The Secret Splendors of Black Emanuelle

New box set and a special AFS screening set to reappraise the Italian sexploitation series

Laura Gemser, star of the Black Emanuelle movies. The Italian sexploitation series is undergoing a reappraisal through a new box set from Severin Films and accomapnying AFS Cinema screening. (image courtesy of Severin Films)

What a difference an M makes. In 1974, Sylvia Kristel became an international star with Emmanuelle (two Ms), the X-rated adaptation of Emmanuelle Arsan's erotic novel. A year later, the Italian studio system released Black Emanuelle (one M). Film historian Kier-La Janisse said, "People who've never been the Black Emanuelle film [just] presume they're just rip-offs of the French Emmanuelle films, and they're completely different."

The former Alamo Drafthouse booker and Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror director heard that Severin Films founder David Gregory was thinking of releasing Black Emanuelle and all its sequels, and she immediately volunteered to oversee the project. "David said yes, and he also thought it was a great idea to have a woman producing it because it brings a lot of different perspectives."

The result of her labors is a luscious 15-disc, 21-film box set, with a special limited-edition bundle that includes a magnetic fashion play set, an airline bag, and even a Black Emanuelle board game devised by Janisse and Austin TV and exploitation historian Amanda Reyes. She's just one of a multitude of Austinites who have contributed to the box set, including filmmaker Bryan Connolly (Make Popular Movies), who appears on the new commentary track for Emanuelle's Perverse Outburst, and a new documentary from Austin's distinguished historian of erotica, Elizabeth Purchell, The Naked Eye: Sex and the Mondo Film. "It was a mammoth production," said Janisse, "and there's a lot of women, and a lot of not-the-usual suspects commenting on this box set."

On June 15 there will be a special screening and panel discussion for the fourth film in the series, Emanuelle in America. AFS programmer Lars Nilsen (who also provides a commentary track for Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade) called it "too transgressive in so many ways. ... It combines outrageousness with entertainment value."

The franchise represented something that Italian cinema of the 1970s did better than anyone else: knockoffs of smash hits. Just as Italy produced infinite copies of The Dirty Dozen, Nilsen said, "In distributor's minds, that one word, Emmanuelle with two Ms, was magic." However, he contended that Laura Gemser, who played international photojournalist, feminist, crime fighter, and sexual adventurer Emanuelle in all but one film, was not simply a substitute for Kristel. "She's so special in what she does and what she portrays."

Those differences are summed up in two near-identical scenes, one from Emmanuelle, one from Emanuelle in Bangkok. In the original, the arrival of the tall, white Kristel in Thailand is laden with colonialist and Orientalist subtexts. Janisse compared it to the Indonesian Dutch Gemser "walking around Thailand, making friends with everyone. That's part of what makes the Black Emanuelle movies so thrilling – she really wants to engage with the culture."

Nilsen praised Janisse for her continued work in such nuanced reappraisal that allows films like these to be discussed as more than bootleg smut. "We've got to a place with the scholarship – and I don't just mean 'scholarship,' but 'Twitter scholarship' and 'Letterboxd scholarship' – that shows that these movies have fingerprints on them that are more complex."

Emanuelle in America: Thu., June 15, 7:30pm. AFS Cinema, 6259 Middle Fiskville.

The Sensual World of Black Emanuelle 15-disc box set will be released by Severin Films on July 25. Preorder now at

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Black Emanuelle, Kier-La Janisse, Lars Nilsen, Laura Gemser, Elizabeth Purchell, Amanda Reyes, David Gregory, Severin Films, Austin Film Society, AFS Cinema

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