Censor me! Sex and the BBFC: Emmanuelle.
Every week after I publish the censorship essay, I’m going to look at 1 film that fell foul of the Great British Censor. Last week’s topic was the sweaty-palm inducing sex, available here, and so this week I’m reviewing a film that upset the BBFC and had serious problems obtaining a certificate due to sexual content. As attitudes have changed, almost all of the films on this series have a received a full uncut release, but at the time they were either banned outright, banned on video, or slashed to ribbons. First up is pretentious French art-house soft-core porno Emmanuelle.
All citations come from the BBFC’s case study on Emmanuelle, available here
Ah, Emmanuelle, the great late night friend to the horny British teenager in the 1990’s. Think of it as the girl you pick up at the end of a particularly beer fueled session in whatever local meat market. Sure, you wanted the pretty girl with the big cans that looked a bit like Salma Hayek in the right light, but after 10 pints of libido stimulant, you’re more than willing to settle for her plain friend, and anyway she’s pissed off with the flash bugger with the stuffed wallet. Emmanuelle was a staple of (very) late night television, as it’s high “art” content meant that the networks would show it at roughly midnight (post pub hours) and then excuse it on purely hypocritical grounds. It was basically an excuse to slide through a skin flick and not annoy anyone.
Except for one feature: Emmanuelle was hacked to ribbons for a British audience. Nevertheless, the film itself remains one of the most profitable of all time in terms of budget to box office, and the franchise itself (now up to a frightening amount of soft-core spin offs) is one of the most profitable out there. Total box office figures for the film itself come in above $100m, according to Wikipedia, and for the series it has now taken more than $650m. People, quite clearly, like to masturbate, which is at least, I suppose, sex with someone you love.
Summary of the film:
Based on a monumentally successful French novel, Emmanuelle tells the story of a seemingly faintly retarded bored French housewife Emmanuelle (Sylvia Kristal), the film charts her sexual odyssey through a heavily idealised Thailand. A diplomat’s wife, she lives in unparalleled opulence and has literally nothing to do with her time. As such, she is gradually drawn into a world of laissez-faire polyamory, and eventually totally debauched at the hands of sweaty old pervert Mario (Alain Cuny).
Initially starting as disgusted at the antics of the other French Housewives, it just takes a mutual masturbation session over a photo of Paul Newman with teenaged Marie-Ange (Christine Boisson), to loosen her up. Next thing you know she’s stalking archaeologist Bee (Marika Green) for a spot of Sapphic love, before rushing home to be consoled by her husband Jean (Daniel Sarky) who has no problems shagging around with the likes of Ariane (Jeanne Colletin). Eventually, she does hook up with Mario, which means that the following events happen to her: 1) Visit to nightclub to learn unique way to smoke cigarette. 2)Rape in opium den. 3) Exhibitionist sex with Thai kick boxer, the last scene in the film.
Basically, this is a porno. I don’t care how hard it pretends that it’s art, and it is, as the BBFC noted, “outstandingly well filmed”. It’s a scud film, and exists solely to have Kristal stripped naked and shagged in a variety of vaguely uninteresting ways. The acting from Kristal is bizarre, she has a dreamlike, almost ethereal quality, which comes across well, particularly during the Bee section of the movie. It’s hard to judge the support, because I’ve only seen it with hilarious dubbing intact, but it’s pretty much laughable, most notably the “angry” sex scene between Jean and Ariane.
The soundtrack is terrible being the most awful jingly theme tune played over and over again before coming in as subtly as a Panzer division during the sex scenes themselves. I actually started thinking longingly about how it would be better with cartoon “beep” noises, or at least a heavy saxophone. I suppose that it does fit the overall theme of the film, but really, there’s a reason that we keep sweaty French Serge Gainsborough type nonsense safely quarantined on that side of the Channel.
Really, this is hippy claptrap of the stupidest and most boring order. There’s not a lot to say here, aside from that it’s the most heavy-handed and ludicrously idealised depiction of polyamory around. Shot in soft focus, naturally, Emmanuelle presents the multiple partners lifestyle as not only something to be desired, but something to seriously aspire to. It doesn’t help that Jean has to spit out garbage such as “Emmanuelle is the most sexual woman I’ve ever known”; or his lengthy (not to mention pompous) diatribes against monogamy. To be fair, though, they all get in on the act with Mario, oh great sex-mentor/ guru/ Svengali/ probably impotent old fart, coming up with the laughably incomprehensible “Love between couples should be outlawed. Every act of love must include a third person.” Aye, mate, you mean you sitting in the corner crying because your winkie doesn’t work. Tool.
Utter garbage of the rankest kind, it only is really of interest because it was a staple of late night TV, and I can safely say that Emmanuelle is little more than a historical curio. It’s certainly not a decent film by any stretch of the imagination, and, aside from Kristal’s central performance, has less than nothing to recommend it.
Why did it have problems?
Before I go further, the director Just Jaeckin attempted to petition the BBFC on the grounds that Emmanuelle was an important and serious art film. He’s full of shit, clearly, and the BBFC saw it as such saying that
With the best will in the world, we were unable to see it in these terms. It struck us as a sex film quite outstandingly well photographed and edited but still containing material which, to our minds, would be unacceptable to British taste
I tend to agree with them about its genre, but not about the acceptability to British taste.
