Emmanuelle (Sylvia Kristel) is the new and inexperienced wife of French diplomat in Bangkok Jean (Daniel Sarky), and he and his friend are in a massage parlour discussing her. Jean tells his friend the attraction is down to her sexual appetite, which is formidable, and as there's not much else for a diplomat's wife to do but lounge around by the pool, Emmanuelle is all ready to enter into a new world of sensual pleasure. Jean drives her to their new home, a large mansion, and on the way they talk about her latest photo shoot as she is a model; when Jean expresses surprise that the photographer didn't try to seduce her, she laughs and says it was because he was a homosexual. But Emmanuelle will attempt to find fulfilment in a non-heterosexual way herself...
In its day the most successful French film of all time, this tale of a young woman discovering herself was a headline-grabbing sensation, when sex in films had gone mainstream. Partly inspired by the success of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and the frankness that made it box office gold around the world, this was based on Emmanuelle Arsan's self-titled and notorious in France novel from the fifties which had previously been banned there. It also had the advantage of being nicely photographed to look as if the characters had recently stepped out of the pages of a glossy magazine or colour supplement.
All this lent the film its veneer of sophistication, which if you looked a little closer didn't really ring true. If we were to be grown up about sex, the film told us, then we must be as liberated as Emmanuelle, although the last half hour, where she was given the guided tour by Mario (Alain Cuny), someone who was basically a dirty old man, left an uncomfortable feeling behind. That's because the story was a hypocritical one which presented its free-willed lead as finding herself in an almost spiritual sexual odyssey, supposedly empowering but actually yet another in a long line of exploited male sexual fantasy figures.
In between the racy stuff there is a lot of jaded talk, all to make Emmanuelle's choices seem like the only reasonable path. She is encouraged by the other idle rich women in her group to have an affair, but the person who has really caught her eye is archaeologist Bee (Marika Green, aunt of future Bond Girl Eva Green). So Emmanuelle persuades her to travel with her to the Isle of Lesbos, figuratively speaking, yet purely for plot contrivances after a day of romping, Bee tells her that she can't continue their relationship due to not being in love with her. This forces Em into the arms of Mario, and he takes her on a journey that sees such unsavoury practices as rape and being the trophy in a Thai boxing match. Wasn't this supposed to be liberating? After that - well, I guess you have to watch the sequels as this film doesn't so much draw to a conclusion than stop abruptly. Its golden-looking and languorously louche mood is the main advantage here, and it did make Kristel the most famous Dutch actress of the seventies, but it's more of a softcore relic nowadays than anything else. Music by Pierre Bachelet.
[The Optimum Region 2 DVD is dubbed for the main feature, but oddly the trailer and featurette are subtitled.]