So here I am, writing about a porn film. They don't teach you how to do that in film school, and I'm not really sure what the proper form is. "I was aroused at the following points, and masturbated for X minutes at the film's conclusion." Is that you tell a successful porno? This is uncharted ground for me.

Now, if it were 1974 still, I'd probably have people grousing, "Emmanuelle isn't a porno! It's a very artistic study of the sex lives of the bourgeoisie, and how First World idleness affects the people of the Third World." They might have even had a point, in 1974, because that's how the film was sold to people who didn't want to admit they were interested in seeing a porn film. But facts are facts, and only sociologists and film historians have seen Emmanuelle recently for any reason other than to take a gander at Sylvia Kristel nude.

Which isn't an inherently terrible reason. Kristel, who plays the titular character,* is certainly an attractive woman (is it sexist to talk about a woman's looks if you're reviewing a porno? These are the questions I've been grappling with lately). Not drop-dead gorgeous, certainly, but she's very nice to look at if you are of the persuasion that likes to look at naked ladies. Without doubt, prurience is a much better reason to watch Emmanuelle than the film's philosophical underpinnings. Though it is certainly an artsy film, and you probably could justify watching it for its Deeper Meanings, much in the same way that sometimes Playboy does legitimately have some pretty awesome articles.

The film's story follows Kristel's Emmanuelle as she travels from Paris to Bangkok, to be with her husband Jean (Daniel Sarky), employed at the French Embassy. There she befriends all of the other French diplomats' wives, all of whom apparently spend their time lounging around some kind of ill-defined spa, talking about their sexual affairs and screwing around with each other. The main figures in Emmanuelle's life prove to be Ariane (Jeanne Colletin), who wants very bad to get into her pants; Marie-Ange (Christine Boisson, all of 17 years old when the film was shot, a fact which definitely tripped my icky switch), a very experienced young woman who makes it her goal to push the sheltered Emmanuelle out of her comfortably monogamous zone, and Bee (Marika Green), an anthropologist whom all of the other women detest, apparently because she actually does something with her life besides bask in comfort and hedonism, although Emmanuelle finds herself completely fascinated by this free woman. Once the pegs have all been set up - interspersed with many scenes of the pegs naked and making out with each other - Marie-Ange forces Emmanuelle into contact with Mario (Alain Cuny), a gregarious old perv who promises to teach her all of the secret joys and politically revolutionary truths of unbridled eroticism, but mostly ends up pushing her into degrading scenarios and generally making her less of a free woman than ever.

It would be fairly easy to discuss the film according to my custom: to catalogue the missteps director Just Jaeckin and writer Jean-Louis Richard make on the way to their conclusion, to praise Richard Suzuki's gauzy cinematography and the bravery of the location shoot. But then I must confront the reality of a situation wherein if someone asked me, "Tim, what did you do last night?" I'd have to reply, "I spent two hours writing about the plot holes in a softcore porno". Nobody wants to be in that situation.

At any rate, I don't know what to say about the story, really. Here's the thing: on paper, this looks like a film about a woman dissatisfied with her sex life being exposed to frontiers she never dreamt of thanks to a host of sexually liberated women; and this is of course a good thing. But what ho, there is this tricky twist, and we find that Emmanuelle's attempts to find fulfillment have left her trapped in Mario's sadistic web, where she is given as the prize in a kickboxing tournament and gang-raped in an opium den. Surely, this is not a good thing; surely, the filmmakers want us to ask probing questions in our souls, about the limits and the dark side of sexual freedom. Yessir, that's what it says on paper.

The problem is that Jaeckin either didn't give a damn, or didn't realise what he was doing, or knew that everybody was really coming to see Kristel naked, or wasn't good enough to do what he wanted, because there is absolutely no shift in how he shoots the sex scenes once we flip from the sex-positive "Emmanuelle makes love to kindly women" sequences to the sex-negative "Emmanuelle is treated like Mario's whore" sequences. The movie doesn't feel any different, in other words, no matter how horrid things get. The charitable interpretation is that this makes Emmanuelle an ambiguous film; the grumpy interpretation - that is, mine - is that it's muddled.

Which leaves me where I started: reviewing a porn film. That, or discussing Emmanuelle's history in relationship to the French film industry, and how European exploitation filmmakers dealt with American product, and how Emmanuelle became the highest-grossing domestic film in French history, and how it became the father to all gauzy T&A films from the artsiness of Eyes Wide Shut to the sleaziness of Cinemax at night; but to do so in more than a glancing way would require that I learn a great deal more about the history of porn, and that's just not something I'm willing to do. It's unfortunate enough that I know more about torture movies than anyone else I know; I'm not going to become a smut expert.

Yet expert or not, I do know more than the first thing about exploitation films, and my considered opinion is this: Emmanuelle, though it is more historically significant than any other softcore porno ever made, just isn't that memorable an exploitation film. Ironically, it's exactly because the filmmakers weren't interested in producing just a sex picture. The sex parts of the film, all things considered, are erotic and well-shot. It's the baffling, inscrutable art film that buttresses the sex scenes that just doesn't work for me: not because it is particularly boring, but because it makes no sense, and palpable tastes of something that was included just for the sake of respectability. If there's one thing that raises my hackles, it's a filmmaker pretending to "respectability" in defiance of his or her honest intentions, whether it's in porn or Oscarbait. And it's for that reason that I find Emmanuelle wanting as both cinema and exploitation: not that it tries to be smart, but that it tries and fails so very, very badly.

*Yes, titular", giggle giggle, moving on.