Part 1: Just as a Sigh Upon Their Desire

There was something about it that made it different. Something about her. Sexy, sure, but it went beyond that. Alluring. Like a smooth cocktail lounge tune accompanying you on a breezy drive along the Cote D’azur. Someone at a party with a sly look, catching your eye and beckoning you away to a more secluded spot. Something sultry and smelling of wild flowers and coconut and basic human lust, swatched in stylish attire and always, always surrounded by wicker furniture. This was the world of Emmanuelle (1974, Just Jaeckin), a world awash in desire and experimentation and unbridled misbehaving and never burdened with consequence. A place that winked at you and told you, yes, it was fine to feel that way, and anyway, wouldn’t you like to see the bedroom…

For all the reputation the 1950s have for buttoned-up repression, it was also the decade in which new populations of suburbanites started experimenting with swinging and spouse swapping, or with heading back into the big, seedy city to sample the polyamorous thrills of clubs like Plato’s Retreat. It was a revival of the flirtation with sexual frankness that occurred during the 1920s, when people — especially women and homosexuals — rejected old attitudes and started celebrating life and pleasure, something that was sorely needed after the horrors of World War I. It’s not surprising that the same thing would happen after the even greater horrors of WWII, followed so closely by the Korean War and some complicated business brewing in a place called Vietnam.

The ’50s were the era of publishers releasing banned books such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and sometimes going to prison for it. This was the era of “art and photography” magazines and “educational” films about nudist colonies. This was the era when a young magazine man in Chicago lucked into ownership of a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe and built around it the first issue of a magazine called Playboy. Books banned in the United States found publishers in France, and American servicemen and tourists were willing smugglers when it came to bringing these books back to the United States. European movies began to re-introduce sex. A long winter had passed, and people were looking to get naked.

Such was the mood when a book titled Emmanuelle appeared in the finer underground adult bookstores of France.

Idleness as an Artform

Before there was Emmanuelle, however, there was Emmanuelle. Emmanuelle Arsan, to be precise. Marayat Rollet-Andriane to be even more precise. Born Marayat Bibidh in Bangkok in January 1932, she was the “real-life Emmanuelle,” the one on whose life Emmanuelle was based and which she purportedly wrote, or at least contributed to. She was a stunning beauty with a sharp intellect, boundless curiosity, and an uninhibited spirit. With her husband, French diplomat Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane, she cut a path through the international jet-set that made her an icon of sexual liberation. And yet we know so little about her, and probably half of what we think we know is hearsay and legend. She remains an enigma despite how much has written about her. She has transcended into the realm of the mythological.

Most articles that reference her repeat the few scant confirmed details of her life. She co-starred alongside Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles (and in bed, or so the rumors say) and was the model for one of the most famous works of erotica, the authorship of which was eventually attributed to her (though these days most agree that it was her husband who actually wrote it). Yet primary sources about her are difficult to come by. Interviews are almost non-existent. When they do exist, they are brief puff pieces. There seems to be no thorough examination of her life, very little beyond rumor and gossip. She appeared in and co-produced a film called Laure, starring Annie Belle and as a reaction to losing creative control over the film bearing the name Emmanuelle. She and her husband retired to a polyamorous life in the country with a third companion and lived quite happily. The tragic circumstances of her final years, in which a genetic disease ravaged her, provides a harrowing end to an amazing life, but it is the life that should be celebrated, rather than the death mourned. But then, the life is still so much mystery. Perhaps that is for the best. The mystery. She remains, that way, forever Emmanuelle.

Marayat Bibidh was a smart girl who left Thailand to pursue education in Switzerland. In 1948, she met hyphenated-name aficionado Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane, a French diplomat nearly twice her age (she was sixteen at the time; he, thirty). Louis-Jacques was a libertine, part of a new Bohemian bunch making waves in the wake of WWII. One of his close friends, another member of France’s diplomatic brigade named Philippe Baude, was himself attached to a woman named Suzanne Brøgger, one of the preeminent voices of the sexual liberation movement and a champion of free love and polyamory. Marayat was impressed with the world Louis-Jacques offered her, one filled with new locations, interesting people, glamorous parties, and sexual frankness. She and Brøgger became friends and lovers, even posing nude together.

Marayat with Suzanne Brøgger.

In 1956, when she was in her early twenties, Marayat and Louis-Jacques wed. They remained married, though not monogamous, for the rest of their lives. When UNESCO posted Louis-Jacques to Bangkok, Marayat returned to the city of her birth. Bangkok was a different city than it is today. Its reputation as a mecca for sex tourism would not develop until it became the default for American servicemen on leave during the Vietnam war. It was a deeply conservative city then and actually remains so today despite its international reputation as a sin city. When Marayat and her husband arrived in town, things started to change, at least among the population of Europeans in the city looking for an excuse to indulge in a little mischief. A cabal of like-minded decadents gravitated toward the couple, consisting mostly of the sort of jaded diplomats, intriguers, amateur adventurers, hustlers, and decadent jet-setters you would want in such a situation.

Among their associated was Italian prince Alessandro “Ruspoli” Ruspoli, the archetypal globetrotting playboy described by The Rake online as “an enlightened party-prince who jostled the tenses of his aristocratic family history, a hedonist passion for the present and a clairvoyant sense of style.” He was the decadent’s decadent, philosophizing on the virtues of a lack of virtue and counting among his friends Brigitte Bardot, Salvador Dali, and Truman Capote. He shared an apartment with Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim, himself a vocal proponent of free love. Orson Welles taught him hypnotism, and Jean Cocteau helped him quit coke. He is said to have been the inspiration for Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. He was a patron of the arts and dedicated to meditation and, naturally, silk robes.

The Rollet-Andrianes adopted Dado as their sexual guru, their “high priest of love” as they described him. Through the prince, the couple expanded their social sexual circle to Rome, Venice, and Paris. In 1959, a chronicle of their libertine escapades appeared, though at the time it did not name them by name. Nor was there an author attributed to the novel, though it would acquire one in subsequent printings: Emmanuelle Arsan.

The Mile High Book Club

Emmanuelle is set in the midst of the burgeoning jet age, and it’s opening sexual escapade remains the template for decades worth of fantasies. For those of us traveling in the age of microscopic seating, inedible food, and fellow passengers shuffling on board in flip-flops, the early days of international jet travel can seem a myth. Even Emmanuelle would find it challenging in the modern setting — even in first class — to indulge in the saucy escapades that initiate us into her world. One simply hasn’t the leg room these days to complete any but the simplest of clandestine dalliances, and the bathrooms of a modern aeroplane provide inadequate respite as they are often tiny and, worse, filthy and smell of urine and chemicals. Sex in a filthy bathroom has its place, but that’s not the image one usually conjures when daydreaming about the Mile High Club.

But when Emmanuelle steps aboard a plane bound for Thailand, one can forget the shabby conditions of modern travel and the daunting logistics of aeroplane sex and simply revel in a fantasy where it’s all much easier and much more elegant. Or it would be if Emmanuelle, upon admiring the shapely stewardess, doesn’t have her impish machinations derailed by the arrival of two obnoxious school children who plant themselves in the seats across the aisle from her. I Guess the golden age of travel wasn’t always so different from our own. Luckily, her seatmate is a handsome, salt-and-pepper haired man who shields her from the children. Eventually, the subtle vibration of the plane and the novelty of flight lulls Emmanuelle into a languid, aroused state in which she cannot help but do a little personal exploration. When the man next to her catches on to what is happening, he is more than willing to provide assistance (the kids across the aisle are, mercifully, asleep) and she to reciprocate his ministrations.

A second, less covert coupling occurs after their layover (err, so to speak), this one involving Emmanuelle giving herself over to her lust, stripped completely naked, stretching out and straddling the mysterious man in his seat. The explosive conclusion to their flight serves as an irreverent baptism into the world of Emmanuelle. This is not necessarily a reflection of reality, just as the reality of jet-set glamor pales in comparison to our impression of it. So let’s stick to the realm of fantasy, Emmanuelle whispers to us, where the winking stewardess is complicit in letting you pull off your escapade, and where asking her whether one can enjoy a bath on the flight, the answer is, “Yes, but the baths in the airport are much more luxurious.”

After Emmanuelle’s flings aboard the aeroplane, the book settles into an episodic recounting of Emmanuelle’s sexual escapades through the world of bored European expatriates and professional bon vivants, men and women alike. The first half of Emmanuelle finds her settling into the groove of daily life among the jaded wives of the diplomatic corps. She vacillates between finding them amusing and tedious, and she is annoyed that they regard her somewhat condescendingly as a prude because she doesn’t throw herself at every man who comes her way or measure her success as a woman purely on how many men she can seduce. The only women Emmanuelle finds tolerable are Marie-Ange (a saucy young teenager) and Bee (a tomboyish American model).

