Emmanuelle star Kristel: immortalised in French cinema history

Earlier this month news broke that Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, star of the 1974, erotic French film Emmanuelle, had died. The impact of this controversial film, which told the story of a promiscuous diplomat's wife is discussed here by Dr Sue Harris from Queen Mary, University of London.

Published on:
Sylvia Kristel (credit: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO)
Sylvia Kristel (credit: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO)

Emmanuelle (Just Jaekin, 1974) was the ultimate crossover film, a pornographic film that appealed to mainstream audiences, and which saw Sylvia Kristel’s star rise like no erotic actress before or since. 

When newly elected president Giscard d’Estaing repealed film censorship laws in France, the country’s screens were hit with a tidal wave of erotic fare. 

Emmanuelle was the iconic film of the era, topping the 1974 French box office with close to 9 million spectators, and playing continuously at one cinema on the Champs Elysées for a record 552 weeks.  

It put French cinema on the world stage in ways that were not entirely welcomed by politicians and policy makers, and the floodgates were closed just as abruptly as they had opened: in December 1975 new censorship laws were introduced that were more repressive than ever.

Ironically, the first casualty of the new regime was Emmanuelle 2, slated for release in January 1975, but held back from mainstream distribution by a hastily imposed X certificate. 

It went on to be a major commercial success in more than fifty countries; it was screened in 400 cinemas in the USA alone and gave rise to numerous sequels across the globe. 

But in France, it remained unseen until January 1978. Kristel went on to have a long career in international cinema, reprising the Emmanuelle role many times for film and television, but she never again had success on the scale of her debut role.

The film, however, has taken on the status of a modern classic, and greatly contributed to French cinema’s enduring reputation for permissiveness and taboo-breaking.”

Dr Sue Harris is a Reader in French Cinema Studies, in the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film at QM.

For media information, contact:

Paul Jordan
Faculty Communications Manager (HSS)