Actress Sylvia Kristel, the Dutch star of the hit 1970s erotic movie “Emmanuelle,” died in her sleep Wednesday night after fighting cancer for several years. She was 60.
Kristel, a model who turned to acting in the 1970s, saw her breakthrough in “Emmanuelle,” a 1974 erotic tale directed by Frenchman Just Jaeckin, about the sexual adventures of a man and his beautiful young wife, played by Kristel, in Thailand.
She went on to star in several sequels to “Emmanuelle,” as well as in Hollywood movies including “Private Lessons” in 1981.
Kristel was worried about starring in “Emmanuelle” but consoled herself with the thought that few people would see her sexually charged performance. That turned out to be wrong. It passed the censors and went on to become a classic of the sexually liberated 1970s, propelling Kristel to international stardom.
But moving to Hollywood in her late 20s, she sank into a world of drink and drugs. “I wish I could have skipped that part of my life, she said in a 2005 interview with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. She later returned to the Netherlands to live in Amsterdam, where she took up painting.
Among her more than 50 international films were many erotically tinted pictures, including a 1981 adaptation — also directed by Jaeckin — of D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Mata Hari,” four years later.
Kristel told De Volkskrant, “Love dictated what I did,” saying her former partner, Belgian author Hugo Claus, persuaded her to star in “Emmanuelle.” “He said, ‘Thailand, that’s nice, we’ve never been there and anyway the film will never come out in the Netherlands so you won’t put your mother to shame,’” Kristel said. “In the end, 350 million people saw it worldwide.”
Jaeckin, the director who is also a sculptor and has a gallery in Paris, said by telephone that he and Kristel maintained contact, calling each other every three to four months. But he said he hadn’t spoken with her since February.
She wasn’t even in the casting call when Jaeckin visited the Netherlands looking for a leading lady. He said when he saw her elsewhere at the casting agency he knew immediately that Kristel was destined for the role. “When I saw her face, I was thunderstruck,” he said in an interview with the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateue.
Kristel said she never regretted making the film but was surprised how it shaped others’ perceptions of her. “People don’t assume John Wayne shoots people and rides a horse on weekends,” she told a Dutch interviewer. “People think I’m a nymphomaniac.”
Kristel was born into a family that ran a hotel in the central Dutch city of Utrecht and had a religious upbringing. Her striking beauty defined her career, however, sending her into modeling and then to the steamy “Emmanuelle.”
She was honored in 2006 with a special jury prize at the Tribeca Film Festival for a short animated film she directed called “Topor et Moi,” the title a reference to the French illustrator and filmmaker Roland Topor.
Kristel is survived by her partner, Peter Brul, and a son with Claus, Arthur Kristel. She is to be buried at a private funeral. Further details were not released.