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Just Jaeckin, whose ‘Emmanuelle’ was a scandalous success, dies at 82

Mr. Jaeckin (second from right) joined, from left, Anthony Delon and actresses Tawny Kitaen, and Dayle Haddon at the premiere of his film "Gwendoline" in 1984 in Paris.PIERRE VERDY/AFP via Getty Images

Just Jaeckin, a fashion photographer turned film director whose first movie, “Emmanuelle,” became a box-office sensation when it was released in 1974 after being blocked by French censors because of its soft-core depiction of a young woman’s erotic adventures, died Sept. 6 in Saint-Malo, France. He was 82.

The death, at a hospital near his home in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, was confirmed by his agent, Marina Girart-Muttelet, who said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Jaeckin lacked filmmaking experience when producer Yves Rousset-Rouard hired him to direct a movie that would break ground in the way it put sexual pleasure on display in mainstream theaters.

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Based on a French novel published under the pseudonym Emmanuelle Arsan that had itself been a subject of controversy, “Emmanuelle” follows a young married woman through a series of sexual encounters with men and women during a trip to Asia. (The true author was later identified variously as a French diplomat who had been stationed in Thailand, his wife, or a combination of the two.)

Among the reasons Mr. Jaeckin was hired, Girart-Muttelet said in an interview, was that Rousset-Rouard wanted “somebody who would respect the book.”

Seeking a female lead, and with casting complicated by the amount of nudity required, Mr. Jaeckin chose Sylvia Kristel, a Dutch model in her early 20s with little acting experience.

When production began, Girart-Muttelet said, Rousset-Rouard tried to pressure Mr. Jaeckin into making the movie more sexually explicit. The director stuck to his original vision, which involved simulated sex scenes shot mostly in soft focus.

“Emmanuelle” was banned by President Georges Pompidou’s government, but it was released in the summer of 1974, several months after Pompidou’s death. It quickly became, Reuters said, “one of the biggest box-office successes in French movie history.” Nearly 9 million French moviegoers saw it in theaters, according to the Internet Movie Database.

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“People see the film and leave without feeling guilty,” Mr. Jaeckin told Reuters.

A tamer alternative to hard-core sex films “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door,” which had been released independently in 1972 to considerable success, “Emmanuelle” was distributed in the United States by Columbia Pictures. It was the studio’s first X-rated feature.

“They call her Emmanuelle,” the US trailer began. “She is today the most controversial woman in France.” The film grossed nearly $9 million in ticket sales in the United States (about $53 million in 2022 dollars) and was a hit in a number of other countries as well, including Germany, Spain, and Japan.

The box-office success came despite mostly negative reviews. A.H. Weiler of The New York Times called it “slick,” “largely uninspired,” and “hardly a revelation to enthusiasts long exposed to the genre.”

Not every critic was so harsh. Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, called “Emmanuelle” a “silly, classy, enjoyable erotic film” that for “its genre (soft-core skin flick)” was “very well done.”

Just Jaeckin was born Aug. 8, 1940, in Vichy, France. His father, also named Just, died when the boy was 4, leaving his mother, Anne-Marie Desperaux, to raise him and a brother, Philippe, on her own.

Mr. Jaeckin studied photography and sculpture at art school in Paris before serving in the French army in the Algerian war.

After returning to France, he began his photography career, eventually shooting covers, feature spreads, and advertisements for magazines including Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, and Vogue. He also did a stint as art director at Paris Match in the early 1960s. And he put his training as a sculptor to work making pieces with materials like cardboard and plastic.

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Feminists denounced “Emmanuelle” as a male fantasy, but Girart-Muttelet said Mr. Jaeckin believed it had an empowering effect on women. (Kristel said in interviews that some Japanese women viewed the film as a feminist statement, mainly because of a scene in which Emmanuelle climbs on top of her husband during sex.)

The Times noted in a 2019 article about a revival showing of “Emmanuelle,” which includes a rape scene, that the film would “not pass contemporary standards for gender or cultural sensitivity, or consent.”

Mr. Jaeckin had planned to return to working as a photographer after making “Emmanuelle,” Girart-Muttelet said, but advertisers and publishers would not hire him because of the film’s notoriety.

Instead, he continued to make movies, many of them also of the erotic variety, including “The Story of O” in 1975 and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” for which he reunited with Kristel, in 1981. He made seven films altogether; the last, “The Perils of Gwendoline,” was released in 1984.

After that, Girart-Muttelet said, he was unable to line up support for other film projects, and he returned to his sculpture and spent time racing cars and riding horses.

In addition to his brother, Philippe, Mr. Jaeckin leaves his wife, Anne, a sculptor; and his daughter, Julia, a photographer.

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