This has been an unkind year to the great stars of 1970s erotic films and the fans who loved them: Lina Romay, the muse of Jess Franco, died of cancer at age 57; Rebecca Brooke, aka Mary Mendum, the star of several films for Radley Metzger and Joe Sarno, died in a drowning accident at age 60; and now the news comes to us of the passing of Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, internationally famous as the star of Just Jaeckin's EMMANUELLE, two of its direct sequels and several spin-off franchises, as well as various films by such distinguished directors as Claude Chabrol, Walerian Borowczyk, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Curtis Harrington, Roger Vadim and Fons Rademakers. She was also 60 and had been fighting cancer for some time.
EMMANUELLE was her fourth film and it had the advantage of reaching screens around the world just as Erica Jong's 1973 novel FEAR OF FLYING had defined a zeitgeist of sexual liberation and empowerment for women. What Jong's novel described, the film (based on an autobiographical novel attributed to Emmanuelle Arsan) depicted -- and male and female audiences alike flocked to see it. Playing off the aftermath of DEEP THROAT-generated "porn chic," it was picked up for US distribution by Columbia Pictures, who cleverly took the onus off its X rating by proclaiming, with a wink, that "X Was Never Like This."
In order to pay my respects, I took the opportunity last night to screen Sylvia's film for Claude Chabrol: ALICE, OU LA DERNIERE FUGUE ("Alice, or the Last Escapade"). It's an important title in her filmography but there has not yet been an official release anywhere in an English-friendly presentation. However, for those of you who don't mind watching a film on your computer, Kindle or whatever, ALICE is available for viewing on YouTube in its entirety, with optional English subtitles.
Though Sylvia Kristel starred in numerous films suitable for adults only, it would be wrong to describe her -- as so many obit headlines have done -- as an "adult film actress." The aforementioned Lina Romay and Rebecca Brooke performed in hardcore as well as softcore films, but Sylvia never did, and it's probably a tribute to her acting ability that so many people thought otherwise. In ALICE, she appears nude only once and covers herself quickly and demurely. If one ever needed proof of her abilities as a serious actress, this film is it; I've rarely seen a film so reliant on a single woman's ability to hold the viewer's eye and attention. It's one of those dream-like movies (like Mario Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL or Louis Malle's BLACK MOON) where what little story is there is slippery indeed, making Sylvia's heroine Alice Carol (yes, the movie is a kind of "through the looking glass") the only fixed point on its compass. It's a bittersweet reminder of what a magnetic, vital screen presence she was and -- strangely enough -- how well she wore clothes. She doesn't have a lot of dialogue so we must watch her closely to follow her through this labyrinth, which offers us few other rewards and none so gratifying. She was so comfortable with her body that her clothes seemed like natural extensions of her, comfortable to the eye and comfortable on her, the fabric not quite touching her skin yet clinging to it. She walked across the screen like a whisper of sophistication, inviting olfactory fantasies of top shelf perfume, with a gentle zest about her most casual movements as if she kept a favorite disco song always playing somewhere in her head. Speaking of Sylvia Kristel in clothes, it should not be overlooked that she had the talent to ascend from her early roles to featured parts in major studio productions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she became a Hollywood player, appearing in such pictures as THE FIFTH MUSKETEER, THE CONCORDE... AIRPORT '79, THE NUDE BOMB and PRIVATE LESSONS. But Sylvia had the intelligence to know that bigger films weren't necessarily better for her, and she focused on work closer to home and her real passion, painting. She wrote about this, and much more, in a 2006 autobiography called UNDRESSING EMMANUELLE.
One of her great attributes, in the EMMANUELLE films particularly, is that she wasn't an alienating or objectionable presence to women. She had poise and projected both intelligence and adeptness. A number of her roles, including ALICE, find her questing for and eventually attaining some kind of sensual life education or empowerment, or passing these attributes on. It's said that women cheered when she climbed on top of her male lover in EMMANUELLE, something no actress before her had done quite so triumphantly in a film that played in respectable theaters. But even before her clothes were shed, there was something empathic and vulnerable about her that women could respond to. Most sex stars are designed for men and have something about them that's overdone, that appeals to fetish and objectifies them, but Sylvia's lithe femininity was perfectly pitched to be attractive and appealing rather than intrusive. I haven't seen all of her movies, but I never saw her in a situation that she didn't ultimately allow or control.
VIDEO WATCHDOG will have more to say about this in our 172nd issue, out in early January 2013, when we'll be featuring Lianne Spiderbaby's article "Emmanuelle et Emanuelle," about the EMMANUELLE craze of the 1970s and the films of Sylvia Kristel and Laura "Black Emanuelle" Gemser in particular.