Emmanuelle is famous for being a sexually graphic (but not pornographic) film released by a major studio with an X rating and subsequently making a lot of money. It’s not a masterpiece in any sense, although it’s certainly better than most films of this sort; and it is, in many ways, a product of its time (the mid 70s). There’s also a debate about whether it’s a ‘feminist’ sex film. I think it is, but not in any way we would be quick to recognize, which I think says more about the feminist movement than about the film.
Based on the novel by Emmanuelle Arsan, the movie tells the story of a French diplomat’s wife, played by Sylvia Kristel, who moves to Bangkok with her husband and settles into the life of the consular community. This life apparently involves great boredom and diplomatic wives cheating on their husbands. This is not an issue for Emmanuelle, however, because her husband encourages her to take lovers; he’s not jealous but is French.
The film, then, is a story of innocence coming into a world of experience and into her own as a sexual woman. The film has a dream-like and languid tone, and seemingly everyone she encounters is more open sexually than Emmanuelle, from Marie-Ange a young girl who masturbates in front of her to Bee, the bisexual archaeologist who seduces and leaves her, from her husband who encourages her to have sex with others to Mario, an older European decadent who introduces her to opium, underground boxing matches and being sodomized before a crowd. His philosophy holds that all of the limits of bourgeois morality must be transgressed and he becomes sort of a tutor to Emmanuelle. In the end, however, she seems to have graduated and no longer needs anyone in particular to fulfill her sexual desires. Sitting before a mirror in the last shot, she has passed from innocence to experience. Or it was all a dream.
Of course, none of this is particularly realistic or even always coherent. Emmanuelle is clearly a fantasy about female sexuality, and yet it’s strange to think of how rare films like this- an erotic film about a woman coming into her own as a sexually liberated adult- have become. It really is a product of its time. Current mainstream cinema generally portrays adult women as having few or no sexual desires of their own, while pornography is much more often about female degradation than liberation. The sort of argument the film makes is not often heard anymore, especially not in cinema.
That argument: that in order for a woman to be sexually liberated and self-actualized she must have several sexual partners, and so monogamy is anathema to female liberation- well, let’s just say it’s still shocking. Is it feminist? I think it is a valid feminist argument in the sense that it’s a radical statement about female liberation and self-actualization. It is not feminist in the sense that it is not an argument that has been widely embraced by the feminist movement. Some feminist thinkers have said as much, but the feminist movement has tended far more generally towards renegotiating the terms of monogamy than arguing for its abolition. Emmanuelle has more often been read, by feminists, as a male fantasy (written by a woman), since women naturally desire monogamy. Mais, bien sûr!
I think maybe it’s most interesting to see Emmanuelle as a path not taken. Its case is totally valid, in my opinion, but it’s also not one that many people- feminist or not- are willing to side with. At least, not outside of fantasy.