Emmanuelle: A Hard Look (2000)

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One of the rare movie documentaries that’s way more interesting than the movies it’s covering, this sort-of-polemic from occasional genius filmmaker Alex Cox was made in 2000 to “celebrate” the first network showing of “Emmanuelle”, the softcore porn film that launched a surprisingly durable franchise – check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmanuelle#Filmography for proof; basically, just spend a few dollars for official licensing, whack the word on your awful softcore movie and voila!

There’s interviews with star Sylvia Kristel, director Just Jaeckin, plus a few of the other stars of the various sequels, but it’s obvious from the off that Cox isn’t remotely interested in how the film was made, or the personalities of the various people on the set (Kristel, for example, was a massive alcoholic for many years which made her virtually impossible to work with, but this is never mentioned). He’s interested in why it was successful, what made people go to see it, and from that to discuss some much broader questions about modern cinema. Two “vox pops” sections where he goes onto the streets of Liverpool to ask random passers-by about “Emmanuelle” and then later about their favourite places to have sex, help illustrate his thesis, for want of a better word.

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The surprising thing about “Emmanuelle” was how many women went to see it, often in groups – a behaviour that’s being repeated today with “50 Shades Of Grey”, if my sister’s Facebook feed is anything to go by. Not just for the relatively new-at-the-time far Eastern travelogue aspect of things, either – because softcore and hardcore showed female pleasure in the same way (by concentrating on the face and its expressions), softcore was clearly more appealing to a larger proportion of women. Central to Cox’s argument is an interview with the academic Linda Ruth Williams, who talks about how women respond to porn and even some of its more problematic aspects, such as the incredible prevalence of rape scenes in “Emmanuelle” and the films which followed it. James Ferman, former head of the BBFC, has some extremely smart things to say about it too.

So, a documentary ostensibly about some rotten (but famous) old softcore film is actually almost an excuse for Cox to interview a brilliant feminist academic and to come to a genuinely fascinating conclusion. An interview with Dennis Hopper about the time he hit on Kristel leads into a mention of Cox’s amazing spaghetti Western tribute “Straight To Hell”, and Cox talking about fantasy. Why is fantasy violence, such as that shown at great length in the average Western, absolutely fine with mainstream viewing audiences, yet fantasy sex is to be either looked down on or censored? Is it due to the largely male audience for one, and the female audience for the other? Or just a puritanical clampdown on pleasure, like banning marijuana? His comparison of “Emmanuelle 4” (his favourite of the series, it would seem) to sculpture “The Three Muses”, calling one art for the lower classes and the other porn for the upper classes, is a clever way of wrapping things up, even if it’s overstating the case a little.

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But Alex Cox is a brilliant filmmaker, and this is a fascinating documentary. You might not learn a ton about the “Emmanuelle” film series but you’ll learn something interesting about film.

Rating: thumbs up

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