Interview with Just Jaeckin by Nathaniel Thompson
In 1974, 34-year-old fashion French photographer Just Jaeckin startled the world by introducing the first erotic blockbuster, Emmanuelle, starring future late night TV favorite Sylvia Kristel and based on the scandalous autobiographical book by Emmanuelle Arsan. A runaway success in its native country, the film took America by storm courtesy of a release from Columbia Pictures with the memorable tagline, "X was never like this." The film also featured a catchy theme song and score by the late French pop star Pierre Bachelet, who would produce several more scores with the director. Rather than participating in any of the film's numerous sequels, Jaeckin turned to another controversial literary property, The Story of O, starring the stunning Corinne Clery and cult favorite Udo Kier. One of the most stylish erotic films ever made, it was also very successful despite its B&D subject matter and still impresses with its stunning photography and incredible atmosphere. The rest of the decade proved more erratic with Jaeckin helming two projects with Canadian-born fashion model Dayle Haddon (the star-laden Madame Claude and quirky The Last Romantic Lover) as well as 1980's rarely-seen Girls, starring a very young Anne Parillaud of La Femme Nikita fame. Jaeckin still refused to enter the increasingly popular realm of hardcore pornography, instead continuing to focus on imaginative cinema. He reteamed with Kristel in 1981 for a poorly-received adaptation of Lady Chatterly's Lover for Cannon Films which did find a long afterlife on cable TV. His last film to date, 1984's comic book adaptation Gwendoline, is a giddy cross between an exotic cliffhanger serial and an outrageous bondage fantasy starring future music video goddess and TV staple Tawny Kitaen.
How did you begin your career as a photographer and director?
I was working on a magazine for Mademoiselle Ashton, and I started to take some pictures and found that I had a talent for it. After that I did some still-lifes, other photographic subjects, and then I became a fashion photographer for many European magazines like Queen. At that time it was easier to be different, to make a living doing jobs outside of the norm.
During that period I participated in a television show where they gave a camera to people in all "walks of art." They asked me if I wanted to do a submission, and so after doing that I became a commercial director as well.
The producer of one of my advertising films, Yves Rousset-Rouard, told me, "Why don't we do a feature film together?" I was surprised and pleased because it was a dream for me to do a full-length feature film. However, the erotic subject matter of Emmanuelle was not really my cup of tea, so I said no. But then he had a good writer, Jean-Louis Richard, the husband of Jeanne Moreau, and he said I had to do the film because I could make it very beautiful, very elegant. So I agreed, and of course it turned out to be a huge success.
How did you go about casting Sylvia Kristel?
None of the actresses in France wanted to do an erotic film like that, especially with an untested producer and director. I was surprised we were able to find a girl outside France; a friend of mine was in Amsterdam and told me the girls there were more free, more open. I took a plane to Amsterdam and found Sylvia there. She had long brunette hair, and I wanted someone with short, blonde hair, I don't know why! But I knew she was Emmanuelle, and all she had to do was cut her hair. She spoke enough French to speak with me, but we mostly spoke English together during the actual production.
How did you choose Pierre Bachelet to write the score?
I did a small TV fashion series, and Pierre was involved in putting some music into the finished project. We became friends, and when I finished Emmanuelle we talked to some very good musicians and singers to work on the score. They would all say no, we don't want to be involved in an erotic film, so I told Pierre he had to do the music himself. We pushed him to sing the song, and when we heard him sing the first time, we said it was perfect.
The song became very famous, and he had a long career as a singer after that. Pierre was like a brother; over twenty years we did so many things together. He was such a great talent, and along with the other feature films we did together, I did some video clips for him when he became famous.
Were you offered the sequel to Emmanuelle?
Yes, Emmanuelle was so successful, naturally there would be more films in the series, but I was really only interested in the original source, the book itself and that story. I'm more interested in moving on and doing new things.
Your films all have an unreal quality like a fairy tale or take place in a period setting. What is it about this approach that appeals to you?
The best example of this would be The Last Romantic Lover, one I co-wrote myself as opposed to something based on another person's book. I was more involved with it, with that film. I was starting to feel a bit trapped in eroticism, so I decided to show what else I could do, something romantic and purely fantastic. I think the real star of a film is the book or the script, so in a sense I'm more pleased with that film than any other because it's a part of me.
Any memories of working with Udo Kier and the cast of Story of O?
Udo was not famous at the time; I had no problems with him. My relationship with actors on the set is to be kind. I refuse to have conflicts or violence. We should work together in a way that's fun, relaxed, enjoyable. I never had a problem with an actor or actress who didn't want to do a scene during shooting. If they didn't like something during pre-production, I said, "Okay, we'll work on that with the writer. On the set I don't want any discussions or disputes; if you have a problem, you say it now, before we begin, not on the set."
Was it your decision to add the last scene to the film, with O coming out of her experience stronger and branding her own initial onto her lover?