Most of her sexual encounters during this portion of the book are with her husband; or they are sessions of mutual masturbation with young libertine Marie-Ange, fumbling experimentation with Bee, or steamy sessions with another diplomat’s wife, the athletic and occasionally irritating Ariane. Ariane is, in many ways, the anti-Emmanuelle. They are both open to sexual adventure, but for Ariane, it’s a competition. Emmanuelle finds it distasteful to use sex as competition, as a source for bragging. It should be a celebration, an education, a pleasure, and an art; free of the crass vulgarity of politics, religious hang-ups, and guilt. Emmanuelle does not possess the predatory appetite that makes Ariane and the other wives seem petty and manipulative, less interested in enjoying sex than in simply getting it over with so they can add another notch to the belt.

In the second half of the book, Marie-Ange introduces Emmanuelle to Mario, a thinly-veiled version of Dado Ruspoli. The teen hopes Mario will help Emmanuelle realize her full erotic potential. Mario is responsible for most of the book’s ham-handed, ludicrously pompous, sexual philosophy. As breezy and fun and erotic as the first half of the book is, the arrival of Mario stops it dead in its tracks, trading in the sex and playfulness for endless, redundant, largely nonsensical rambling that seems never to end and turns the entire book flaccid. Instead of being erotic, Emmanuelle becomes a dissertation about the erotic.

One desperately yearns for the return of any character, even Ariane, if it will free us from Mario’s interminable self-indulgent waxing on the nature of love versus sensuality versus the erotic arts. Even one sympathetic to his philosophy will find themselves sorely by Mario’s endless, repetitive rambling. Emmanuelle herself considers him a windbag, but for some reason, she still spends time with him and considers him worth listening to — this despite the fact that he is really no different from the chattering wives around the pool: all bragging, no shagging.

Emmanuelle is involved in two sex acts with Mario, and neither of them is interesting. One is downright uncomfortable as the otherwise breezy sex-positive explicitness of the book is undone when Mario takes Emmanuelle on an odyssey to a seedy phallic temple where she is forced to give some stranger a blowjob. The writing desperately tries to make us think she begins to enjoy it, but it rings false and fouls up the book almost as effectively as Mario himself. The second go-round is a threesome with Mario and an anonymous Thai guy, and while the writing in that section is dull, at least Mario shuts the fuck up for a little bit while he bangs the other guy.

And thus does Emmanuelle end, without recovering the erotic glory of its first half, without ever making up for all the time we spent being phenomenally bored by Mario. Luckily, the first half of the novel is light and sensual; just stop reading when Emmanuelle leaves for the diplomatic party. The prose is somewhere between Anais Nin and an eloquent Penthouse Forums letter: playful, sexy, explicit, tastefully vulgar, but occasionally opting for a curiously unappealing description of something that shouldn’t be unappealing. A woman becoming wet when aroused probably shouldn’t be described as “moistened my mucous membranes,” regardless of how impressive the alliteration. Even if you drop the “mucous,” saying something like “moisten my membranes” will tend to stop a lovemaking session as sure as Mario showing up to ramble about “sensuality versus the erotic arts.” Maybe it sounded better in the original French.

But when the book is sexy, it’s really sexy. The encounter on the aeroplane is sublime, as is Emmanuelle’s first halting masturbation session with Marie-Ange. The discovery that Louis-Jacques, rather than Marayat, was responsible for most, if not all, of the book’s content has seen the book sometimes cast as male wish-fulfillment —the story of a beautiful, intelligent, sexual woman who gives herself with abandon and without regret or inhibition to any act of pleasure. And while that is a pretty heavy dose of male fantasy, one could argue that just because it’s male fantasy doesn’t mean it can’t be female fantasy as well. Well, at least until Mario arrives. I can’t imagine spending time with him being anyone’s fantasy.

One thing above all others set Emmanuelle apart from other spicy novels of the day: it’s not here to punish. The deluge of sexy pulp paperbacks that hit the markets during the 1950s often punished their characters for their sexuality — especially if they were gay or lesbian characters. What sets Emmanuelle apart from its pulp bedfellows is that at no point is Emmanuelle expected to feel shame for what she does. At no point is she punished. No one is punished, except of course for anyone cornered by Mario at a party. Emmanuelle posits a world in which men and women can writhe about with one another in various sweaty, unclothed combinations without it being “sinful” and without it calling for some sort of horrific retribution. As would later become the tagline for the film adaptation, here was something that allowed you to “feel good about feeling good.”