabilly standards paired with more fanciful Edwardian regalia. Contrary to what was deemed proper, the girls wore men’s jackets and trousers and cut their hair in style soften reserved for males. In their drape coats and rolled up jeans, and almost always with a cigarette clamped between their fingers, the girls posed against a backdrop of rubble and burned out buildings — the remnants of the Blitz during which the German air force bombed London on a nightly basis during the war.
Teddys were a reaction to the austerity of post-war Britain. With London still in ruins, with so many dead, with so much money having been spent on the war effort, it was considered improprietous to flaunt oneself. Of course, as soon as serious, frowning adults give a speech on what is sensible, a group of kids is going to do exactly the opposite. And so accoutrements that wouldn’t normally be associated with teenage rebellion — sweaters and ties, frock coats, velvet collars, waistcoats and pocket watches, walking sticks — became badges of revolt. As fanciful as the dress could be, it wasn’t expensive. The stuff was out of style, after all, and teenagers looking to adopt the Teddy style could prowl the second hand stores in search of frilly, frivolous bargains. In the media, Teddy Boys were sensationalized for their impractical style, their flagrant disregard for the advice of their elders, and the tendency of some of them to run in violent street gangs. While the boys antics grabbed most of the “what’s to be done with the youth these days?” headlines, Russell was more interested in the Teddy Girls.
The girls were a little bit younger — usually younger than sixteen — and had lived perhaps slightly harder lives. Most of them had jobs already. Factory, secretary, seamstress, the usual. They didn’t have as much freedom as the boys or as much money, but they still felt drawn to the Teddy style and, like punks would decades later, stitched together their own variation of the flamboyant style in defiance of the otherwise bleak world awaiting them. Where the boys favored Creepers — shoes with large crepe rubber soles, that rose to prominence during the war (when they were called “brothel creepers” for reasons that are unverifiable but can be guessed) — the girls wore flats and Espadrilles. They rolled their jeans up and decorated their Edwardian drape coats with brooches and other feminine accessories — the most important of which was the comically small clutch purse. They listened to American rock ‘n’ roll, went to the movies, worked their asses off, and together with the lads, became the first example of a consumer youth culture in England.
As newspapers fanned the flames of anti-Teddy hysteria among the older generation, the kids found themselves, or more accurately their chosen attire, banned from a growing number of concert halls, movie houses, and bars. The flappers of the pre-War period who had been demonized by the proper Edwardians were now themselves demonizing the next generation of youth gone wild, who were ironically wearing the clothes of the Edwardians who had condemned the flappers. Teddy Girls were also tut-tutted for their androgynous style, for their trousers and short hair and men’s topcoats. All most unbecoming of a lady, especially when the country was trying to rebuild and it was important that everyone pitch in to form more families, make more babies, and get everything back to the way it had been.
Teddy was a short-lived trend, as all could youth styles should be, giving way at the end of the 1950s to two new youth subcultures both grown from the Teddy style: Mods and Rockers. The Teddys affection for American rockabilly, pompadours, denim and leather went to the Rockers. The interest in R&B, fancy dress, and tailoring went to the Mods. The clashes between the two opposing yet intrinsically linked groups became so legendary that they dwarfed the panic over Teddy Boy street gangs and British rock band The Who (later to work with Ken Russell on the movie Tommy) felt the need to write a rock opera about it.
Although much celebrated now after their rediscovery, Russell’s photographs of Teddy Girls remained largely unseen in his lifetime after their initial run in what was a relatively small paper. To supplement his career as a photographer, he also took up documentary filmmaking, and in 1959, he secured a job with the BBC. In 1964, he parlayed his success making documentaries for the BBC (many of them about his first love, dance) into a chance to direct his first feature film. The resultant film, French Dressing, plays like a broad and not very entertaining spoof of Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman. It didn’t do well with critics or audiences, so Russell return to the comfortable confines of the BBC and documentaries until 1967, when he became the unlikely director of The Billion Dollar Brain, a sequel to the espionage film The IPCRESS File, which had launched young actor Michael Caine to superstardom in 1965. Based on a book by Len Deighton, The IPCRESS File worked as a sort of anti-James Bond.
Bond movies had really hit their crescendo around that time, with the release of 1964’s Goldfinger (the third in the Bond series and the one that really perfected the formula). Where Bond was a jet-setter, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer spends most of his time in London, living in a cluttered flat, shopping for beans, and generally living like a normal, boring human. Where Bond was a willing agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Palmer was blackmailed into service. Where Bond films revelled in lush locations and lavish sets, Harry Palmer’s world was grey and overcast, the sets spartan (though they, too were designed by Ken Adams, who worked on the Bond films). And where Bond was licensed to kill and flaunted protocol, Harry spent most of his time filling out paperwork and forms, forever tangled in the red tape of intelligence work bureaucracy.
The Billion Dollar Brain was the third film in the series, following 1966’s Funeral in Berlin. Both of the previous films had flirted with quirkiness, but when Ken Russell stepped in to direct the third film, he really flexed his taste for the surreal and the absurd. Set largely in snow swept Helsinki, The Billion Dollar Brain spins a convoluted story in which Palmer tries to foil the plans of a mysterious secret society run by a hollerin’ Texas billionaire who wants to raise his own private army to invade the Soviet Union. Things get weirder from there, and Russell augments the off-kilter atmosphere by shooting at strange angles and employing really weird music. The result is a fascinating if odd spy story that proved just a little too weird for many moviegoers. It was, however, successful enough to secure Russell another feature film. In 1969, he made Women in Love.
To be continued…