Sylvia Kristel—megawatt gamine and international film star—died in her sleep this week. Age: 60. Cause: cancer. Place of death: Amsterdam. Kristel hailed from the Netherlands, a country that has also given American adolescents the fervid perversity of Paul Verhoeven, the hypnotic eye contact of model Doutzen Kroes, and the marvel of Famke Janssen in superhero tights. Sylvia Kristel was a limpid leading sex symbol of the late 20th Century and a grey-eyed sprite of the so-called Golden Age of Porn. Let me be explicit that her films were not.
The best movie on her resume is arguably Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Playing With Fire, which skates with slinky wit figure-eights of zero-degree fantasy; she is a bad, very bad, very Marienbad kind of girl. But Playing With Fire is a highbrow art movie, and Kristel did her most influential work in the middlebrow form of soft-focus soft-core. Sylvia Kristel is Emmanuelle like Paul Newman is Hud, only more so, because she was the face of a blockbuster box-office franchise that became synonymous with the subgenre it pioneered.
In 1959, the honorable dirty-book dealers of Grove Press published Emmanuelle Arsan’s novel about the bored wife of a French diplomat and her nights in Bangkok. It sold briskly, and movie producer Yves Rousset-Rouard snatched up the film rights. In 1974, two years after Last Tango in Paris changed the terms in which sex and cinema and all-purpose butter were discussed, he released his own scandalous success. Columbia Pictures distributed Emmanuelle in the U.S. In the bravura trailer they put together, the soundtrack teases itself into a high-hat sizzle and the voiceover is a relax-baby baritone: “It’s the first film of its kind that lets you feel good without feeling bad.”
Roger Ebert’s review noted its restraint, its classiness, its silly swinging-‘70s philosophy of liberation, and its necessary tethering of the mood to Kristel’s projected vulnerability: “It’s a relief, during a time of cynicism in which sex is supposed to sell anything, to find a skin flick that’s a lot better than it probably had to be.” One can only agree with Ebert’s three-star verdict, perhaps adding that the tilt of Kristel’s nose circulates a sharp air of fawnish beauty through the rest of her features—and perhaps wondering if Emmanuelle’s scene with Ariane has any competition as the most compelling squash-court seduction of all time.
Sequels followed, including Goodbye, Emmanuelle (1987), distributed in the U.S. by a fledging Miramax Films. The Weinsteins soon sent Emmanuelle’s serial tales of erotic discovery voyaging in the wee hours of premium cable programming, where Kristel contributed two other heroines to the Skinemax canon—Mata Hari and Lady Constance Chatterley. Indeed, while some refer to the genre that Kristel defined as “European softcore,” others recognize it as “adult entertainment you watched on cable, in the ’80s and ’90s, when the adults were sound asleep, you hoped.”
The cinema shall not see its like again, for obvious reasons involving technology, economics, and evolving standards of decency. Kristel’s classics must seem terribly quaint to people accustomed to spending Sunday nights watching raunchier stuff transpire as a matter of course on some of the best shows on television. Her movies are probably irrelevant to a population acclimatized to the Internet’s bottomless cavern of aggressive filth. As art, Emmanuelle is nobody’s masterpiece. As trash, it doesn’t entirely hold up. But as an artifact of film culture, a symptom of the sexual revolution, and a heavy-rotation feature of the collective pubescence of Generation X, it deserves a feel-good moment of silence. Kristel’s passing marks a little death of innocence.