Homage to Erotic Actress Sylvia Kristel

Victim or Oppressor
of Women’s Liberation

Nélida Nassar  10.22.2012

The Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, known worldwide for her role as the heroine of the soft-erotic film “Emmanuelle,” died a few days ago. “She died during the night, from cancer, in her sleep” according to Marieke Verharen, her agent from the Creative Management Features Agency, that represented the 60 years old actress.

The actress had been treated for throat cancer and undergone chemotherapy to treat liver metastases. She was also hospitalized after a stroke in early July. The agency declined to say whether the actress had died at home or in the hospital.

Sylvia Kristel is a Dutch actress best known outside her country. She became famous with her first film, Emmanuelle directed by Just Jaeckin and released in 1974. She appeared in 3 sequels – Emmanuelle 2 in 1975, Goodbye Emmanuelle in 1977, and Emmanuelle 4 in 1984 – but they were never as successful as Emanuelle.

“Her life exploded the day she came into people’s fantasies” said Jaeckin. Beautiful, intelligent, and later, very unhappy, she learned life’s lessons the hard way. She remained the prisoner of the desires and fantasies of the audience. An estimated 50 million
viewers saw the film worldwide in movie theaters, and about 350 million more through other media.

According to the producers “Emanuelle was a seminal movie” because the ’70s French people were eager to turn their back on a very stifling morality. Emanuelle describes the many sexual experiences of a diplomat’s wife in Bangkok. A Champs-Elysées theatre in Paris showed the movie for 553 consecutive weeks! In Athens, Caracas and other cities, poeple rioted to see it. For the first time, couples lined up to see an erotic movie, since it was considered an art film.

Social Phenomenon
Before becoming a social phenomenon, Emmanuelle was adapted from an erotic bestseller of the same name, written by Emmanuelle Arsan in 1959.  The producer Yves Rousset-Rouard, eager to entrust the project to a young director, selected the talented photographer Jaeckin to create a feature film. Following the filming of Emmanuelle, Jaeckin then completed Story of O and, again with Sylvia Kristel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

In 1974, the French censorship board refused to allow its release unless certain scenes were deleted. However, when President Georges Pompidou’s died, and Michel Guy was appointed to be the new Minister of Culture, he set aside the censorship board’s objection and permitted the film to be distributed to theatres.

Following the film’s release, Kristel became the object of numerous insults.  She was also harrassed by rumors, being accused of having had a romantic affair with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to which she replied that “It’s untrue besides, I was once a 100% supporter of President Mitterrand’s.”

As an actress, she had the good fortune to be cast in other roles besides Emanuelle and assumed without problem her nakedness on the screen. However, she never was really able to master the tsunami that made her an international star at the age of 22, and she had a lifelong ambivalence about her role in Emmanuelle.

Sometimes she strongly defended the role that allowed her to lead an easy life for years: “Everyone treated me like a queen, apart from some feminists. I think this adventure was Alice in Wonderland compared to what we see today! – It served the cause of women liberation, not its alienation, as some pretend.”

Kristen was often exasperated when the press at each of her appearances asked about the movie’s legendary erotic somersaults – they occurred on the international flight bound to Thailand – as well as about the famous wicker chair, immortalized on the movie’s poster.  “I stirred men’s dreams I’m tired of being portrayed as a liberated woman. All men dream about me, while I dream only about having one man.”

She was paid the meager sum of 18,000 francs or $6,000 for her performance and did not receive any bonus or any portion of the film’s profits. She only managed to be well remunerated by participating and appearing on many TV shows where, of course, she was always asked about Emmanuelle!

Born in Utrecht September 28, 1952, Kristel was sent by her parents, who were hotel owners, at the age of eleven to a stifling religious boarding school that she hated. At 20, she did a photo shoot for a fashion clip, and became an instant success.

Following the release of Emmanuelle she met the writer Hugo Claus, with whom she had a son.  Her career was quite enviable, as she worked with some of best directors in the film industry, including Jean-Pierre Mocky, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Walerian Borowczyk, Roger Vadim, Francis Girod and Claude Chabrol. “I made films that were not very erotic, strangely enough they were not successful.”

For a long time, she lived in Los Angeles, where she started to paint, sharing her life with the poet and critic Freddy de Vree for over a decade. In her autobiography, Undressing Emmanuelle, she described and reassessed candidly her career through the prism of Emmanuelle worldwide success. It was a life plagued by misfortune, including an abused childhood, alcoholism, drugs, serial divorces, numerous affairs, reversal of fortune, and serious health problems.  She did not hide her mistakes, or her failure to impose any discipline on herself, or her need for money to buy drugs. In short, Kristel enjoyed an early success that she was unable to master.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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