There are basically 2 key scenes in the film that upset the BBFC, although the original version passed was riddled with cuts all over the place. However, to be fair, Emmanuelle did also fall foul of the French (of all nations) censor at the time. I’m astonished to find this out, because it’s, well, France and they’ll pass anything.
The first scene is the notorious smoking scene. This was deemed morally terrible at the time, and there was simply no inch given for the lady *cough* in question’s quite remarkable muscular control. Basically, what happens is that Emmanuelle and Mario go to a seedy club, and we get a nice minute or so watching a contortionist roll herself into a ball and smoke a cigarette using her vagina. It wasn’t, to be fair, shot by Jaekin, who didn’t like it, and it is quite astonishingly gratuitous in context of the film. Nevertheless, the BBFC took one look at it and cut it altogether. Eventually (2001), Emmanuelle came back before the censor, and the scene was passed totally uncut, with the BBFC noting that attitudes had changed and that the scene, while completely tasteless (unusually so for a film as glossy and artfully tasteful as this one), was neither harmful or illegal and therefore unlikely to cause anyone to have a hernia. Unless they tried it themselves, which, to be fair, is improbable.
The second scene was the last to have the censorship removed, and that took until 2007. At the time, the BBFC had their knickers in a twist regarding depictions of rape on camera, with Straw Dogs, The Story of O, In the Realm of the Senses, and the repugnant Salo also struggling to get past the censor. Nevertheless, Emmanuelle had one serious problem that meant it was always going to have difficulties: Emmanuelle herself is supposed to “enjoy” the rape, and it is meant to be a sexually liberating experience. Kristal, incidentally, hated this scene, and deliberately refused to act in it, pulling faces and all sorts for the camera.
Ferman, chief censor at the time, eloquently presented the BBFC’s case thus:
rape is presented in EMMANUELLE as if it is beneficial to the victim, a view of sexual liberation which is emphasised by the attitude of her elderly mentor both during the rape and after it. I have been asked whether in a court of law I could consistently say that this scene is not depraving or corrupting, and I have had to say that, in all conscience, I could not.
Having seen it, it’s hard to disagree with the first part of this summary, while the second part is clearly dated. The point is that the scene is the stupidest type of semi-misogynistic nonsense out there, viz. “They all love it” crap. Rape is not sexually liberating, and really, this kind of drivel needs shooting in the head up front.
Anyway, eventually in 2007 the BBFC relented noting that it was, and still is, clearly “tasteless in its message” but “sufficiently dated and ridiculous to be accepted at the adult level as an example of the kind of historical attitude towards sexual violence that was prevalent in the early 70s”. Furthermore, and I particularly like this bit:
Given the extremely dated nature of the film and the ridiculous dialogue through which the audience has to wade (my emphasis) in order to get at the offensive message, it was considered that the scene lacked sufficient detail or credibility to have an effect on attitudes today.
They’re right. It’s not only ridiculous, but pretentious and boring too. Anyway, the crux of the matter is that attitudes had changed and given the dated and frankly silly nature of the film, it’s hard to justify censoring it in any way. Remarkably sensible, all things considered.
Were they right?
At the time? Yes and no.
The smoking scene is just plain ridiculous, and I doubt would ever seriously deprave anyone. Not to mention that I have serious doubts as to that as a concept anyway. So no to that one, it should always have been uncut.
The rape sequence, on the other hand, is morally dubious, and it’s quite easy to see why it was slashed. It has, firstly, no business being in a film about a woman’s sexual epiphany, and furthermore, the intrinsic message of it about rape being sexually liberating would in 1974 most likely have fallen foul of the Obscene Publications Act. It’s a heavily eroticised sequence, and quite frankly I have no idea what they were playing at putting it in in the first place. Unlike The Story of O, which is about submission, and therefore an entirely different kettle of fish, Emmanuelle is about discovery, and as such a scene such as that one is distinctly off.
Nevertheless, it’s available now in its full “glory”, and is there to be pointed at and laughed at at will.
Emmanuelle is a strange film. Clearly of its time as an art/ soft-core porno, it has aged extremely badly, and is now surprisingly tame. We aren’t even talking 9 Songs level of sexual content. The message is dated and ridiculous, the style is boring and pompous and the whole film is frankly daft.
It’s very easy to see why the BBFC chose to cut Emmanuelle heavily, and in the case of the rape scene, almost totally justifiable. However, there’s no reason at all for the cuts to have remained in place when I saw it in the 90’s, and given the availability of actual filth it is unsurprising that they have been removed altogether.
Realistically, though, this is a load of old cobblers, a rubbish and pretentious movie about a dippy bint getting shagged in exotic places, think The Lonely Planet Guide with added naughtiness, and really there’s nothing to recommend here. It isn’t, mostly due to the performance of Kristal, Orangutan of Doom material, but I certainly wouldn’t class it as entertaining, and given the tidal wave of filth on the internet, I can’t think of a reason to recommend it. Emmanuelle is, in fact, garbage, and had it not been on the receiving end of the censor’s chainsaw, then I wouldn’t be reviewing it for this series. Still, it did spare me some of the other films on the list, notably Salo so I thank it wholeheartedly for that.
Next topic is Violence, which is far more relevant and far more contentious.