Just Jaeckin, photographer and director who titillated the world with his hit film Emmanuelle – obituary

·7-min read
Just Jaeckin in 1975 - Patrice Picot/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Just Jaeckin in 1975 - Patrice Picot/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Just Jaeckin, who has died aged 82, was the improbably named director of Emmanuelle (1974), the taboo-breaking tale of a young woman’s journey of sexual exploration which became a box-office succès de scandale and the guilty pleasure of many a teenage boy on its video release.

A former fashion photographer whose assignments had included covers for Vogue and Elle, Jaeckin had no experience of feature film work when he was hired in 1972 by the French producer Yves Rousset-Rouard to adapt the best-selling French novel-cum-memoir Emmanuelle (1959), of which he had optioned the film rights.

The book, supposedly written by an Emmanuelle Arsan (later revealed to be Marayat Rollet-Andriane, the wife of a French diplomat posted to Thailand), detailed the eponymous heroine’s amorous exploits in the Far East with a frankness that both shocked and titillated French society.

One of Jaeckin’s first jobs was to cast his female lead. But, finding that most French female stars were not prepared to accept the amount of nudity involved, he looked elsewhere and lighted upon Sylvia Kristel, a naive 21-year-old Dutch fashion model and aspiring actress working as a secretary at a Dutch casting agency.

Alain Cuny – who managed to utter the words 'Let me take you to les dernier limites d’erotisme' with a straight face – with Sylvia Kristel in Emmanuelle - FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images
Alain Cuny – who managed to utter the words 'Let me take you to les dernier limites d’erotisme' with a straight face – with Sylvia Kristel in Emmanuelle - FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

“When I went to a photo shoot with Just Jaeckin,” she told the Mirror in 2001, “I saw in his studio some beautiful sculpture pieces and was convinced that this was a very creative and artistic man and not some sleazeball... The shooting was very pleasant, seemed to go on forever and was very relaxed... Also, the producers assured me this film was not going to be shown in an X-rated theatre.”

The end product, however, was a soft-focus, soft-core drama which, according to the Sunday Telegraph reviewer Tom Hutchinson, involved the sexual education “by male and female, fair means and foul” of Kristel’s young diplomatic wife, who is caught up in a hedonistic whirl of skinny dipping, masturbation and troilism via a stirring episode in which she is plucked from an aircraft seat by a kipper-tied businessman and inducted into the Mile High Club.

Jaeckin claimed to have tried to join the “club” himself, but told a Telegraph interviewer: “It was impossible... It was a nightmare. When I opened the door [of the aircraft lavatory], there were 20 grandmothers wanting to go pee-pee. I was so ashamed.”

The film (which also starred the former new wave actor Alain Cuny as a tuxedoed roué who somehow manages to utter the words “Let me take you to les dernier limites d’erotisme” with a straight face) received unenthusiastic reviews, the Daily Telegraph reviewer acknowledging that it was “prettily photographed” but finding it only “mildly erotic” and not a patch on the previous pacemaker in the genre, Last Tango in Paris (1972).

But Emmanuelle struck a chord with mainstream 1970s audiences. Though originally banned in France at the express command of President Georges Pompidou, it was released under his more liberal successor Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, with posters displaying a topless Sylvia winding her pearls while sitting in a bamboo chair, bearing the legend: “At last – a film that won’t make you feel bad about feeling good.”

Within 14 weeks, 2.5 million French cinema-goers had seen it. It ran in one Paris cinema for 13 years and went on to become one of the most successful French productions ever. By the turn of the century Emmanuelle is reckoned to have played to an estimated global audience of 300 million, though the true figure, if videos are taken into account, was probably more like 650 million.

'Twelve million Frenchmen stood in line for it!'
'Twelve million Frenchmen stood in line for it!'

