Monday, October 26, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 22: The End

As I take my leave of all things ghastly and french I find I must bend the rules for a final time. Today's film is not a horror film, a crime film or even really a film with anything resembling tension. It is a sex film, through and through, and a most important one. Ask anyone who was between the age of 20 and 35 in 1974 and chances are they'll be able to offer a cursory explanation of who or what Emmanuelle is. Emmanuelle did for France what Jaws did for the US, got people off their TV watching asses and brought 'em down to the cinema like old times. Emmanuelle was a soft-core pornographic movie (the soft-core pornographic movie), that revolutionized the whole notion of pornography (at least in Europe and Japan). It inspired sequels, spinoffs, ripoffs, a TV series and a good many masturbation fantasies in men and women the world over. It was banned in Franco's Spain (banning the film would most probably have been one of the last thing his regime did before the old fucker died), it was a sensation in Japan, it would eventually turn Joe D'Amato from a minor Giallo maker to one of the revered kings of smut, it would inspire Anatole Dauman to hire a little-known Polish filmmaker called Walerian Borowczyk to save Argos Films from bankruptcy, and it would do the very thing that the makers of Deep Throat had tried to do: get couples into porno theatres. Why this movie managed to do that is simply beyond me. While it has a number of things going for it (not the least of which is Sylvia Kristel, who failed to find work in anything but porn and porn-lite following her turn in the title role) it just isn't what I was expecting from the film that saved soft-core pornography if not indeed the entire French film industry.

by Just Jaekin

Emmanuelle (Kristel) is the wife of a diplomat who is being shown the country her husband works, Bangkok, Thailand, in for the first time. She's a bit overwhelmed, not just because the place is so new and full of totally alien sensations and customs, but because sex is so central to everyone she meets. Her husband Jean, as he explains to anyone who will listen, is trying to loosen her up, trying to get her to understand that just because they are married doesn't mean that they will be only having sex with each other from now on (now if only the heels who populate American sex comedies could be as forward thinking as Jean, then maybe they wouldn't all go to Vegas and wind up in humourously compromising situations in their last ditch efforts to score before 'tying themselves to one woman'). The women she meets at the club (to be honest I don't know what this is supposed to be. Do they have western health clinics in Bangkok that allow women to lounge topless by the pool?) are all just dying to know who she's been fucking while her husband's been away on business because they clearly are not strangers to the idea. Emmanuelle isn't as open about her sexuality as Jean or any of the women are. She meets a teenaged local called Marie-Ange who takes it upon herself to help Emmanuelle become open sexually (she's one in a long line of people aiming to do just that). Firstly she invites herself over to Emmanuelle's house, feels her up while she's napping, takes her shirt off and masturbates to a magazine spread of Paul Newman while sitting about six feet away from the mortified French diplomat's woman.

So just how is Emmanuelle going to break the confines of her (comparatively) conservative ideas about eroticism? Well, let me say for the record that the idea that she would simply try and please her husband is really nothing I find all that incurably 'straight'. Call me old fashioned, but then again in 1974 this was a manifesto for sexual freedom. Anyway, first she tries turning the charm on Bee, one of the club women whom none of Emmanuelle's friends seem to like; my hunch is that its because Bee's a career woman and doesn't spend her days fucking guys and then giggling about it poolside. In fact Bee appears to Emmanuelle as clearly a masculine presence; she dresses like a man and works in a typically male-driven field. She's taken with Bee's devil-may-care attitude and follows her to the construction site where she works. They have sex and afterwards Bee tries to tell Emmanuelle the same thing guys have been saying to women after such encounters (in films, anyway) for decades: she's not looking for anything long-term and she also doesn't see a one-afternoon stand as the basis for a real relationship. The fragile Emmanuelle takes this hard and walks back to her husbands house (which is miles away).

Her disappearance to Bee's job site and less-than-triumphant return worries Jean so much that he decides that decisive action must be taken to see that she isn't hurt by attempted freedom ever again. At Marie-Ange and one of the more predacious of the club women's urging, Jean gets in touch with an aging charlatan called Mario. Mario's job: liberate Emmanuelle, once and for all. How does he do it? Basically gets her to fuck a bunch of locals in a bunch of different public places. I mean, that's about it. Sure he prattles on endlessly about 'outlawing the couple' and spouts all kinds of high-falutin bullshit about sex, only half of which really means anything at all. I don't know, he's really just kind of a shit who forces a bunch of Thai men on the girl, a lot of which feels like rape (the music certainly makes us think its rape). The last thing we see is maybe a dream-sequence but Mario's final thought is that in order to get the predictability out of the bedroom you have to forcibly introduce a third person, which he does in the form of yet another burly Thai man. And that's how it ends.

