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21 October 2012

Sylvia Kristel (1952 - 2012)


It was so sad to read that Sylvia Kristel passed away last week, only 60 years old. The Dutch actress will always be remembered as Emmanuelle, thanks to the massive soft-porn hit of the 1970’s. Emmanuelle’s sexual adventures attracted 500 million people to the cinema. Incredible. But to me, Kristel was so much more.

Sylvia Kristel
Rumanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin.

Tufty-haired Tomboy
Sylvia Kristel was born in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 1952. She was the daughter of Piet and Jean-Nicholas Ktistel, who ran a hotel in Utrecht. Sylvia and her sister, Marianne, were brought up in Room 21. Unless the hotel was full, and they were shifted, often in the middle of the night, to Room 22 which was like a cupboard. Her parents divorced when she was 14 years old after her father left home for another woman. She had to go to a strict Catholic boarding school and she learned to speak English, French, German and Italian. Kristel began modelling when she was 17, and in 1973 she won the Miss TV Europe contest in London. However her future was not on television but in the cinema. Her film career had started a year earlier with a part in the Dutch thriller Niet voor de poesen/Because of the cats (1972, Fons Rademakers). She also played supporting parts in the Dutch films Naakt over de schutting/Naked Over the Fence (1973, Frans Weisz) starring Rijk de Gooijer, and Frank en Eva/Living Apart Together (1973, Pim de la Parra) with Willeke van Ammelrooy. Winning the TV Europe contest lead to a casting audition in Paris for the title character in the softcore film Emmanuelle (1974, Just Jaeckin) with Alain Cuny. The film was based on Emmanuelle Arsan's autobiographical novel. Although her tufty-haired tomboy appearance was far from the long-locked Eurasian the casting agents and the book's author had imagined, director Just Jaeckin was intrigued by her mix of the sensual and the pure. With her role, she gained overnight controversy and international success and notoriety. Brian Donaldson in The Herald: “In the early Seventies, eroticism was making genuine inroads to the mainstream, with Don't Look Now's ongoing debate over whether Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie actually had intercourse, and the controversial Last Tango In Paris with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. When Emmanuelle came along, it blurred the line between soft-core and the mainstream, and by having a largely plotless tale interspersed with random segments of masturbation, consensual sex and rape plus a scene of a Thai stripper doing unmentionable things with lit cigarettes. Despite some problems in France where for the first six months, the movie was deemed suitable only for porno cinemas rather than respectable film theatres, the first Emmanuelle was an international sensation.” Forty years later, Emmanuelle remains one of the most successful French films ever produced. In total some 500 million people around the world paid to see the sexual adventures of the liberated Frenchwoman.

Julie Christie
Julie Christie. Rumanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin, nr. 43 072.

Typecast as Emmanuelle
Sylvia Kristel also appeared in the sequel Emmanuelle: L'antivierge/ Emmanuelle - The Joys of a Woman (1976, Francis Giacobetti) and other erotic films like La Marge/The Margin (1976, Walerian Borowczyk) with Joe Dallesandro. She also appeared in prestigious non-erotic films, such as Une femme fidèle/A Faithful Woman (1976, Roger Vadim), Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou le dernière fugue/Alice, or the Last Escapade (1977) with Charles Vanel, and the crime comedy René la canne/Rene the Cane (1977, Francis Girod) featuring Gérard Depardieu. But the Emmanuelle franchise proved to be far more profitable for producers and so she appeared in part 3, Goodbye Emmanuelle/Emmanuelle 3 (1980, François Leterrier), and later followed parts 4, 5, 6 and finally in the early 1990’s part 7. So, Kristel found herself typecast as Emmanuelle. She continued to play roles that capitalised upon that image – title roles in an adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981, Just Jaeckin) and in a nudity filled biopic of World War I spy Mata Hari (1985, Curtis Harrington). Her Emmanuelle image followed her to the United States where she played an immigrant maid who seduces a 15-year-old boy (Eric Brown), in the controversial sex comedy Private Lessons (1981, Alan Myerson). Other American film appearances were a part as a stewardess in The Concorde... Airport '79/Airport '79 (1979, David Lowell Rich) with Alain Delon as the captain, and a brief comic turn in the Get Smart revival film The Nude Bomb (1980, Clive Donner). Although Private Lessons was one of the highest grossing independent films of 1981 ($50,000,000 worldwide), Kristel saw none of the profits. She continued to appear in films and over the years, she received good reviews for some of her Dutch films, including Pastorale 1943 (1978, Wim Verstappen), the Knut Hamsun adaptation Mysteries/Evil Mysteries (1980, Paul de Lussanet) with Rutger Hauer, and Lijmen/Het been/The Publishers (2000, Robbe de Hert). In 2006, Kristel received an award at the Tribeca Film Festival, New York for directing the animated short film Topor and Me. After not having acted for eight years, Kristel played a part in the Croatian-French film Two Sunny Days (2010, Ognjen Svilicic) and in the same year she played the mother of the Dutch Trio Lescano in the Italian TV film Le ragazze dello swing/The Swing Girls (2010, Maurizio Zaccaro).

Alain Delon
Alain Delon. Rumanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin.

No Bitterness Or Regret
During her turbulent life, Sylvia Kristel had a string of lovers, including Roger Vadim and Warren Beatty. Her first major relationship was with Belgian author Hugo Claus, twenty-seven years her senior with whom she had a son, Arthur (1975). She left him for British actor Ian McShane, whom she met on the set of the film The Fifth Musketeer (1979, Ken Annakin). They moved in together in Los Angeles where he had promised to help her launch her American career. However their five year affair would lead to no significant career break for Kristel. About two years into the relationship she began using cocaine. This proved to be her downfall, though at the time she thought of it as a necessary fuel to stay in swing. Since McShane, she has been married twice, first only five months to American businessman Alan Turner (1982) and then five years to film producer Phillippe Blot (1986-1991). She spent a decade with Belgian radio producer Fred De Vree before he died. A heavy smoker from the age of eleven, Kristel was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001 and underwent three courses of chemotherapy, and surgery after it spread to her lung. In June 2012, Sylvia Kristel suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in life threatening condition. In her autobiography Nue/Undressing Emmanuelle: A Memoir (2006/2007), she tells about her addictions, and her quest for a father figure. Carole Cadwalladr reviewed the book for The Observer: “it is, all in all, a strangely gripping tale. There's no bitterness or regret, and although there's a Francophone quality to the writing - the use of the present tense, short chapters and liberally sprinkled pensees - it gives the book a reflective edge that lifts it above the kind of celeb memoir commissioned here in Britain.” On 17 October 2012, Sylvia Kristel died in her sleep from esophageal and lung cancer. She was survived by her son, Arthur Claus, and her younger sister, Marianne.


British theatrical trailer for Niet voor de poesen/Because of the Cats (1973). Source: Sicky33 (YouTube).


American theatrical trailer for Emmanuelle (1974). Source: Robatsea2009 (YouTube).

Sources: Carole Cadwalladr (The Observer), Brian Donaldson (The Herald), Film Reference, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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