Obituary: Sylvia Kristel, actress who was never able to escape her biggest role – Emmanuelle
BORN: 28 September, 1952, in Utrecht, Netherlands. Died: 17 October, 2012, in Amsterdam, aged 60
Almost 40 years ago Emmanuelle did for erotic cinema what more recently Fifty Shades of Grey has done for erotic novels, propelling erotica from the dingier corners of society and into the mainstream, reaching a respectable audience of both men and women.
In the process the film made an international star of a virtually unknown 22-year-old Dutch beauty queen. Sylvia Kristel went on to make films in Hollywood and co-star with Rex Harrison and Gerard Depardieu. She was in the Airport sequel The Concorde and the adventure film The Fifth Musketeer, but never quite managed to escape the typecasting that came with her breakthrough role.
Emmanuelle’s success spawned dozens of sequels, spin-offs and imitations. Kristel quit the series, but kept going back. She is in Emmanuelle IV, missed a few and then turns up again in Emmanuelle 7. Even when she was not playing Emmanuelle, she was to be found a similar state of undress and sexual abandonment, in films such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Mata Hari.
Her biggest American hit was Private Lessons, in which she was a French maid who seduces a 15-year-old youth. “People preferred me naked,” she said. By the 1990s Emmanuelle was considered suitable for a series of films made specifically for television. Kristel was unflatteringly credited as “Old Emmanuelle”. In Emmanuelle’s Love she visits a Tibetan temple where a potion restores her youth and looks, but only by turning her into a completely different actress.
Off-screen Kristel battled with drink, drugs, cancer, relationship disasters and the loss of her savings and assets. Latterly she was living in a tiny flat in Amsterdam.
She was born in Utrecht in the Netherlands, where her parents had a hotel. She went to convent school, but in her early teens Kristel came home to find her father in bed with another woman. Her parents split and she stayed with her mother, who encouraged her to become a model.
She won a televised Dutch beauty contest and then the international final in London, and appeared in several Dutch films, including one called Naked Over the Fence, in which she had the title role.
The novel Emmanuelle dates from the late 1950, although it was not widely circulated until much later. Its author Marayat Rollet-Andriane was a Thai woman who married a French diplomat in her mid-teens. She used the nom de plume Emmanuelle Arsan, and how much was fact and how much was fiction became the subject of conjecture.
By the early 1970s film censors in France, the UK and elsewhere started to take a more liberal attitude to sex on screen. Producer Yves Rousset-Rouard was determined to make a film of Emmanuelle, with a decent budget and the sort of production values audiences expected in mainstream movies, including location shooting in Thailand. It was Kristel’s first major role, but other members of the cast were well-known, respected actors.
Kristel played a diplomat’s teenage bride who accompanies him to Bangkok, where she embarks on a series of sexual adventures, including gay and group activities.
They were presented as a sort of educational journey, a device borrowed from classic literature. It was not that Emmanuelle showed anything that had not been seen before, it was simply that that was virtually all it showed, for an hour and a half. There was some banal philosophising. And the film’s views on everything from gender to colonialism seem very outdated. But its main selling point was its view on, and views of, sex.
Previously sex-themed movies seemed rather grubby and joyless. Emmanuelle was quite the opposite, wearing its sex and its X-certificate like a designer label. The iconic poster showed Kristel sitting topless on a wicker chair, looking towards the camera, provocatively fingering her pearls. The caption read: “At last a film that won’t make you feel bad about feeling good.”
However, the idea that it was some sort of liberating experience for women was rather undermined by a rape scene. Nevertheless, Emmanuelle became the most successful French film ever. It ran at the Triomphe cinema on the Champs-Elysées for more than ten years.
Its success was not confined to France. It was a huge international hit, costing an estimated $500,000 and earning several hundred million, including video and television. Kristel was paid $6,000 for the first film, but negotiated a six-figure sum for a sequel.
She had a lengthy relationship with the controversial Belgian writer Hugo Claus, who was more than 20 years older than her, and they had a son together in the mid-1970s. She also had a lengthy relationship with the English actor Ian McShane, who she met while making The Fifth Musketeer, and there were affairs with Gerard Depardieu and inevitably Warren Beatty.
She married twice. Her second husband was Phillippe Blot, a photographer who became a film director. But they had serious financial problems, the marriage collapsed and she was left virtually penniless.
A few years ago she published a frank autobiography, in which she discussed her career and her personal problems. She is survived by her most recent partner Peter Brul and by her son from her relationship with Claus. BRIAN PENDREIGH
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