Ok, so I didn't hate Emmanuelle but there's a lot I find pretty irritating about it. The filmmaking is a touch sloppy. Just Jaekin and crew didn't have any way of viewing their footage on set so a lot of it pretty amateurish and Italian-looking. Early Ruggero Deodato and Sergio Martino come to mind as stylistic yardsticks, though Jaekin had a much nicer eye for composition. The movie's definition of conservatism has no consistency. The character of Emmanuelle has a definition of eroticism that the free-floating morals of the poolside crowd and Jean consider to be unacceptable. I don't really understand that because really all she's really shy about is fucking strange Thai men in public. That's not what I call repression, that's what I call racism. One of the first things she does is has sex with two men in about ten minutes on the same flight into the country. I'm not french but I don't call that repressed. Really what everyone is bothered by is that Emmanuelle doesn't want to have sex with whomever they want her to have sex with. Mario plainly wants to see her get naked (he says as much the second he meets her, at a garden party no less) and then spends an evening getting all the nudity he could ever ask for from his doe-eyed quarry. In fact he never actually does any of the screwing in their evening together. How this guy is supposed to be the hero of the piece is beyond me. He's a creepy bastard who either truly believes that fucking strangers makes you a better lover or he just manages to convince hapless women that their salvation lies in his nonsense and gets a lot of voyeuristic pleasure for almost no work.

Producer Yves Rousset-Rouard stated that his intention with Emmanuelle was to make a film that outdid Last Tango In Paris in every aspect (which explains the colour scheme of the movie, come to think of it). I can't really speak to the success of that endeavor because personally I find Last Tango In Paris to be tiresome and self-important. Emmanuelle is self-important but has no delusions about its purpose. Rouard and Jaekin both went into the project understanding it was to be a movie where people take their clothes off. They knew this and because they were open about their purpose they had a hard time finding a lead who would agree to be in the film - that Sylvia Kristel was something like a Hail Mary pass is rather funny to me because thinking of anyone but Sylvia Kristel in the lead is nearly impossible. She is quite excellent, even though she's dubbed - she was from the Netherlands, spoke not a word of French and opted to learn her lines phonetically. But what no one can really change is the fact that though the film claims to be about liberation (and I don't mean the stereotypical liberation, what people refer to as 'burning bras', I mean really not giving a goddamn who you have sex with so long as you're having sex) it is really just about a woman being controlled by societal expectations, just completely different (indeed totally backwards) societal expectations than would ordinarily characterize a movie like this. Usually it's in society's telling you to put your clothes on that drives characters to madness. Here the heroine's one crime is not being willing enough by society's insane standards to take her clothes off.

I will say that to this movie's credit every scene of sex (save one, which I'll return to) is both tastefully done and crucial to the plot. Everytime Emmanuelle has a sexual encounter it says something about her sexuality and her journey to try and please her husband and find herself. Where the film loses its way to my mind is its view of the locals. We're evidently supposed to find Thai men to be exotic 'others' or their many sex scenes would have no kick. I think this says more about the French than it does about anything else. French movies had been exploiting the sex appeal of foreigners for years (Pépé le Moko wouldn't exist were it not for that view and that film is a fucking classic). So while I commend the screenwriters use of sex as a plot device rather than a plot-stopper, I still don't understand how latent racism counts as sexual repression; it certainly makes this movie's success in Japan and the rest of Europe all the more perplexing, or at any rate loaded. I mean clearly they weren't all relating to the racism, were they? Rouard claims to have been written letters for years from lesbians thanking them for portraying girl-on-girl sex as the most beautiful act in the film - and I quite agree. The idea of lesbianism is sort of muddled by the script but the scenes with Bee carry the most weight and depth of any in the movie and they're the ones I have no moral issue with. Scholars claim that this was the first movie where men could take their wives and not feel guilty because it's about a woman's search for pleasure in a weirdly anti-repression-yet-still-repressive society; and they did so by showing sex in spurts no longer than two to three minutes long and never having anything hardcore onscreen. But I will say that such a phenomenon could not occur today. Despite our supposedly lax view of sex (or anyway that's what the political right and the motherfucking church complain about every goddamned day of the week) I simply don't see anyone putting up the money to fund a movie about people taking their clothes off (remember this got a wide release in 1974). And furthermore I can't imagine men and women flocking to see such a thing today, not in America, anyway. So while I don't agree with the politics of Emmanuelle I will say that we have since regressed in our standards since its release which I believe explains why you can't make a good exploitation movie today; people simply wouldn't stand for it. 

On the basis purely of message, I would hope that maybe people (especially women) would not sit through something like Emmanuelle today, but I would really be curious if women would come out for something retroactively called soft-core pornography if it actually showcased the search for liberation from a woman's point of view. Personally, I think this film's message is to not let creeps like Mario and Jean run your lives and to not put stock in the word of gossipy women who find nothing more interesting than infidelity, but hey, what do I know? Finally, my last complaint is with a scene that Rouard insisted that they insert into the movie. Remembering that Last Tango In Paris achieved infamy because of one scene in particular (the infamous "pass the butter" scene) so he sought to one-up Bernardo Bertolucci. His solution: a woman smoking out of her vagina. Yes, apparently while scouting locations he had wondered into a brothel (for business purposes only, I'm sure) and found a club where women put cigarettes in their sex (my urge to make vaudeville or magic show jokes has been outweighed by my frank outrage at Rouard for being such a boor who clearly missed the point of the film he was trying to emulate). So guess what comes out of left field just after Emmanuelle's encounter with Bee? That's right. It is jarring and strange and racist and brings the whole movie down off its philosophical pedestal and has no business in Emmanuelle. Jaekin knew as much and refused to shoot the scene, which meant that cinematographer Richard Suzuki had to do it on his own. Without that scene, perhaps I'd be willing to reappraise the movie as a touch more open-minded than I saw it as. In the meantime, it's a slightly xenophobic, vaseline-lensed look at sexuality that some people call a classic.

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