(Just Jaeckin, France, 1974)


Anatomy of a Sex-Film


Sex-film? Already the term gives us trouble. Would a sex-film of the softcore variety, such as Emmanuelle, be an object labelled as such by virtue of its contents, i.e., full-frontal nudity or explicit/graphic sex scenes? Or does a movie become a sex-film when it can be used in a certain way by the viewer; when it functions as an accessory, a sex-aid, something to trigger you off and set you going? Is a sex-film on the screen or in the head?


It’s worth establishing this initial distinction, because it opens up intriguing possibilities. If (as I tend to believe) a sex-film is simply something that serves you momentarily in the process of piecing together the day’s (or night’s) sexual fantasy, then fairly obviously you are not bound to the specific type of viewing experience Emmanuelle is going to give you; you don’t need a particular kind of sexual content, or a precisely set of heavily coded sexual images, functioning as some well-cut key to unlock you, or a well-timed script to cue you in. Anything can be included in the working of your sex-machine; any trick will do, if it works for you.


What is this thing called a sex-film? Precisely anything you want to call a sex-film, anything you can use, anything that appeals. Cartoons, advertisements, musicals, Super-8 films, certain fleeting image/sound combinations … these are a few of my favourite things.


So, since anything will do, here’s Emmanuelle. Why do I want to talk about this film, defend it, use it as an example to stake out a particular position? I assert immediately, in the face of a barrage of 1970s/early ‘80s theoretical literature, that I think this movie is, in an important sense, harmless; it’s a waste of time to decry it as sexist, patriarchal, voyeuristic or fetishistic. “There is not and never has been any ideology” (Deleuze & Guattari). It’s often difficult (if not impossible) to argue with the new army of moralists on the left who are presently militating against pornography in “all its forms” (including the decidedly softcore form of Emmanuelle). But, after all, we have to defend our desires.


The fault (as I see it) in contemporary debates begins in treating so-called pornographic artifacts as tangible objects, where every image, every gesture, conveys heavy, brutal meanings. And then moving on to treat an individual’s sexual arousal as something mechanically produced, created directly by those images and gestures. What results from such a line of argument (or theory) is a certainly dramatic, but highly dubious, portrait of a regime of sexual fascism – i.e., the society we are actually living in, a capitalist economy of desire running on techniques of coercion and brainwashing. With (and how often do we hear this at present?) all of us, man or woman, constituting the sorry victims of this relentless exposure to porn (writ large now as virtually the entire sphere of visual representation), degraded and reduced like the models in cheesy erotica photos.


Sigh. Whether the discussion focuses on what’s on the screen or what’s in the head, the category of the sex-film comes out all wrong – badly described and hopelessly positioned.


How does Emmanuelle get itself known as a sex-film? By a type of social and cultural contract: come into this theatre (a voice – the promotional voice – says), come in and we’ll agree to make this a time and a space for the free mental exercise of your desires. As an audience member, you enter primed, with your sex-machine already working at a steady intensity. And if you don’t arrive in this way, if you enter “cold”, then nothing will work; you’ll go away dissatisfied, since you can’t just be prodded any-which-way by the film in order to produce an instantaneous reflex of sexual arousal (although this is sometimes what people seem to expect). But if you do come in suitably primed, it follows that anything (hypothetically) will turn you on – if you want to be turned on.


In this sense, the film (any film) is just part of the décor, the ambience, the atmosphere – it participates in a mental, imaginary happening that only happens when you want it to happen. You come in with your sex, and the film picks up on your flow: that’s when it becomes a sex-film.


