June 24, 2010

Naughty Netflix: Emmanuelle

(Think that you can't rent movies at Netflix that contain legitimately explicit sexuality? Think again, my frustrated friend! In this special essay series, I look at a total of thirty mainstream films made over the last forty years, all of which contain scenes of such actual graphic sex acts as fellatio and penetration, reviewing them not in only in terms of the movie's quality itself but also the amount of sex it portrays, and whether this sex is any fun or not to actually watch. For more about how these movies were chosen, as well as the full list of all thirty titles, you can click here; and don't forget, these reviews are also mixed into the master list of all movies reviewed here, over at CCLaP's main movie page.)


Today's movie: Emmanuelle, 1974 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

The story in a nutshell: Based on the notorious 1959 novel by Emmanuelle Arsan, 1974's countercultural classic Emmanuelle concerns a young accidental ingenue who has recently entered a relationship with a French diplomat from Thailand, which brings her at the beginning of the film to sweaty '70s Bangkok for the first time. Once there she is quickly surrounded by a group of terminally bored "with-it" diplomat wives, who mostly fill their days with the constant search for more sexual drama in their lives; Emmanuelle herself, though, wants none of this, because although it's implied that she's clearly the best lover out of this entire group, she's also a rock-solid believer in the idea of monogamy, and literally has no interest in being with anyone else besides her diplomat boyfriend. The rest of the film, then, essentially consists of these people constantly urging Emmanuelle to get hip to the times, with their unending come-ons eventually dragging her into a series of lightly hedonistic adventures -- masturbating in front of another woman, joining the "mile high club" with a complete stranger, a torrid three-day lesbian relationship with the only other white woman there she can stand, a tough archeologist who takes her on a dig but eventually rejects her for being too naive and submissive. And thus does Emmanuelle's capacity for risk continue rising, until culminating at the end with an encounter with a creepy older dude who for some reason all the rest of the colonial wives are enamored with, who literally forces her to embrace her inner lustful animal by first getting her high at a rural opium den, then taking her to an underground bare-knuckle boxing match, the winning prize of which (she only finds out after getting there) is the opportunity to f-ck Emmanuelle in the ass while the rest of the crowd watches, the act which finally breaks her prim outer shell and thus sets the stage for the literal dozens of sequels that have been made in the 35 years since. (In fact, the rights-holder of the character recently announced that a James-Bond-style "reboot" of the entire Emmanuelle franchise will be coming soon.)

(There are also plenty of clips from the movie over at YouTube, for those who are curious, but with most being too racy to embed here. Above is the original American trailer, which other than salacious text ["One-seventh of the entire population of Paris has now seen this movie!"] features only one single still image from the film itself.)

What I thought: You know, for the movie that nearly single-handedly kickstarted the entire softcore film industry, Emmanuelle turns out to tell a surprisingly sophisticated story, and at many points embraces a much more conservative attitude about sex than you would expect from its reputation; and this of course is partly because of it being based on an actual respected literary novel, and partly because of being made at a time when even adult movies were expected to have real plots, to justify their existence in the first place. (For those who don't know, this was one of the half-dozen most notorious films of the early '70s to help redefine obscenity laws in the US; it was only after these films were established that what we now know as the modern "adult industry" was born, and the concept first legitimized of a sex film existing merely for the sake of showing sex.) In any case, it makes this movie unexpectedly great and surprisingly thought-provoking, especially in the way that it is so often highly critical of the exact drug-taking, spouse-swapping middle-class bourgeoisie who were its target audience, a premonition of the Reagan times to come less than a decade later. Although fairly tame by today's standards (see below), the original Emmanuelle still remains both dirty and smart, and can still easily serve as a non-ironic aid for not only men but women and couples to "get themselves in the mood."

What makes it an explicit movie? Ironically, the only brief scene to earn this movie its unrated status has nothing to do with the main characters at all, but is rather a short scene set inside a Bangkok stripper club, where at one point we watch a local woman demonstrate certain...um, tricks she can do with her...um, well, you know, the kind of outlandishness that sounds at first like an urban legend until you see it actually demonstrated yourself. Other than that, although it features plenty of nudity and sex, the "explicit" scenes in Emmanuelle have been carefully edited into what we now call a "hard R" status; and in fact, like I said, it was the overwhelming success of this film (including the way that women embraced it much more than hardcore pornography) that led to the eventual formation of the entire "softcore" adult industry, a type of film that now generates billions in revenue for hotels and late-night cable channels.

Is the sex actually fun to watch? Well, I suppose it depends on how you define "fun;" or to put it another way, it's very typical of the sex scenes you find in most countercultural films of the period. And so some parts of the film would be called undeniably erotic by just about anyone, featuring the kind of unhurried intimacy simply not found in adult films anymore; but then other parts of the film are what many would call aggressively sexist, the kind of Norman Mailer pseudo-misogynist crap that you could still get away with in the '70s, but that directly inspired the "politically correct" movement in the '80s and '90s. (And please be aware that at one point, the film features a drugged-up woman enjoying rape, yet another sad legacy of the "let it all hang out" countercultural years.) Although more ribald than explicit in terms of what it actually shows, Emmanuelle still has the potential to shock and offend, and it should be kept in mind before renting it yourself.

Strangest piece of trivia: It's estimated that over 300 million people have now seen this film in one form or another; it's so popular in Japan, in fact, that it inspired an entire new slang phrase in that language, to "do an Emmanuelle" meaning to participate in a crazy sex act that's usually against your nature.

Worth your time? Yes

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:32 PM, June 24, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |