Born in the Dutch town of Utrecht in September of 1952, Sylvia Kristel grew up the daughter of hoteliers. Living in a hotel provided her with, if not exactly a conventional childhood, certainly an interesting one, as the rotating cast of oddballs that inevitably show up at a hotel, both as guests and staff, provided a sometimes surreal background for Sylvia and her two siblings. When she left to attend a catholic boarding school — something she herself requested — she discovered just how strange her upbringing had been.
For starters, the nuns now in charge of were aghast that a young girl should think it so common to have a nip of cognac. She learned proper manners, proper posture, and became increasingly interested in her own developing body. When her mother accused her of being in love with herself, Sylvia replied that she was not in love with herself; she was getting to know herself. Occasional clashes over cognac aside (as an alternative, she took up smoking unfiltered cigarettes, which for whatever reason, the nuns considered a perfectly acceptable vice for both the girls and themselves), Sylvia enjoyed her time at school and grew fond of the nun, Sister Marie Immaculata, who took the young teen under her wing. They remained pen pals for decades after, and Sister Marie penned one of the most insightful observations about what it was that would later make Sylvia Kristel so captivating for so many:
“You were different. A kind of angel, innocent and impish at the same time. You were keen to learn, I could see your wings growing without knowing where they would take you. You were beautiful, you still are, my girl, graceful, soft and vivacious, funny and sad, different.“
Outside of the school, however, things were falling apart. Her father revealed to the family that he’d been carrying on an affair, and that he and Sylvia’s mother had decided to divorce. His mistress, soon to be his next wife, is described in Kristel’s autobiography, Neu (Undressing Emmanuelle in the US), in decidedly unflattering terms: vindictive, petty, jealous, condescending, controlling. Sylvia, her mother, her brother and sister had to vacate the hotel, which became the property of the father and his new wife. Sylvia’s respite from domestic upheaval — her school — also was forbidden her when her new stepmother decided to flex her muscle and have Sylvia removed from the school, though the woman showed no further interest in parenting Sylvia.
After a brief stint at a Protestant school, where the austere interpretation of life and religion did not suit Kristel (she couldn’t believe how they drained the Virgin Mary of all her vitality and warmth), she enrolled in a dance school and later entered the working world, eventually landing a job as a secretary at a metallurgical company. While visiting the set of the Utrecht Film Festival’s Miss Movies beauty competition with her boyfriend, Kristel was approached by one of the organizers, Jacques Charrier, Brigitte Bardot’s ex-husband and a player in the French movie industry. He was disappointed that Kristel wasn’t one of the pageant contestants, then out of the blue, invited her to Paris, where he promised her an audition for an upcoming film, Closed Shutters, directed by actor-turned-director Jean-Claude Brialy. Although suspicious of such promises, Kristel accepted. She enjoyed Paris, and had a Parisian fling with Charrier, but when it came time for the audition, it never happened. Her French, she was told, wasn’t up to snuff.
Back home, she auditioned for Dutch director Wim Verstappen, fresh off the success of his 1971 film, Blue Movie. Wim suggested Kristel try her hand at modelling, which would give her experience in front of a camera, with lighting and make-up, and the sundry parts shared by still and moving photography. She was a successful model, and at the behest of her mother entered a Miss TV Holland contest, which she won. Kristel’s goal was still the movies, though. At the behest of her modelling agent, she reached out to a casting director named Elly Claus. After a bit of hustling involving Kristel moving to Amsterdam, Claus secured a role for her in a hard-edged Eurocrime film called Because of the Cats.
Based on a series of books by Nicolas Freeling, and with a screenplay by Sylvia Kristel’s eventual landlord/lover Hugo Claus, Because of the Cats begins in a shockingly explicit fashion that makes one think one is about to embark on a particularly sleazy bit of exploitation. A group of well-dressed, apparently well-to-do young men surprise a middle-age couple returning home. They then force the husband to watch while they gang rape his wife, a scene shot in leering, unrelenting fashion. Rape in exploitation filmmaking is often used not so much as a plot point or even as motivation for a character as it is a cheap and easy excuse to fit a little more nudity into a film. The context is unimportant, as far as these films are concerned. And initially, it seems like Because of the Cats is going down that route. But rather than being a perverse attempt at grotesque titillation, this rape proves increasingly harrowing and upsetting. The camera, rather than leering it turns out, is being forced to watch this horrible violation in the same way the husband is, in the same way the wife is forced to endure it. It becomes increasingly disturbing, and rather than working in the way it so often does in exploitation film, by the end, the viewer is unnerved and exhausted.
