Sylvia Kristel dies at 60, trapped by the erotic film that made her name

Friday, 19 October 2012 - 12:56pm IST Updated: Friday, 19 October 2012 - 12:57pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Kristel became a global sensation in 1974 when, as a convent-educated ingenue, she appeared in the French film about a diplomat's wife who embarks upon a series of sexual adventures.
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Sylvia Kristel, the actress who brought erotica into the mainstream as the star of Emmanuelle but found herself unable to escape its tawdry associations, has died of cancer at the age of 60.

Kristel became a global sensation in 1974 when, as a convent-educated ingenue, she appeared in the French film about a diplomat's wife who embarks upon a series of sexual adventures.

The Dutch actress hoped that the film would be a springboard to Hollywood success, but she could not escape being typecast. "I was dressed but people preferred me naked," she lamented in her 2007 memoir, Undressing Emmanuelle.

She craved fame but ended up with notoriety. As she told The Daily Telegraph in one of her final interviews: "I was on a train and I couldn't jump off. What is it they say? Be careful what you wish for."

Twice divorced and with her money gone - lost to alcohol and cocaine addiction, and to paying off her second husband's debts - Kristel spent her final years in a small apartment above an Amsterdam cafe.

She attempted to forge a second career as an artist and lived on the modest proceeds, supplemented by money from the occasional television interview.

In 2002, she was diagnosed with throat cancer which spread to her lung and liver. She suffered a stroke in July and died in her sleep on Wednesday night. She is survived by her son, Arthur.

Just Jaeckin, the director of Emmanuelle, said of Kristel, "She was a wonderful woman - very pure, very innocent. But the mark that Emmanuelle left on her was very hard for her."

Kristel was a 22-year-old beauty queen when she was cast in the film. As an unknown actress, she was paid $6,000 and was dismayed to discover that her voice had been dubbed before the film's release.

She appeared in French cinema before moving to Hollywood, having affairs along the way with Roger Vadim, Gerard Depardieu and Warren Beatty.

There was also a turbulent four-year relationship with Ian McShane, the British actor, about whom she wrote scathingly in her memoirs.

One of her US films, a sex comedy called Private Lessons, was a hit, but her years in Los Angeles were marked by struggles with alcohol and drugs, and she was unable to break away from being typecast in erotic roles. In 1981 she starred in an adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover, also directed by Jaeckin.

By the early 1990s she was back in the Netherlands and reduced to appearing in a series of Emmanuelle sequels.

Only when she became an artist in her fifties did Kristel achieve a measure of the respectability that eluded her during her film career. A short animation about her foray into the art world, Topor and Me, was shown at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival in New York to critical acclaim.

Speaking to the Telegraph in 2007, Kristel maintained that she was nothing like the character that made her famous. "The vamp? No, that was never me," she said.

Actress whose role as Emmanuelle in the 1970s was seen as the last word in liberated sexuality

Sylvia Kristel, who has died aged 60, starred in a series of notorious 1970s soft-porn films beginning with Emmanuelle (1974), which followed the sexual exploits of a bored young diplomat's wife in the fleshpots of Thailand.

Promoted under the slogan "X was never like this", the film generated numerous profitable sequels and countless imitations, thanks to Sylvia Kristel's erotic portrayal of the half-innocent, half sex-crazed Emmanuelle as she gambols naked, joins the "mile-high club", simulates oral sex, fumbles with other women and fakes orgasm. Though clumsily directed, badly acted and with risible, badly-dubbed dialogue, to audiences of the early 1970s Emmanuelle looked like the last word in liberated sexuality.

Made when Sylvia Kristel was 22, the film became a sensation, with worldwide audiences estimated at some 650 million. In France, where it was originally banned for six months, Emmanuelle became the country's highest-grossing film of all time and was screened at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees in Paris for an unbroken nine years.

Sylvia Kristel also starred in a series of sequels - Emmanuelle 2 in 1975, Goodbye Emmanuelle in 1977 and Emmanuelle 4 in 1984. "I realised that the public had been deeply affected by Emmanuelle," she declared, "and wanted to prolong their fantasy, to keep me within it, symbolic and naked, idealised and necessary."

But her career in sex films drew her down into a netherworld of moguls on the make, who cast her in a succession of even more tawdry pictures that sought to cash in on her reputation as a sex-kitten.

Her autobiography, published in English as Undressing Emmanuelle (2007), also disclosed a turbulent personal life blighted by addictions to drugs and alcohol, and her search for a father figure which had resulted in several abusive relationships with older men.

She had been scratching a living as a clerk to supplement her earnings as a struggling young actress when she was cast in the title role of the original Emmanuelle. The film was promoted by a photograph of Sylvia Kristel seated topless in a wicker chair, toying suggestively with a string of pearls. "At last," ran the caption, "a film that won't make you feel bad about feeling good."

