Apr 18, 2015

Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later...




I’m neither a fag nor feminist but when I hear the name of Dutch sexploitation diva Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame, the only thing I can think of is a totally tragic woman who, due to her rather heartbreaking background, allowed herself to be used and abused by the more sleazy and less than artistically inclined fellows working in the cinema world. Undoubtedly as avant-garde auteur turned cult filmmaker Curtis Harrington, who worked with her on the botched biopic Mata Hari (1985), makes reference to in his memoir Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business (2013), Kristel was a less than talented actress with some serious problems that involved a lot of self-destructive drug use and debasing herself with ugly old men. Indeed, as she revealed in her autobiography Nue aka Nude aka Undressing Emmanuelle: A Memoir, Kristel, not unlike so many porn stars and so-called ‘sex workers,’ was the victim of molestation as a child, which happened when she was only 9-years-old after a predatory elderly hotel guest decided to have his way with her. Arguably more traumatic than even being molested, Kristel never got over the fact that her father abandoned her family when she was 14, later stating of the event, “It was the saddest thing that ever happened to me.”  Like many other women that suffered similar circumstances, Kristel would spend the rest of her life looking for a father figure, hence her affairs with much older men like Belgian author and filmmaker Hugo Claus and English actor Ian McShane, among various others. Unquestionably, the only film I can think of where Kristel gives a genuinely decent performance is Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk's absurdly underrated work La marge (1976) aka The Margin aka The Streetwalker aka Emmanuelle 77 where she plays a melancholy Parisian prostitute who starts a doomed love affair with lapsed Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro.  While both Kristel and Dallesandro predictably bare their bodies in Borowczyk's work, they ultimately give performances that inspire more pity than scopophiliac pleasure, hence why the film was probably such a commercial failure upon its release.  Undoubtedly, if there is any film that dares to depict the sad and tragic essence of Kristel in an endlessly empathetic, if not somewhat subtle and even somewhat ‘strange,’ fashion that hardly reminds the viewer she is the ultimate alpha-diva of Euro-trash sexploitation, it is South African auteur Aryan Kaganof’s experimental documentary short Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later... (1998) aka Sylvia Kristel, Years Later starring the Emmanuelle star herself, as well as Dutch novelist Oscar van den Boogaard. 



 In tribute to Kristel’s opening for her first exhibition of oil paintings, Kaganof created an installation that involved a room within a room where no more than 18 people were confronted with a 23-minute video of edited sound and image on a continuous loop.  Among other things, Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later... is a sort of archive to this event, which Kaganof described as follows: “More than merely an hommage to Madame Kristel, the piece becomes a meditation on the experience of watching. The gaze is interrogated and revealed as not merely a function of sight, but as always being reliant on the ears and memory in order to generate meaning. The emotional impact of the piece is dependent upon the particular relationship between sound and image at any given point, constantly in flux, always organic, soulful and heartfelt.” While Kaganof is no stranger to erotically explicit imagery as his works like The Dead Man 2: Return of the Dead Man (1994), Shabondama Elegy (1999) aka Tokyo Elegy, Pale Blue Eyes (2002), and Dirty Girl in Velvet (2008), among countless others, demonstrate, Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later... is Kristel at her least sexually exposed yet arguably most intimate in a somewhat arcane and poetic work that ultimately depicts an internally wounded woman with a pathological need for male approval. Indeed, Kaganof’s meta-homage depicts the ‘unclad’ woman behind the wantonness in an almost oneiric and narcotizing fashion that makes the viewer feel as if they are trapped in a bubble of the diva’s perennial loneliness. After a nearly five minute long title sequence that juxtaposes slow-motion footage of Kristel and various other images, including a skull, with the haunting and equally hypnotic song “Ghostyhead” by Rickie Lee Jones, Dutch novelist novelist Oscar van den Boogaard is featured riding a public bus to the big event.  After spending some equality time with Kristel, van den Boogaard concludes the film by sitting at a bus stop in a scene that seems to reflect the fact that the novelist has gotten no closer to the actress, even after spending a day in the company of her and her art.



 The majority of Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later… is comprised of muted film scenes and photos of and paintings by the eponymous starlet, who clearly looks much different since her days as the title character of the Emmanuelle films, hence why an inter-title reading “Jaren Later” (aka “Years Later”) oftentimes randomly appears on the screen.  Instead of engaging in silly salacious sex scenes with attractive playboys, diplomats, and lipsticks lesbos like she is best known for, Kristel's only acts of intimacy in Kaganof's film involve the actress embracing and conversing with van den Boogaard, who is hardly a stud.  Juxtaposed with these muted film scenes and paintings/images are words narrated by Kristel herself, who repeats lines that seem to be taken from Brigitte Bardot’s character at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) aka Contempt. Indeed, after softy stating, “In search of her, who is in search of herself. Very slow…whispering,” Kristel narrates to an unseen man, “I recently had a dream. A strange dream. We were together. You, and me. We lay together in a bed. Do you love my feet, you asked. I said: yes, I love your feet.” For a good portion of the rest of the film, Kristel asks similar questions and then answers them like, “And my buttocks, do you love my buttocks? I love your buttocks very much, I said. Your buttocks are gorgeous.” While Kaganof’s intent with these scenes is questionable, I interpreted them as reflecting that Kristel’s acting career was based on her deep and dark desire to seek approval from men, namely those that reminded her of her father. After all, it takes a special sort of woman to be willing to expose her unclad body to thousands of people from around the world, but of course it is doubtful that many men thought about this while they were jerking off to Emmanuelle




 Undoubtedly, Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later… has an unintentionally eerily foreboding tone to much of it in that it features the titular diva smiling and chatting with van den Boogaard while smoking the same unfiltered cigarettes that would ultimately cut her life short after she contracted throat cancer in 2001 and eventually perished on October 18, 2012 at the premature age of 60 from esophageal and lung cancer. Kristel began smoking at the tender age of 11 and one can only speculate as to whether or not her addiction had the same source as what inspired her to become one of Europe’s most prized softcore porn stars. While Kaganof is not himself Dutch, I think it is important that Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later… features Kristel speaking in Dutch and was made in the Netherlands, as it reflects one of the many aspects of the actress that her so-called ‘fans’ are probably unaware of. Indeed, I would be interested to know how many men who have choked their chicken to Madame Kristel know that she was a Dutch dame, even if she lacked what one might describe as archetypical Dutch beauty, as she was a fairly short brunette and certainly not a towering blonde bombshell. Avant-garde filmmaker Cyrus Frisch, who attended the same Dutch film academy as Kaganof, would later have Kristel portray a cracked out anti-diva in his debut Vergeef me (2001) aka Forgive me. Indubitably, while Frisch’s film seems to make a mockery of Kristel by portraying her as more or less the equivalent of a used-up old whore, Kaganof’s film attempts to expose her real essence in a somewhat hermetic way that totally transcends a simple film tribute. While Kaganof has sometimes been called a misogynist, including by his own friend Jeremy Dowson in a review of his work The Mozart Bird (1993), Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later… ultimately demonstrates such a striking sympathy for its somewhat forsaken female subject that one might assume it was made for his mother or grandmother. Indeed, the film might only be 23-minutes long and rendered in a hopelessly avant-garde form, but Kaganof’s little tribute probably pays greater tribute to Sylvia Kristel than all of the actress’ other films combined. As someone who has never found her particularly enticing, I think that Sylvia Kristel, Jaren Later… gets to the true beauty of Kristel and it is not pretty.



-Ty E

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