Review: Undressing Emmanuelle – A Memoir by Sylvia Kristel (with Jean Arcelin)

undressing emmanuelle
4th Estate

Back in the mid-70s, while I was suffering a Catholic education, the Christian Brothers warned us against the dire consequences of sneaking into the cinema to catch two contemporary hits. Seeing The Exorcist would imperil our mortal souls! Emmanuelle would merely lead to bodily pollution. Needless to say, we snuck…

When Silvia Kristel was a child she stole money from the church collection plate to spite religious strictures and rebel against a drab, loveless childhood in which the only attention she ever got was from the ‘Uncle’ who molested her. She grew into a prude who recognised her body as the ‘tool’ by which she might yet attain a better life. She developed from a practised prick teaser to A Beauty Queen to A Movie Star, the celluloid incarnation of The Liberated ‘70s Woman. Her celebrated turn in Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle suggested an alternative to the miserable monogamy represented by the failed marriage of her uptight mother and emotionally remote father. “The 1970s was a wonderful enclave between censorship and AIDS. The sexual liberation was real.” Against expectations, her mother supported her career as a female libertine… until the tabloid trash misquoted Sylvia as saying that she had been raped by her father (a defamation case was duly pursued and successfully concluded.) Dalliances with famous men came and went. She kept the ennui of hanging around on movie sets and the frustration of being dubbed at bay by hitting the bottle. Enter Ian McShane –  “… my destruction… the completion of my ruin” – with is own frustrations which, by Kristel’s account, he took out on his new lover… “but The Devil was irresistible!”

When The Devil introduces her to his dandruff, our heroine’s downward course is set. Black-eyed during the making of The Concorde… Airport ’79 (Kristel claims McShane’s physical abuse led to her miscarrying his baby), she is ordered by Alain Delon to run him a bath: “A male authority, physical and natural, brooking no argument. I go into the bathroom and run the water.” So much for The Liberated ‘70s Woman…

For film buffs, the pen portraits are few but telling. Roger Vadim is the feckless charmer you always knew he’d be, but also apparently perpetually broke (at the height of her fame Kristel hustles to get him a Japanese coffee ad.) Emmanuelle II director Francis Giacobetti is hysterical, painfully aware that he’s been over promoted beyond his metier as an upmarket cheesecake photographer. She believes her best screen work to have been in Borowczyk’s The Margin and finds it regrettable that the film was so little seen (correct on both counts.) Serge Gainsbourg, who laboured his whole life under the burden of his self-perceived ugliness, she considers “handsome.” She laughs at some of the screen spin-offs from her success de scandal… Emanuelle and The Last Cannibals? Good job I escaped!” But did she?

Kristel proclaims this memoir as the testament of “a woman finally stripping herself bare.” Despite its undeniable candour, she remains an elusive figure. “Having won her fight against drugs, alcohol and cancer…” the dust jacket informs us, Sylvia Kristel “… quit acting and now works as an artist in Amsterdam.” But the last named adversary was not to be denied.

“There’s a real sweetness to thinking one can live on in memories, that after I’m dead, cremated, I will remain a siren-ghost in people’s minds. One sunny spring Sunday I will suddenly be reborn on a plasma screen, impertinent and care-free, a young woman of twenty with fevered gaze and obscene hand. Desire may outlive me.”

With the Christian Brothers’ admonition still ringing in his ears, your humble reviewer reaches for his DVD of Emmanuelle and sneaks it into the machine…

BOB FREUDSTEIN

BUY IT NOW (UK)

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