Sylvia Kristel, the Dutch actress who became an overnight sensation by starring in the 1974 French erotic film Emmanuelle, died yesterday in the Netherlands. She was battling cancer and had suffered a stroke last July, though her agent Marieke Verharen reported that the actress passed peacefully in her sleep. She was 60.
Born in Utrecht, Holland, in 1952, Kristel had already done modeling work, including some nude modeling, and had won two beauty competitions – Miss TV Holland and Miss TV Europe – when she auditioned for director Just Jaeckin for the lead role in Emmanuelle. Although just 21, she said it was her natural grace and lack of inhibition that won her the part.
The film centered on a bored diplomat’s wife who fills her time with a series of romantic trysts. It’s combination of frankness and depth of character caught critics off guard and helped to usher in the 1970’s “Porn Chic” era. As Roger Ebert wrote in 1975-
There have been movies influenced by other movies, and directors influenced by other directors, but Emmanuelle may be the first movie influenced by magazine centerfolds.
What makes the film work is the performance of Sylvia Kristel… [who] projects a certain vulnerability that makes several of the scenes work.
The performers in most skin flicks seem so impervious to ordinary mortal failings, so blase in the face of the most outrageous sexual invention, that finally they just become cartoon characters. Kristel actually seems to be present in the film, and as absorbed in its revelations as we are.
Although she made a few more films in Europe, including the first of many sequels to Emmanuelle, Kristel traveled to Hollywood in 1978 where she spent seven years appearing in such films as The Fifth Musketeer, the Get Smart film The Nude Bomb, The Concorde: Airport ’79 and Private Lessons. Unfortunately, her career stagnated when she found herself being offered more and more roles that traded on her famous breakout performance. She eventually left Hollywood for the South of France where she took up painting. Having smoke since she was 11, Kristel was diagnosed with both throat and lung cancer in the early 2000s and fought the disease over the last decade.