Now, sure, Emmanuelle has a content that is both specific and familiar within a genre of the sex-film – but that’s the by-product of convention, repetition, when the contract I have described turns into a ritual, and the space of the theatre becomes like another world, detached from time and history: sex-films unwinding in continuous sessions at (for instance) Melbourne’s Barrel cinema, with no beginnings or endings of any real significance. That voice I’ve already evoked, it has talked things over with us and we have agreed: for the sake of getting this show on the road, let’s agree to accord these various images and sounds a sexual-arousal value; let them keep that value, consistently, for the times when we will meet here. It’s like agreeing to gamble in a casino – tokens in place of money for the sake of the game, an abstract symbolism, an established signifier/signified relation. And there’s as little resemblance between a sex-film and real sex as there is between a round disc and a fifty-dollar note.


Everyone knows this, at some level. It’s just stupid to condemn a sex-film for its distorted, degraded or ideologically loaded representation of sexual acts since, in the sex-film, sex is precisely (and to oppose the one-to-one assumption of common sense) what is not represented. Depicted, in a certain sense, but not represented. An absence. Let me explain.


Take Emmanuelle:  a rapid condensation of less than half-a-dozen familiar filmic signs, such as slow, heavy music or a close-up of a woman (Sylvia Kristel as Emmanuelle) tossing back her head and moaning with ecstasy. This isn’t my sex or your sex or anyone’s sex; it’s barely even a sign, index or metaphor of sex. Rather, it’s just the sex-film going through the necessary motions in order for it to be classified (even banned) as a sex-film, fulfilling that certain contract in order to be able to enter that special time and space. In itself, the sex-film is exactly nothing, a zero. You are the person who changes it (as the song says) from nothing to one.


Emmanuelle goes through its motions, replays the conventions of its designated history as an up-market, semi-arty sex-film – all the while assuring us of the total meaninglessness of every one of its gestures. Arriving with the lure of a certain slice of respected French literary erotica, and decked out accordingly with pseudo-serious dialogues concerning the metaphysics of copulation, the sexual mores of the middle-classes or the erotic practices of Asia, the film very quickly disrobes, stripping away its themes and pretensions, and gets down to the business: its inventory of certified sex-film gestures.


Nothing matters, nothing stands for anything, nothing is meaningfully different from anything else in a sex-film: any combination of male and female in any position, any number, any setting, for any reason whatsoever. Characters dissolve and bodies intertwine. The only logic is an intensive one, affirmative, a logic of plurality, multiplicity, all-in-difference. Emmanuelle will reappear a hundred times, as Emmanuelle the Anti-Virgin (aka Emmanuelle 2, 1975), as Emiliene or Emanuelle (one m), as Carry On Emmanuelle (1978), even as Black Emanuelle in Africa and elsewhere [1975-1983]. She will never be anything more than a vague name and an excuse to get the sex-game rolling again.


My final defence of Emmanuelle as a sex-film has nothing specifically to do with mental or physical sex. Rather, it relates to a certain inspiration I receive from the film, a certain model it proposes to me. In the world sketched by a sex-film, everything is sex: it’s the only thing the characters talk about, it’s in their clothes, their furniture, their bookshelves, meals, sporting games – simply everything. This is not, obviously enough, a principle derived from reality, practicality or believability in either art or life, at least as we are brought up to perceive these realms. It’s a wild, obsessive, manic principle of desire: desire that has invaded everything, every part of the body as well as everything beyond the body … the whole world, in fact.


Only sex-films, it seems, have laid claim to this field of desire. But the situation need not stay that way. Will we one day have a political pornography, a romantic pornography, a comic pornography, a playful pornography? We can only wait and hope.

: This previously unpublished fragment is an off-cut from the feverish months I spent, during my 23rd year, composing the long, polemical essay “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” in 1982 – nominally about pornography, but really about a whole set of then-furious debates around the representation of sexuality anywhere in cinema. In this Emmanuelle piece is the echo of many theoretical texts I was immersed in discovering and customising for myself at the time, such as those of Jean Baudrillard and Deleuze & Guattari. The larger work, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, now forms part of the PDF booklet Golden Eighties, Volume 2, which is Reward Level 7 of my Patreon campaign (https://www.patreon.com/adrianmartin).

ANOTHER sex-film: Sex and Zen

© Adrian Martin October 1982

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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