An All-Consuming Passion for Freedom: Just Jaeckin (1940-1922)

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“And, what is more, we know how an all-consuming passion for freedom in the world
never fails to lead to conflicts.”
-Histoire d’O | Story of O by Pauline Réage-

Located in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of central France, the community of Vichy is a small resort town near the banks of the river Allier. Known for its thermal baths and natural spas, the idyllic Vichy is about a five-hour train ride to Paris and it was the birthplace of several famous figures, including the writer Valery Larbaud and religious guru Raël. One of the most influential people from the town came into the world during the tumultuous period of August, 1940, while Vichy was acting as the de facto capital of the French State.

Born during the height of World War 2, Just Jaeckin spent much of his childhood in England after his family fled Vichy during his early childhood. After the war, the Jaeckin’s returned to France with Just in tow. Like many eminent artists, the young Just Jaeckin expressed a variety of visual interests, specifically photography, and he began studying it during his school years. 

Jaeckin had a natural eye for photography but his interest in the arts didn’t stop there, which informed the rest of his life and career. The young Jaeckin adored the cinema, sculpture and even sports, and he spent his teenage years absorbing much of the art that would inform the rest of his life, before being drafted at 18 for service in Algeria.  

Even though he was still just a teenager, Jaeckin’s gift for taking pictures soon garnered notice during his service and he quickly became an official military photographer. This position allowed him the prime opportunity to craft his work throughout a period that might have otherwise snuffed his passion out.    

So strong was his work as a photographer during his stint in the military, the young Jaeckin used this as a way of landing jobs when he returned home to France. Particularly gifted at taking pictures of people, Jaeckin began working with high-profile publications such as Elle and Vogue. Still in his early twenties, Jaeckin snagged a prime role as one of the famed Paris Match’s art directors and a lifelong working artist was born.  


Geneviève Bujold photographed by Just in 1968

The Paris Match position was vital for Jaeckin and would help introduce him to many of the most famous figures of the day. His highly stylized and penetrating photos garnered him much acclaim as more varied work came his way. He became especially interested in arts outside of photography in this period, such as sculpture which became more and more important to him as his life progressed. His fascination with the moving image came into play as he photographed many leading film figures of the exploding sixties.  

The French New Wave, Rock n Roll and relaxing of censorship laws began to alter the artistic landscape as the sixties progressed and the talented Jaeckin was right in the middle of it absorbing everything around him with the kind of natural interest only a born artist carries.  

Jaeckin’s first flirtation with the world of film began in French commercials, at least one of which was produced by Yves Rousset-Rouard, a man who would alter Jaeckin’s life in the early seventies. The commercial work led Jaeckin to the hugely popular and important French television variety program Dim Dam Dom

Elle magazine editor Daisy de Galard created Dim Dam Dom in the mid-sixties as a female-centric program that quickly became one of the most noteworthy of the era. Jaeckin directed many of the program’s most inventive segments and immersed himself in the world of art, fashion, film, music and politics like never before. Jaeckin came into contact with many of the key players from his later career, like Robert Fraisse and Pierre Bachelet while working on Dim Dam Dom. The entire experience informed the rest of Jaeckin’s career and helped him realize a career in cinema.  

By the time Dim Dam Dom left the French airwaves in 1971, Jaeckin’s reputation as one of the world’s great fashion photographers and innovative commercial filmmakers was firmly in place. Just past the age of thirty, Jaeckin found himself at a crossroads, not quite knowing what his next move should be. It was at this moment that a chance meeting with his former producer Rousset-Rouard changed everything.

Rousset-Rouard recalled in his excellent 1979 French-language memoir Profession, producteur that he had spent much of the period leading up to his chance meeting with Jaeckin obsessed by the idea of bringing the unfilmable to the big screenDespite having no experience as a feature film producer, Rousset-Rouard had lucked upon the rights to the classic clandestine erotic French novel Emmanuelle just as the Hakim Brothers had mistakenly let their rights to the project expire. Credited to authoress Emmanuelle Arsan (but in actuality mostly written by her husband, Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane), Emmanuelle had become an underground sensation in France throughout the sixties, but publisher Eric Losfeld warned him the book’s explicit content made it all but impossible to bring to the big screen. Undeterred, Rousset-Rouard secured the rights and began searching for the director, who could realize his dream for him. It turned out to be more difficult that the young producer imagined.  

Controversial photographer David Hamilton had just rejected Rousset-Rouard’s offer when the depressed producer happened upon Jaeckin outside of Claude LeLouch’s Club 13 in Paris. Rousset-Rouard was convinced Hamilton was the right artist for the job, but upon reacquaintance with Jaeckin he quickly changed his mind. After all, Hamilton was already firmly aligned with eroticism. Jaeckin’s work was much more varied, more in tune with the youthful attitudes and pop-culture of the day than Hamilton. A chance meeting in the night proved miraculous for both Rousset-Rouard and Jaeckin. Soon, the two would begin work on the project that completely changed their lives.

