Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Emmanuelle (1974)

by Matthew "Language of Love" Funk

The inside of the human body is a dark place.

Emmanuelle plunges into it, illustrating in sappy soft-touch photography a colonial wife’s campaign to colonize and control her sexuality. This isn’t a love film. This is a war film.

Viewers who expect the keystone of Emmanuelle’s soft-core porn legacy to be similar will be surprised. It has as much relation to its successors as the African elephant does to its close evolutionary cousin, the rodent-like rock hyrax.

Garnering an audience of over 300 million, Emmanuelle became a brand based around its X-rating. Under the pressures of the exploitation craze of the late ‘70s, it mutated into blood-and-skin flicks like Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Emmanuelle Escapes from Hell (1981). In the end, the 90’s straight-to-cable craze slid the series to a close with Emmanuelle battling Dracula and getting probed by space foxes. These skin-deep incarnations are a far cry from the first film’s ugly expedition into sexual psyche.

Emmanuelle isn’t skin-deep. It’s the heart of darkness.

Emmanuelle and Platoon (1986) are sister and brother.

They may not move in the exact same way, but they share the same thematic flesh and bone. They are both unapologetically grotesque. The same oblivion lives in their moral center. And they are both tales of a child entering the wilderness--of the globe and in themselves--to be raised wrong by two “fathers.”

On its softly lit surface, Emmanuelle’s narrative seems like a stew of porn-plot schlock. Our protagonist is a delicate ingénue who must travel into aging colonial Thailand to join her new husband, Jean. Since he deflowered the 17-year-old Emmanuelle in the back of his car and took her from her parents, Jean has urged her to be a sexual libertine. When they unite in the lawless decadence of a primal jungle ruled by bored white people, this concept of an “open relationship” is put to the test.

I won’t dull you with all the details of what happens next. Emmanuelle drifts from one confused sexual victimhood to the next, always trying to find her emotional sea legs. She is the supple, squirming canvas for teens, old men and slave-like Thai to paint their lusts on. The only relationships that have any meaning to the film are the two that leave her torn: Bee, a female archaeologist who is “the only woman here who works” and Mario, the graying overlord of “the Cult of Eroticism.”

The tension between these “two fathers”, as in Platoon, tempers Emmanuelle in the wilderness of Southeast Asia, until she is born-again hard.

* * *

“Are you smoking this shit so's to escape from reality? Me, I don't need this shit. I am reality. There's the way it ought to be, and there's the way it is.”
--Sergeant Barnes, Platoon

Emmanuelle shares the same philosophical circulatory system as Platoon. Study the similarities of their anatomy:

In Platoon, Charlie Sheen is an idealistic and naïve young buck who goes to Vietnam to learn of man’s purpose through war. In Emmanuelle, she enters the jungle to learn of her sexual purpose as a woman.

Sheen ricochets from one traumatic act of violence after the next, seeking moral guidance in an amoral world. Emmanuelle is tossed from one uncaring act of sex to the next, all the while trying to find some foundation for her feelings.

Sheen is impressed under the command of Sergeant Barnes, a scarred, old brute who fights ruthlessly, expending enemy and allies alike to keep the madness of the war in his power. Emmanuelle is pursued by Mario, an unsmiling, old colonist who uses sex ruthlessly, seeking ever more extreme kinks in active pursuit of demolishing emotion’s role.

Sheen becomes enamored with Sergeant Elias, a warrior who still loves the world and can gaze at the sky over the battlefield and remark, “I love this place at night. The stars, there’s no right or wrong in them. They’re just there.” Emmanuelle falls for Bee, the only European woman who rejects the cycle of heartless sex around her and who devotes her heart to work and the natural world.

Elias is killed by Barnes. Bee declines Emmanuelle’s offer of enduring love for the sake of her own enduring love for herself and her work.

Sheen descends into a maelstrom of combat, eventually butchering Barnes after a battle that leaves him shattered physically and mentally. Emmanuelle sinks into the jaded clutches of the Cult of Eroticism and, under Mario’s tutelage, comes to embrace her own rape, treasure bankrupt sexual liaisons and adopt his unfeeling “laws” toward sex.

In the final scene of Emmanuelle, we see her changing her appearance to become the blank-faced temptress Mario has led her to be--abandoning emotional desire and dedicating herself to lust’s whims.

Both Sheen and Emmanuelle were children in an untamed land of pure, primal existence. Both learned the agony of attachment and the animal urge for violence or sex. Both were broken and reborn ruthless.

As the gentle music plays over the closing scene of Emmanuelle, painting thick makeup on a face doll-like with unfeeling, you can almost hear Kurtz from Heart of Darkness intoning, “The horror. The horror.”

