So I’m in the middle of working my way through Severin’s latest Black Emanuelle box set, and a screening of Black Emmanuelle/White Emmanuelle (actual title Black Velvet) has prompted these musings, which I inflict on you here rather than in the review itself. Now, European sexploitation movies from the 70s aren’t exactly the deepest experience going, but there’s plenty of food for thought in this film, even despite (or because of) its flaws.
First, let’s consider the characters. Laura Gemser reprises her role yet again as Emanuelle (ignore the second “m” of the title). But whereas in the other entries of the series (particularly the Joe D’Amato ones) she is a photojournalist. Here, she’s a supermodel. This is a pretty significant switch. Now, I’m not about to make any kind of crazy argument about the gender sensitivity of D’Amato’s films. However, as a photographer, Emanuelle controls the gaze. She is using the camera, hers is the active look, and her investigations are usually what power such plots as the films possess. That said, she is very much subject to the male gaze of the actual camera. In Brunello Rondi’s film, she is a very passive figure, figuratively and literally abused and raped by the male photographer, Carlo. So, the question arises, is this an undermining of the character (though Gemser is called on to deliver a much more varied performance than is usually the case), or is it a more honest appraisal of the actual nature of Gemser’s position in a sexploitation film?
Then there’s Laure. Annie Belle here reprises the character from the movie of the same name from a couple of years prior, making this a sexploitation superheroine team-up. At any rate, here is a character who is criticized by her mother for having buzz-cut her hair, and thus apparently being less than feminine. Laure’s reply is that she feels more like a woman than ever. And of all the characters in the film, hers is the dominant gaze. Carlo has an aggressive one, and he explicitly associates his camera with his penis (some alarmingly honest writing for this sort of film there), but we are not invited to share his gaze. Instead, we stare at him with Laure’s look of judgment, see him for the monster he is, and enjoy his impotent rage when Laure mimics a camera with her fingers and turns the “click click” back at him. This becomes her character’s function: she speaks the brutal truth to every character in the film, tearing away their illusions and pretensions. Even the apparently all-powerful holy man (Al Civer), who effortlessly hypnotizes everyone else with his powerful gaze, has no influence over her whatsoever. She hurls his hypnotic gaze back in his face, and he subsequently submits meekly to her, only to be abandoned. The only character she does not take down is the abused Emanuelle, who disappears for much of the film. She has little to do once Laure turns up, as if the latter were wresting the film from the structure that is imprisoning her cohort, and the last shot of the film sees the now-liberated Emanuelle, prancing and dancing off into the desert with Laure, for the first time in the film moving with true happiness.
And there’s more. The characters are all rich Westerners taking advantage of their wealth to colonize (sexually or otherwise) the inhabitants of Egypt. Laure, again, is the only character who seems to be looking at the ancient tombs as if she is listening to what they have to say, rather than seeing them as an accessory to her own narrative. The other figures are so consumed with inertia and self-loathing that they might have sprung from an Antonioni film. There’s a sense that we are seeing the slow, dismal death of La Dolce Vita.
Am I reading too much into an oddly static work? Frankly, I don’t think so. It’s right there, impossible to miss thanks to a script that constantly foregrounds these ideas. Chalk this up as one of the more fascinating exploitation films I’ve seen in a while.