Dutch erotic film icon Sylvia Kristel has died in Amsterdam at age 60, following a long battle with cancer. Kristel was best known for her role as the title character in Just Jaeckin’s 1974 French erotic feature Emmanuelle, and would go on to appear in several other erotic movies throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, both in Hollywood and abroad. Alongside performers like Linda Lovelace, Marilyn Chambers, Brigitte Lahaie, and Lina Romay, Kristel has become an immortal symbol of the shift toward liberated sexuality that defined both the cinematic and social landscape of the 1970s.
Kristel was born in Utrecht, Netherlands and left home in her teens to become an actress and model. At just twenty-two years old, the actress’s first starring role was in Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle, shot in 1974. Released nearly two years after the similarly provocative American hardcore movie Deep Throat, Emmanuelle aroused extreme international controversy due to its bold and explicit presentation of sexuality. Despite the institutional ambivalence with which it was received, Emmanuelle was praised by several mainstream critics, including Roger Ebert, who attributed the film’s creative success primarily to the strength and vulnerability of Kristel’s performance. “The performers in most skin flicks seem so impervious to ordinary mortal failings, so blase in the face of the most outrageous sexual invention, that finally they just become cartoon characters,” Ebert opined. “Kristel actually seems to be present in the film, and as absorbed in its revelations as we are.”
Emmanuellewas one of the most talked-about erotic movies of the decade, and was the single highest grossing French film of 1974. It remains one of the most successful – and most notorious – French movies of all time, erotic or otherwise. Kristel continued to work with Jaeckin on other projects, including an adaptation of the steamy D.H. Lawrence classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and she appeared in nearly a dozen Emmanuellesequels, including several that were produced for cable television during the 1990s. Following the success of Jaeckin’s original film, Kristel traveled to the United States, appearing in a string of lighthearted sex comedies like Private School, Private Lessons, and The Big Bet. She also appeared briefly in 1980’s cinematic "Get Smart" adaptation, The Nude Bomb, and starred in Curtis Harrington’s erotically charged biopic Mata Hari in 1985.
The actress was hospitalized in July 2012 following a massive stroke, but had struggled with chronic illness for many years prior to the incident. She was diagnosed in 2002 with throat cancer, which, despite aggressive chemotherapy treatments and surgical intervention, eventually spread to her lungs. A longtime drinker and smoker, Kristel was also suffering from liver cancer at the time of her death. On October 17, her agent announced publicly that Kristel had died “during the night, during her sleep.”
In 2006, Kristel directed an animated documentary short entitled Topor et Moi, about her relationship with the illustrator Roland Topor (excerpt available here), for which she won an award at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. That same year, she published a French autobiography entitled Nue (Nude), which was later translated into English and published under the title Undressing Emmanuelle: A Memoir. Kristel is survived by her adult son, Arthur Claus.