There is a sickening and powerful gravity to Emmanuelle and Platoon, because they’re more than cautionary tales for would-be-colonial empires. They show us the cost of trying to colonize ourselves.

* * *

“And here too,” Marlowe said suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the Earth.”
--Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Emmanuelle is an unflinching look at the dusk of colonial high society in Thailand, but its political interest isn’t socio-economic. It's psychosexual. As with Platoon, Emmanuelle uses politics as a chart for the depths of the human mind.

Emmanuelle’s colonists aren’t just feckless French people in a land of law-of-the-jungle. We’re the colonists, trying to sow order and reap gain from our own minds.

Basic international politics breaks the globe into three parts--the civilized and developed realms of the First World, the intermediaries of the Second World and the destitute and wild regions of the Third World. Works like Platoon and Emmanuelle use this framework to establish parity with how the intellect functions.

See, Freud broke the intellect down into three levels as well--the civilized and rational decision-making level of the Super Ego, the random-access-memory level of the Ego, and the untamed, carnal level of the Id. Modern understanding of the mind is based on the notion that the Super Ego is always trying to reconcile the instinct and urge of the Id.

By this logic, we’re a colonist--the vain Super Ego with its pith helmet and slide rule--trying to civilize the wilderness of our Id.

In Platoon, it’s the death urge of the Id that’s being grappled with. Sheen tries to organize, valuate and command humanity’s capacity and craving for violence. In Emmanuelle, it’s the sex urge we struggle with:

She tries to place a value on the borders of commitment to one sexual partner. She tries to reconcile sexual curiosity with dignity, decorum and desire for security. She tries to find herself in another, lose herself in victimhood, escape from fear of knowing no sexual control.

Emmanuelle is the Super Ego mind--that will to power that wants to organize--attempting to find some control over sexuality’s wilderness.

* * *

“To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”
--Marlowe, Heart of Darkness

The ultimate message of Emmanuelle is as morally void as Platoon or Heart of Darkness. Her final incarnation, in gown and makeup and feather boa, is not presented to the viewer with judgment. It is shown as the final destination of a ruthless approach to commanding sexuality.

Emmanuelle has achieved total command of her sexuality by abandoning the irrational. Sex for Mario and the woman he makes of Emmanuelle is just an appetite. They feed it without shame or remorse or emotional investment. Like Sergeant Barnes in Platoon, they are the triumph of the will. They feel no romantic pain because they do not allow themselves to feel. Sex is not about feeling anymore. It is about power.

It is about winning.

In light of recent controversies over Charlie Sheen, the actor himself, I find this similarity between his most-acclaimed role and Emmanuelle ironic. He switched movies on me. Charlie’s now a champion for sexual indulgence without attachment. He is in complete control and chooses to be out of control. For this, he gains the fascination of the public, the contempt of many and hero status for some.

Emmanuelle is no different. Under Mario’s mentorship, her broken heart is reshaped into an instrument made for winning. Being raped is winning; faceless sex is winning; impulsive seduction is winning.

What’s the alternative? Pain is the alternative.

Lack of ruthlessness opens people up to emotional pain from the sex urge. Wholly entrusting our sexuality to a single other person fosters dependence. It is socially acceptable. But it is an attempt to colonize and control the wilderness.

It creates a cycle of seeking, with heart on sleeve, a succession of relationships. Each, we hope, will be the final harbor of emotional security. And all the while, biology and the Id hope for endless sexual satisfaction for their changing appetites. The First World is ever at war to control the Third World.

So we craft ever-more-inventive cages for the sex urge: we sublimate, channeling Id urge into work or romantic forms, like Sergeant Elias and Bee. We structure through traditional forms, like marriage and religious codes. We shut ourselves off from the pain of attachment, denying it like Barnes or Emmanuelle, or avoiding it like Buddha or Christ.

We get lucky, some of us, and establish that happy colony with another where we can depend on harvesting enough of a yield to feed the Id.

As for the rest of us, “The horror! The horror!”


  1. Well, I fucking hate psychoanalysis, but when it's done right, it sure is convincing.

    When I think of the original Emmanuelle, I remember being disappointed when they finally showed it on Skinemax. I was already old enough to realize its X rating was a scam. I also knew, back then, to let my Id do the walking. I've been paying for it ever since...

  2. Well that just rendered all of my reviews pointless. Great job breaking it apart Mr. Funk.

  3. That was quite the review, Matthew. I linked on my blog.

  4. Quite intriguing speculations here. I think the Third World/Id association described above, and the supposed need for intervention by the disciplined western Super-Ego, lurks within the opening stanza of this famous work by British imperialism's unofficial poet laureate, Rudyard Kipling:

    "Take up the White Man's burden--
    Send forth the best ye breed--
    Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives' need;
    To wait in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild--
    Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
    Half-devil and half-child."

    Pete Risley