'Emmanuelle' Starring Sylvia Kristel And The 'Skinemax' Phenomenon

By | December 2, 2020

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Set of "Good -bye, Emmanuelle" with Silvia Kristel In Seychelles In April, 1977 - Ian McCone, Silvia Kristel. (Photo by Daniel SIMON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In 1974, Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel played a youthful model who moves to Thailand to be with her husband, a French diplomat. The film was Emmanuelle, and it depicted Kristel's character on an erotic journey that changes the direction of her life forever. Emmanuelle initially earned a reputation as a sophisticated blue movie before forming the basis of the cable-TV smutty flick revolution of the 1980s and early '90s.

Without meaning to, the Emmanuelle film series created an entire genre of pseudo-adult films that were shown late at night on paid cable networks like Cinemax, with its "Friday After Dark" franchise, inspiring teenage boys to stay up to ungodly hours of the night with hopes of catching a hint of sexuality. These films, some of which initially built a large following with female viewers during the '70s, became a rite of passage for young people a decade later.

Without trying to, this sultry drama became the highest-grossing domestically produced French film of 1974, and created an aesthetic and tone for countless imitators and the Skinemax phenomenon.

Why 'Emmanuelle?'

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source: Parafrance Films

Some film historians trace the beginning of this subgenre to a film that was actually much more high profile, due to its male lead Marlon Brando and its director Bernardo Bertolucci. Released at the tail end of 1972, just months after Brando's Oscar-worthy turn in The Godfather, Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris became one of the highest grossing films of the net year, and finally ended up making more than $96 million on a $1.25 million budget. This box office windfall proved that there was an audience for arty erotic dramas made for adults. 

Producer Yves Rousset-Rouard snapped up the rights to Emmanuelle, a pseudo-memoir published (and reportedly banned) in France in 1959 and credited to “Emmanuelle Arsan,” which was either the nom de plume of Marayat Rollet-Andriane, a Thai writer who appeared in The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen or her husband, a UNESCO diplomat named Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane. Either way, the book was a touchstone of erotic literature and Rousset-Rouard felt that it was ripe for an artistically sexy adaptation.