The writer, Sébastien Japrisot, added that last scene; we tried to say that Story of O was a fantasy, not a real story. When she brands him at the end, it says to me that the story is like Alice in Wonderland; she goes on a journey and lots of things happen to her, but it has nothing to do with reality. What she says at the end is, "I did everything for you, so you do this for me." It's her way of establishing equality. Don't forget that these films were made in the '70s, and all the feminists were protesting these kinds of films. So I chose books written by women; women are more fantasy-oriented than men. The success of Emmanuelle is because the women came to see the film, too. However, many feminists still decried my films, they really gave me hell at the time; it's funny that now these films are admired and considered positive for feminist ideals by many of those same people.
What do you remember about working with Klaus Kinski on Madame Claude?
I liked Klaus very much; everyone said don't work with him, he's crazy, he fights with all his directors. When I met him, I told him, "If I come to you for a role, it's because I love your work. If you want to work with me, it's because you like my work. I don't want any fights; if we don't like something, we'll tell each other." He was surprised and agreed. We became friendly, and after the film I came to see him in Los Angeles. The secret with him is to be direct when you address him and be nice with him. I talked to him, dealt with him, treated him like a friend rather than an actor.
Madame Claude was a bit different for me because on my previous two films all the actors were young and largely inexperienced or unknown, whereas with this one we had a lot of good actors who were older or more established. I liked being able to watch them work, all these famous names - Francosie Fabian, Maurice Ronet, Jean Gaven, Robert Webber. I met Dayle Haddon on Madame Claude, and she was so nice, so excellent in the role. We all said, "My goodness, she is fantastic," and I decided to write Last Romantic Lover for her because she was so excellent. Unfortunately she refused King Kong and other films, so her career probably didn't go quite the way everyone expected.
How did Serge Gainsbourg become attached to the project?
Serge was an old friend of mine, but he refused to do the music for Emmanuelle. When I did Madame Claude I tried again; I said Pierre wasn't available because he was involved with a Jean-Jacques Annaud film [Coup de tête]. He liked the film very much and did it for me since Pierre wasn't going to be able to come on board. I had first met Jane Birkin [who performed the title song, "Yesterday, Yes a Day"] in London when we did a commercial, and I was actually there in Paris when she met Serge. I said to her, "You are very interesting," and I recommended her to a director friend of mine in Paris. Because of that she wound up doing the film Slogan with Serge, and then they became a couple and worked together many times over the years.
Why was the distribution for Girls so limited? It's still very difficult to see.
It was a very small film, a cute film for kids. But it was very French, I suppose. I don't know why it wasn't a huge success; it did ok, but it wasn't like my other films. I'm not even sure I have a copy of it myself, but then I'm not too crazy about the past; I don't often like to revisit something from years ago. I'm a person of the future. I was surprised to see Story of O again after 30 years when I was recording some remarks for the DVD release; it was very strange. I'm much more interested in what I can do now.
I still love films though; I usually watch one every night. I live in the country now with my family, and I have a big screen here.
How involved was Cannon Films with the actual making of Lady Chatterly's Lover?
Oh, those two men - I called them the "Boom Brothers," Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. They came to me at the Cannes Film Festival and said, "Why don't we do a film together? Why don't we reteam with Sylvia Kristel? We have a book for you, Lady Chatterly's Lover." They said they'd co-produce the film in England. But they were awful, absolutely awful! They tried to take out the best parts of the film - they tried to cut scenes and move things around, and they wanted to remove the scene near the beginning, with the handsome man riding the white horse. I told them I wouldn't do it, that I wouldn't do any kind of erotic scenes at all unless I could make the film my way. So finally they let me do what I wanted, and when they saw the finished result in the screening room they said, "Yes, of course, it's beautiful!"
Did you find working with Sylvia different on Chatterly?
Sylvia had done a lot of films in between, so she was a much more experienced actress, of course!
Gwendoline is the biggest fantasy of your work, on a scale very different than what you had done before; what was it like approaching that project?
It was the first time I had enough money to do whatever I liked. We shot everywhere around the world - anywhere at all that we wanted. I loved the script and the story, as well as the actors, and it was a very nice experience. There's always a big market in countries like Italy for action/adventure films, so it did well and continues to do so. It does please me when my films are rediscovered, though, as in America where it can now be seen on DVD and in scope.
Why did you retire from features after Gwendoline?
After Gwendoline I was exhausted. I had no family or friends because I was out of France all the time -- India, Thailand, America. So I decided to breathe a little bit, to have some roots somewhere. Now I have a wife, a kid. To be a director is a very selfish occupation; you can't be involved in a family when 200 days of the year you're away from home. I did 300 commercials, nine features, many magazine covers. I recently wrote a book about my life [Tout Just: Souvenirs] that was quite successful, but I don't really miss directing too much now that I'm 60 years old. I wanted to be more quiet, have a peaceful lifestyle. I wrote a beautiful story for a feature film for kids, but I've had some difficulty trying to produce that film; hopefully it will shoot next year. It's nice though, being able to share my life now.
Be sure to check out the official website of Serverin Films at: http://www.severin-films.com and while you are at it, give Nathaniel Thompson a visit at: www.mondo-digital.com.
Special Thanks to Nathaniel Thompson, David Gregory, Carl Daft and Just Jaeckin for taking the time to make this interview possible.
All Photos: Copyright - Just Jaeckin
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