PARIS, FRANCE – JUNE 25: Actress Sylvia Kristel and director of erotic movie Emmanuelle Just Jaeckin on June 25, 1974, in Paris, France. (Photo by Michel GINFRAY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Within just a few years of the meeting outside of Club 13, Emmanuelle became the biggest French film of the seventies, shattering box-office records all over Europe and Asia. The landmark film would make Jaeckin, as well as the young Dutch star he had found in Amsterdam (with assistance from American director Nicholas Ray), household names throughout Europe. 

Neither Jaeckin, nor his electrifying discovery Sylvia Kristel, had any idea just how massive Emmanuelle would become. The two became forever linked by this beautifully seductive albatross neither could ever fully escaped. Emmanuelle’s staggering success forever saddled both Jaeckin and Kristel with the ‘erotic’ tag and neither could ever fully shake it. Despite all the quality and superior work that came after, Emmanuelle followed both Jaeckin and Kristel everywhere they went. The lovely little film that blew up the world became both a blessing and a curse for the pair of young friends who were both so much more varied than any would give credit for after Emmanuelle

Unlike Sylvia, Just hadn’t signed a contract for possible follow-ups and he could reject Emmanuelle’s sequels hoping to distance himself from the project. Previously much acclaimed and admired by his peers, Emmanuelle had a devastating effect on Jaeckin’s career. As he recalled in our interview for my book published by Cult EpicsSylvia Kristel: From Emmanuelle to Chabrol:

“With Emmanuelle, everyone hated me. The critics hated me. The Catholic Church hated me. In my best dreams, I hoped for a small success because, at that time, erotic films were so new that we didn’t know if they would be successful. When the film became a huge success, it was a nightmare for me. Everyone turned their back on me like I was a devil, and newspapers and magazines like Vogue refused to run my name. For one year, I had no work because nobody wanted to work with me anymore. It was a disaster for me. The critics were so bad, saying I was a bad director and it was a bad film. It was horrible. The public followed me but not the critics. After its success, I was trapped in erotic films.”

After rejecting Emmanuelle: The Joys of Woman, Jaeckin realized that the only funding he could get at the time was for another work of erotica, but he wanted to ensure it would be an even more ambitious project. Based on another landmark novel (this time by Pauline Réage) Jaeckin chose the groundbreaking S&M themed Histoire d’O (Story of O) as the next feature he would helm as director.

Assembling much of the talent he had worked on with Emmanuelle, including old friends composer Pierre Bachelet and cinematographer Robert Fraisse, Story of O turned out to be one of the most unnerving and chilly masterpieces of the mid-seventies. While not matching the financial success of Emmanuelle, the film starring Corinne Cléry and Udo Kier, was a resounding success that caused controversy everywhere it played. Also, like EmmanuelleStory of O became one of the most period’s most influential films, and its effect is still felt in the world of film and popular culture.  

Whether or not he wanted the title, Story of O solidified Jaeckin as the virtual king of cinematic eroticism upon its release. Jaeckin yearned to do something different though as his varied interests in the arts and sports became more pronounced. Jaeckin never matched the financial success of his first two films again but regardless his greatest cinematic work was still to come.

For his next project, Jaeckin looked to the fantastic neo-noir political thrillers coming out of America in the mid-seventies. Based upon the shadowy real-life brothel head Fernande Grude, Jaeckin’s startling third film Madame Claude was his best work yet. Highly stylized and inventive, Madame Claude was Jaeckin’s most ambitious film, an entirely unique reactionary thriller that kept some of Jaeckin’s now trademarked eroticism, but it was more The Parallax View than Emmanuelle. For those paying attention, the remarkable Madame Claude served as a stark reminder that Jaeckin was much more than just Mr. Emmanuelle. While the film failed to find the commercial success of his first two juggernaut productions, it remains Jaeckin’s most inventive work and would be his first film with the marvelous Dayle Haddon (after Sylvia Kristel refused the film because of the appearance of Klaus Kinski).  

One of the finest films of 1977, Madame Claude should have solidified Jaeckin’s place as one of the most stylish and innovative filmmakers of his generation but he frustratingly found the film going up against both Emmanuelle and Story of O, which were still playing everywhere, not to mention Star Wars which damaged the industry beyond all repair. Even worse than a disinterested public, critics unfairly continued to sharpen their written knives against Jaeckin, who they had already pigeonholed as just a soft-core director.  

Not at all deterred by the cool reception that greeted Madame Claude, Jaeckin along with his preferred crew and Haydon would create his finest film next, the absolutely charming and invigorating comedic drama The Last Romantic Lover. Alluding back to his time with Dim Dam DomThe Last Romantic Lover was Jaeckin’s absolute masterpiece and remained his personal favorite project until the very end.

Combining the sophistication of the great American screwball comedies of its golden period, along with the newly accepted freedoms of the seventies, The Last Romantic Lover is still unlike anything else. A resoundingly feminist film, guided by an astonishing performance by Dayle Haddon, The Last Romantic Lover should have broken Jaeckin away from Emmanuelle but it failed to find its deserved large audience upon its release. 