In 1977, as she sought to reinvent her acting career in Hollywood, she began a turbulent affair with the British actor Ian McShane, best-known as the cavalier antiques dealer Lovejoy in the successful British television series, whom she met on the set of the film The Fifth Musketeer.

The couple lived together in Los Angeles, where Sylvia Kristel took a cameo role as an air stewardess in Airport '79. By then she had begun using cocaine, which she described as a "supervitamin". McShane once said of Sylvia Kristel that she was unable to walk and talk at the same time; she returned the compliment in her autobiography, observing that he was too short to become a major star and revealing how she had miscarried the baby she was expecting by him after a fight led to her falling down the stairs.

But drugs and alcoholism, combined with management problems, eventually sent her career into terminal decline. When The Daily Telegraph writer Mick Brown interviewed her in 2007, she was living alone in a tiny flat above a cafe in Amsterdam, taking the occasional acting job to pay her bills. "The innocence has long since fled," he noted, "but the ghost of beauty still haunts her face".

One of three children of a hotelier, Sylvia Kristel was born in Utrecht on September 28 1952 and brought up in the city's Station Hotel by alcoholic parents who would turf Sylvia and her younger sister out of their beds if the hotel was full and a late guest arrived, putting them into a stuffy boxroom instead. As a child Sylvia suffered the unwelcome attentions of a hotel manager who, on different occasions, stabbed her with a fork and bound her wrists before licking her face. Her parents divorced when she was 14 and she remained haunted by the memory of catching her father in bed with another woman.

On completing her convent school education Sylvia took a series of dead-end office jobs, supplementing her wages by taking assignments as a photographic model. As a child she had displayed an urge towards exhibitionism, dancing naked on the hotel restaurant tables to the astonishment of passers-by (her grandmother, concluding that she was irredeemably vain, would cover the mirrors with newspaper), and in the early 1970s she acted in a handful of mildly titillating films. She first appeared nude in Because of the Cats (1973), a Dutch-English co-production, and the same year, encouraged by her mother, won the Miss TV Europe contest.

The following year she was approached by the film producer Yves Rousset-Rouard, who had bought the rights to Emmanuelle, a 1950s novel by Emmanuelle Arsan. Sylvia had no difficulty convincing the director, the improbably-named Just Jaeckin, that she was perfect for the title role, despite not looking remotely like the long-haired Eurasian of the book.

Having signed a three-picture contract, Sylvia Kristel negotiated a fee approaching $100,000 to star in the sequel, Emmanuelle, The Joys Of A Woman (better known as Emmanuelle 2), in the following year. She went on to make films with Roger Vadim (with whom she had an affair) and Claude Chabrol, and co-starred with Gerard Depardieu (with whom she also had an affair) in Rene La Canne (1976). Inevitably, too, she added a notch to the bedpost of Warren Beatty.

But, as she recalled, people preferred seeing her naked, and she was repeatedly typecast in the role of seductress, notably as Constance Chatterley in an adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981) and in Mata Hari (1985), a film biography of the First World War spy, in which she played the title role. She appeared as Agent 34-26-34 in The Nude Bomb in 1980, and the following year played a housemaid who seduces a 15-year-old boy in the controversial sex comedy Private Lessons, one of the highest grossing independent films of 1981.

In a television documentary, Hunting Emmanuelle, in 2006, she described how her cocaine habit caused her to make several errors of judgment, including her decision on an impulse to sell her interest in Private Lessons to her agent for $150,000; the film went on to gross more than $26 million in the United States alone.

When her Hollywood career fizzled out in the late 1980s, she returned to Europe and dabbled as an artist, exhibiting her work in Los Angeles, Brussels and Amsterdam. With her second husband, a paparazzo photographer and film producer, Phillipe Blot, whose projects she helped to finance, she made a motorcycling film called The Arrogant, and another called Dracula's Widow (both 1988). But by the time they divorced she was so badly in debt that the bailiffs were called in and she lost her apartment in Los Angeles, and houses in Holland, Paris and Ramatuelle on the French Riviera. When she wrote to ask for the return of a few family photos the bailiffs refused on the ground that her "personal souvenirs may have a market value".

To earn money for herself, she agreed to make a further Emmanuelle film, Emmanuelle 7 (1993), this time cast as a business-suited brothel madam, in which all the sex scenes were performed by younger actors.

A heavy smoker since the age of 11, Sylvia Kristel was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001. Cancer was also detected in a lung the following year, but she was given the all-clear following an operation. In June this year she was taken to hospital in Amsterdam after suffering a stroke, which forced the postponement of further treatment, for cancer of the liver.

Sylvia Kristel's first marriage, which was brief, was to an American businessman. After her marriage to Phillippe Blot, she lived for 10 years with a Belgian radio producer, Freddy De Vree, who died in 2004.

She is survived by her partner, Peter Brul, and a son from an early relationship with Hugo Claus, a Belgian artist and writer.

Sylvia Kristel, born September 28 1952, died October 17 2012

 


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