More than Emmanuelle: Sylvia Kristel in Julia

By James Kenney

Cult Epics has put out an interesting new box set (available in Blu-ray or DVD), the Sylvia Kristel 1970s Collection, a fine selection of 1970s features presenting the star who became an international celebrity due to her lead in the Emmanuelle series.  This collections intrigues because it offers a rather diverse assortment of films that won’t necessarily thrill those looking for more Emmanuelle-type pleasures, but nevertheless should please fans of overall 70s Euro-cinema with its excellent transfers and plentiful extras, including commentaries and a small book filled with production information and choice stills and posters.  Philistine that I am, I not surprisingly jumped past the arty stuff and went straight for the softcore sex comedy-drama feature Kristel filmed just before Emmanuelle that was released in the wake of that film’s epic international success, Julia.

Directed by Sig Rothemund, Julia presents Kristel as the virginal fantasy object of Pauli, played by Ekkehardt Belle, an also virginal young man back from boarding school enjoying a summer holiday. In the boy-becomes-a-man sweepstakes, Julia isn’t quite as sweet-hearted as the later My Tutor featuring Caren Kaye and Matt Lattanzi, but it sure beats Kristel’s own shoddy Private Lessons from 1981.  It delivers some unexpected pathos at certain key moments, including the two leads’ closing moments together before Pauli returns to reality, and surprises with untelegraphed dramatic developments in what is otherwise a sunny, upbeat film. 

A character’s death midway through is entirely unanticipated and portends the film going in a different direction than we might have expected at the outset, but, lamentably, the episode is fumbled in that all the other characters seem to forget instantly what happened.  And while I think a bit of the recent trigger-warning craze is patronizing (let us, the gatekeeepers who can take it, warn you of all the things you won’t be able to handle in a creative work), the horny young Pauli’s attempt to rape the striking young family maid halfway through, due to his frustrations over his unreciprocated desire for Julia, is a grave misstep.

The film understands this scene is troubling; it’s not played for humor or anything, and his father, played by Jean-Claude Bouillon, punches him in the face after, but it also suggests it’s a status-quo part of a man’s growing process; the film doesn’t characterize him as the troubled sociopath he clearly is from the evidence on-screen.  And, once again, the development isn’t followed through upon, and we’re supposed to go back to empathizing with the young lad’s plight.

Even as a young man back in 1980’s I would have of course hated this character after such a sequence, we weren’t total Neanderthals in that faraway era.  So best to pretend the sequence never happens (it has no relevance on anything before or after) and enjoy the rest of the well-shot, not uninteresting film, which contains some good performances (Kristel is quite compelling in her role, but the whole cast is good), nice-looking women, and picturesque Italian locations.

Jeremy Richey provides a thorough, intelligent commentary on the film, and has also written an impressive-looking book on Kristel that on the basis of this commentary sounds well worth picking up.  I look forward to investigating the other three films in the set, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Playing with Fire, where Kristel acts alongside Jean-Louis Trintignant, and two Dutch films, Wim Verstappen’s Pastorale 1942 and Paul de Lussanet’s Mysteries. As a significant bonus for cineastes, both costar the always welcome Rutger Hauer.  On the basis of Julia, which appears to be the slightest film of the four, I’d have to say the Sylvia Kristel 1970s Collection is a more essential release for cinephiles than one might initially think. 

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