In Britain, Emmanuelle was, as James Ferman, Britain’s film censor at the time, recalled, “the first film [of its genre] that didn’t play to the raincoat brigade” and was shown in normal cinemas, though a sequence in which Cuny’s character encourages the rape of Emmanuelle as part of her sexual “education” was removed. It was, though, screened uncut in US cinemas, the trailer breathlessly intoning “Twelve million Frenchmen stood in line for it!”

Emmanuelle set the template for numerous soft-focus soft-porn fantasies, and it became a franchise under other film directors. Famously, it had a devastating effect on its star, who was paid $6,000 for her role but found herself typecast as a soft-porn actress and whose life thereafter was a spiral of drug and alcohol addiction and doomed love affairs.

But it made Jaeckin’s fortune, financing a move to the French Riviera, where he was a neighbour of Brigitte Bardot. He went on to make several more films, most notably the once-notorious S&M fantasy The Story of O, which was banned in Britain until 2000, though none were as successful as his first film.

Catherine Deneuve photographed by Jaeckin for Elle France
Catherine Deneuve photographed by Jaeckin for Elle France

Just Jaeckin was born on August 8 1940 in Vichy, then the headquarters of the collaborationist regime of Marshal Pétain, in the Allier region of central France. According to Harry Fieldhouse, writing in the Telegraph Sunday Magazine, he was half-British, with relatives in Rugby, and shortly after his birth the family moved to England, where they remained for the duration of the war.

After the end of hostilities they returned to France, where Just studied at L’École des Arts Décoratifs de Paris before serving with the French army at the tail- end of the war in Algeria, where he developed his skills as a photographer.

Back in France he worked for magazines including Vogue, She, Marie Claire and Harper’s Bazaar, and was art director at Paris Match in the early 1960s. He also enjoyed some success as a sculptor in materials such as plexiglass and cardboard, taking up residence at the Galerie Stadler in Paris.

His second film, The Story of O (1975) was based on a 1954 novel by Anne Desclos, a French journalist writing as Pauline Réage, and starred Corinne Cléry as a young woman who willingly becomes the plaything of a group of sadists. One reviewer described it as Emmanuelle “with added chains, collars and masks”, and it was refused certification by the British Board of Film Censors on the grounds that it was an attempt “to sell sadism without naming the price”.

Sylvia Kristel with Nicholas Clay as Mellors in Jaeckin's 1981 adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover - Entertainment Pictures/Alamy
Sylvia Kristel with Nicholas Clay as Mellors in Jaeckin's 1981 adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover - Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

When the film was resubmitted in 2000, however, it was waved through, the censors reckoning wearily that “The lack of strong sadistic or sexual detail, the evident consent of the female character and the dated style” meant that “it was no longer necessary to deny adults seeing this film.”

His next film, Madame Claude (1977, also known as The French Woman) starring Françoise Fabian, Klaus Kinski and Dayle Haddon, was the story of the real-life Paris brothel-owner who ran a sort of training school for call girls. It featured, according to one review, “skulduggery in high places and a CIA plot and lots of naked women writhing on beaches, and fireside tiger-skin rugs, to a romantic soundtrack by Serge Gainsbourg”. The Daily Telegraph critic “found the curves of the girls easier to follow than the turns of the plot”.

Jaeckin renewed his association with Sylvia Kristel for a film version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981), also featuring Shane Briant as the wheelchair-bound Sir Clifford Chatterley and Nicholas Clay as Mellors. The actress was reportedly drunk and doped out when she made the film, which the Sunday Telegraph reviewer described as “awash with tangled bodies and twitching buttocks”, and it was only a moderate commercial success.

His last film, The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak (1984), a comedy loosely based on the bondage-themed comics of John Willie, starred Tawny Kitaen as a runaway nun who hires a soldier of fortune (Brent Huff) to help find her missing father and braves such perils as depraved pirates, steamy jungles lust-crazed warrior women – and her own poorly suppressed desires.

Jaeckin, who continued to work in photography and sculpture, is survived by his wife, Anne, and by their daughter.

Just Jaeckin, born August 8 1940, died September 6 2022