"Goodbye, Emmanuelle" may be a revealing Sign of the Times.
Along with the defeat of Jimmy Carter and the cancellation of Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," the movie -- now at area theaters -- suggests that certain forms of indulgence are going out of fashion.
"Goodbye, Emmanuelle" (love that title!) is a listless but timely swan song for the most successful soft-core tramp of the '70s. Has Sylvia Kristel, the languorous Dutch mannequin cast as Emmanuelle -- the compliantly insatiable wife of a French libertine -- really faked here last orgasm for the peeping camera? Evidently: and not a delicate twitch too soon from the look of things.
Customers aroused by "Emmanuelle" in 1974 and "Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman" three years later may be bitterly disappointed by this new killjoy of a sequel. The earlier films stopped well short of the hard-core depiction in the sex novels by "Emmanuelle Arsan," the penname of Maryat Rollet-Andriana, the Eurasian wife of a French delegate to UNESCO, but they echoed its polemical dogma: that sexual promiscuity was the only true path to self-knowledge and fulfillment.
"Goodbye, Emmanuelle," however, first misleads its audience into expecting the usual lustful diversion -- and then advocates a sincere change of tune. Unsuspecting fantasy-seekers have a right to feel betrayed when the heroine tires of erotic excess and leaves her dissipated spouse to swing on his lonesome.
Remember the blithe, permissive tone of the ads for the original film? "Emmanuelle is sensual, but she's elegant . . . she's fantasy, but she's fun . . . the first film of its kind that lets you feel good without feeling bad." This probably did express what many patrons desired in public movie eroticism, and the film itself resembled a feature-length wardrobe or cosmetics ad. The first sequel got rather more pornographic and less kitschy, not necessarily an astute realignment for soft-core gratification.
In the farewell sequel, Emmanuelle has had it up to there with fashionable promiscuity. She's about to savor the hidden delights of bourgeois respectability. She and her husband have been relocated to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, following equally exotic residences in Bangkok and Hong Kong. After fleeting encounters with a native girl and assorted social friends and complete strangers, Emmanuelle is attracted to a young filmmaker who responds to her overtures with polite disdain. As I recall, she's always been a sucker for this approach. In this case, the object of her fascination has already turned his back on promiscuity and persuades the heroine to follow in his reactionary footsteps. And why not? If Emmanuelle and her husband haven't exhausted all the possiblities open to swingers by now, they never will.
Anticipating this turnaround, director Francois Leterrier discreetly nips most of the sex scenes in the bud. Even when he lingers, erotic fantasy is drenched in cold water.
Literally: The most prolonged encounter depicts Emmanuelle and her upstanding new lover copulating in the surf. As the waves buffet the performers on what appears to be a frigid morning, one's curiosity about this picturesque variation is rapidly overwhelmed by concern for the players. You're tempted to shout "Cut!" and call them in to bundle up and take a snifter or two of brandy.
Kristel has never acted a lick in a conventional sense, and one doubts if an emotionally expressive wrinkle will ever mar the placidity of her girlish demeanor. She has always been dramatically more effective when stretching out to be stroked and nuzzled than when making sexual advances. The first sequel was coarser in part because Emmanuelle had changed from sexual prey into predator, and Kristel's personality is better suited to the former. In the act of kissing off the character, "Goodbye, Emmanuelle" has the good sense to restore Kristel to her supine glamour.
It's not acting, exactly, but it's a gift. There's no reason to lose sight of it entirely now that Emannuelle has decided that vice has lost its charm.