And then the film shifts gears dramatically, backing away from its opening brutality and settling into a slower police procedural as the story follows the efforts of inspector van der Valk (British actor Bryan Marshall, who played a cop on more British television shows than a person would want to count) to bring these vile young men to justice. The trail leads him away from Amsterdam and into the affluent suburbs where tennis courts and seaside resorts put a smiling mask on a rotting core that cannot or will not accept that such senseless, awful thrill crimes could have been committed by boys who are so rich, so well-bred, and so thoroughly provided for. Crimes are committed by filthy hippies and immigrants; not by white boys in Lacoste sweaters and wingtips.
Although best known today as an early role for Sylvia Kristel, Because of the Cats is surprisingly good for something most people probably go into with low expectations. It’s opening scene was obviously inspired by a similar scene in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial science fiction classic A Clockwork Orange (1971). But as the film continues, it’s less A Clockwork Orange and more an example of the sort of socially conscious “Eurocrime” films being made primarily in Italy during the same time. These films were forged in a cauldron that contained the Red Brigade, the corruption of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s administration, recession, and a dramatic increase in violent crime. Most of them centered on a police inspector who finds himself stymied at every turn by corruption, incompetence, and bureaucratic red tape and so must step outside the bounds of the law in the service of justice. The stage was set as early as 1968, with director Carlo Lizzani’s The Violent Four, AKA Banditi a Milano starring genre staple Tomas Milian and Gian Maria Volontè, who had been in the early Eurocrime films Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and Jean-Pierre Melville’s French noir Le Cercle Rouge (both 1970). However, and although recognized as an Italian genre, the film that would become the Eurocrime/poliziotteschi template was created in the United States, in 1971, with the release of Dirty Harry.
Although often criticized as fascist vigilante fantasies, many of these poliziotteschi were left-leaning in their politics, casting corrupt businessmen, the idle wealthy, and the powerful as their villains. It is into this mold that Because of the Cats fits, although it packs substantially less action (but substantially more full-frontal male nudity). Inspector van de Valk is frustrated by the social prejudice that gives the rich and clean-cut the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t take the law into his own hands to quite the extreme degree as Dirty Harry or the anti-heroes of the Italian poliziotteschi, such as Franco Nero and Maurizio Merli, but he definitely finds he needs to circumvent the system when the system is stacked in favor of the guilty. With its Eurocrime bone fides thus established, Because of the Cats then throws yet another monkey wrench into the works, veering off in it’s final act into the realm of another crime that was still fresh in everyone’s memory: the Manson murders.
In her small role as a member of a female clique that hangs with the roguish young posh boys, Sylvia Kristel has only a couple scenes, but each of them is key to moving the film along. One involves aquatic group sex that turns into murder, while the other is a desperate and teary-eyed confession. Still new to the acting game, she’s prone perhaps to overdo it a little, especially when sharing the screen with understated pros like Bryan Marshall and Sebastian Graham Jones (who, as the owner of an arcade and nightclub, looks like he was dipped in pure essence of Peter Wyngarde). But she acquits herself all right for a newcomer, and there’s a reason she was chosen to be the one gang girl with a more substantial presence. Coincidentally, the film’s female lead is Alexandra Stewart, a Canadian actress who would later star alongside Kristel again some years later in Goodbye, Emmanuelle, the third film in the series that turned Sylvia from wide-eyed starlet to international icon.
After the film, Kristel moved into an apartment owned by poet and novelist Hugo Claus, the ex-husband of Elly Claus. She found Hugo a warm, erudite older man, one who introduced her to a growing circle of intellectuals, artists, and celebrities. Her pursuit of a film career was interrupted in 1973 when she was chosen as a contestant for the Miss TV Europe competition. She won, narrowly edging out Ms. England, Zoe Spink (a victory Kristel, in her autobiography, attributes to Spink answering a question about interests with the response, “I like ponies” instead of the more sophisticated “horseback riding”). The victory put Kristel on the radar across Europe, including contracts with Mercedes Benz (when they offered to give her a car, she asked for the cash equivalent instead, citing her Dutch thriftiness). She began a romance with her friend and landlord, Hugo Claus. Two more small film roles came her way in 1973, in Frank en Eva and Naakt over de schutting (Naked Over the Fence), in which Kristel people get naked and climb over a fence, among other things. All three of her film roles that year required some degree of nudity, a demand that Kristel accepted as part of being a professional, though she considered herself modest in real life.
But these had all been small parts, and brief (if memorable) nudity. On the strength of her success as Miss TV Europe and her few small film appearances, Elly Claus secured Kristel an audition for a daring new movie, one in which the charming young Dutch girl would be the star — and one in which she would be asked to perform nude frequently. The movie was based on an erotic book, popular in the underground and only recently legitimately published. The film’s director intended it to be daring but not vulgar, erotic but not pornographic. Returning home after the meeting, Kristel asked Hugo if he’d ever heard of the book. Hugo laughed. Yes, he’d heard of it. Even read it.
But, he maintained, there was no way European censors would ever allow a film to be made of Emmanuelle…