Sex or talent?

The death of Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel last month brought back images of a 1974 film poster I'd seen—a half-nude Sylvia on an oversized chair. I remember shying away from it in my early Parisian days as I walked around Champs Elysees. In a cinema hall there, her film Emmanuelle ran to packed audiences for 13 continuous years. When its filmmaker Just Jaeckin's brother became my client much later, curiosity drove me to question the film's controversial strands. Does the femme fatale label stick permanently to actresses who enact sex obsessions of film directors? Take the illuminating stories of three women:

Woman 1: Sylvia Kristel objectified men's sexual fantasy after Emmanuelle's instant global success. Emmanuelle was portrayed as an innocent learner of sex. En route to Thailand to join her diplomat husband, coup de foudre (love at first sight) with a stranger in the aircraft resulted in love-making in business class, perhaps a first such instance in cinema. Over 600 million spectators worldwide went gaga over Emmanuelle, a role that trapped her forever. She was paid just $6000 for Emmanuelle, a film that grossed $650 million. Banned in whole or parts in several countries, Emmanuelle became the biggest Japanese tourist attraction after Eiffel Tower. Japanese women, as per a blog, would stand up and applaud in surprise and vengeance when Emmanuelle was on top of a man because it seems their culture requires women to be submissive. For the first time Emmanuelle introduced soft porn into mainstream cinema.

"I was dressed, but people preferred me naked," Sylvia wrote in her 2006 autobiography Undressing Emmanuelle. Her life depicted how an artist could drown in depression unless she took care of her image, creativity and prosperity. She battled with tobacco and alcohol. Cocaine enslaved her, which she described as "more of a super-vitamin, something very fashionable, not really dangerous." She had many destructive relationships with older men, one of whom sold all her properties leaving her to die in a small Amsterdam flat with lung, liver and throat cancer at age 60.

Woman 2: In a 1986 TV show, Catherine Ringer declared she never liked soft propositions like posing nude in Playboy or Lui. Famous French singer, poet and artist Serge Gainsbourg, the other guest, interrupted her every sentence saying, "You're a whore." She retorted, "I'm a hardcore pornography star, that's not prostitution. Multiple clients aren't paying me for sex, just a cameraman filming my act." His next attack was, "Your act's disgusting." She retaliated, "You're disgusting in public too, unshaven, probably smelling with your liquor and cigarettes." He evened the score, "If you're so professional, first fix your teeth before showing them in sex acts."

Incredible creativity has since catapulted Catherine Ringer from porn icon to France's phenomenally successful rock and pop star. Modeling from age 8, she worked in theatre, but didn't make enough, so switched to pornographic movies like La Fessée, Body love, Innocence impudique among others. Then she met Fred Chichin in 1980. They went into music recordings under the name Les Rita Mitsouko. Their punk-rock-synth-pop-jazz song Marcia Baïla rose to number 2 on French record charts. After her husband's death in 2007, Catherine penned 12 powerful tracks in a solo album, proving that a previously ignominious reputation can be turned into respectability.

Woman 3: On the success path having completed 12 films, Catherine Deneuve's next role was incredible, discomfiting and dicey. She plays wife to an aristocratic Parisian doctor who lovingly "understands" that she's not yet mentally ready to sleep with him. Yet, when in a taxi her friend reveals a scandalous tale of prostitution among their peers she experiences a shocking, breath-stopping thrill of taboo. She gets the address of a sophisticated Parisian brothel, presents herself and is lured into becoming a high class prostitute in this maison close (whorehouse). She says she's available from 2-5pm only so the brothel owner names her Belle de Jour (Daytime Beauty).

Sent to satisfy another aristocrat customer, Belle de Jour fails miserably. Instead, she becomes the favourite sex-partner of a gun-toting young Italian gangster with horrible broken metal teeth—consequences of hoodlum activities. This astonishing surrealistic movie of Spanish director Luis Bunuel was so unique that Catherine Deneuve was elevated to another level, as the all time elegant French beauty in spite of her prostitute's role at age 23. She participated in existential philosopher, feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir's 1972 Manifesto of 343 Sluts for legalising abortion. 343 prominent Frenchwomen exposed themselves to criminal prosecution by falsely admitting they had abortions. French Health Minister Simone Veil legalised abortion in 1975.

The fragility of women's sex appeal can ruin or raise careers unless they're alert and self-controlled. I'm inspired to narrate next week onwards how women—artists to activists—have to struggle to establish their liberty, personality and creativity. Such movements raised the confidence of young women even in India.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at

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