The relative non-reception that greeted The Last Romantic Lover understandably disappointed Jaeckin. Of all of his films, it was the one that meant the most to him and time has only added to its appeal. It should have been a complete game-changer for both Jaeckin and star Dayle Haddon but, especially considering how fresh it is today, perhaps its combination of comedy and elegance was too far ahead of its time. Interviewed by Roderick Mann in 1981 for The Los Angeles Times, Jaeckin mused on how the film’s failure affected him, recalling that he was “so depressed” that at times “he couldn’t eat”. He also lamented his “terrible reputation in Europe” and how much he valued some of the positive notices The Last Romantic Lover received when it did finally play America.

After The Last Romantic Lover’s relative failure in Europe, and unsure of his next cinematic move, Jaeckin accepted Collections privées, a 1979 anthology film that would return him squarely to the world of eroticism and pair him with fellow filmmakers Shûji Terayama and Walerian Borowczyk. Jaeckin’s haunting short “L’île aux sirènes” featured Laura Gemser, the star of the Black Emanuelle series Jaeckin’s original had inspired but, again, despite its obvious cinematic brilliance, was again mostly ignored by the critics and public at large upon its release.

By the end of the seventies, a new movement in France began to take shape as filmmakers like Jean-Jacques Beineix, Leos Carax and Luc Besson picked up cameras to create a stylish new French wave that would become known as “Cinéma du look”. While not noted at the time, in hindsight we can see that Jaeckin’s work in the seventies, particularly Madame Claude and The Last Romantic Lover, helped create the blueprint for the super stylish new movement that would produce masterpieces like Diva (1981), Subway (1985) and Lovers on the Bridge (1991). 

Jaeckin soldiered on with his own film career as the eighties dawned with the charming coming of age comedic drama, Girls, a 1980 French co-production with Canada and Germany. Featuring a soundtrack by 10CC founder Eric Stewart and starring an unknown 20-year-old Anne Parillaud (who would soon be snatched up by the Cinema du Look), Girls became Jaeckin’s most little-seen film despite its many strengths.  

After the non-reception that greeted Girls, Jaeckin knew he needed a hit if he wanted his film career to prosper in this new decade. A surprising call from the typically inept Cannon Films gave Jaeckin and an old friend the chance as the new decade dawned. 

Looking to capitalize on the recent fiftieth anniversary of David Herbert Lawrence’s legendary novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the notorious Golan-Globus team had the inspired idea of reuniting the director and star of Emmanuelle. Jaeckin recalled this in the 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films:

“‘Just, we have a great idea! You and Sylvia again.’ They sent me a script. It was a nightmare! It was just erotic scenes with no story. It was shit! I am sure now that they never read the book. They wanted me to do a small fucking film, but with Sylvia, I thought we had something else. I think we can have a great film.”

Jaeckin knew he had to refashion Cannon’s terrible script, but he saw great possibilities in the project and was especially keen to direct Kristel once more. Jaeckin recalled in our interview that “Sylvia had progressed a lot as an actress, and I was very pleased to work with her again.”  

After much pre-production work that would find Jaeckin recrafting the screenplay with acclaimed British writer Christopher Wicking, Lady Chatterley’s Lover became a very vibrant reality for Jaeckin, Kristel and several familiar behind-the-scenes players including once again Robert Fraisse.

Released in 1981, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was Jaeckin’s most elegant and emotional film. Sadly, due to Cannon’s general ineptness, the final film would be flawed mostly because of some cheap post-production work around the film’s dubbing. Despite the avoidable technical issues, Jaeckin and Kristel delivered a worthy follow-up to Emmanuelle and like the rest of Jaeckin’s canon time has treated the film exceptionally well. If only it had been made by any other company besides Cannon, it very well might have solidified new careers for its director and star in English language productions. Sadly, it turned out to be a closing rather than opening chapter for the talented pair.     

Lady Chatterley’s Lover did decent business for Cannon around the world, but critically it wasn’t the hit either Jaeckin or Kristel had hoped for. The two would remain friends for the rest of Kristel’s life but would sadly never work together again.

Jaeckin turned even more and more to sculpture, car-racing and photography after Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s release. More and more aware that he would never truly escape the shadow of Emmanuelle, Jaeckin felt his film career was in possibly its closing moments. He was correct.

Three years after Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Jaeckin returned to the world of feature-length filmmaking one final time with the remarkable Gwendoline (1984). The kind of action-adventure film Jaeckin had been yearning to make for years, Gwendoline turned out to be the most surprising film of his career. Acclaimed and successful throughout parts of the world, Gwendoline was sadly butchered for its English language release under the title The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak. Regardless, it was a triumphant closing chapter to a most undervalued filmmaking career.  

Tired of dealing with the spectre of Emmanuelle and the increasing issue of funding the types of films he wanted to make, Jaeckin all but retired as a filmmaker after Gwendoline. He continued to work sporadically in the world of commercials and television but most of attention went to his other interests, that would conincide with the succesfully opening of his family run gallery in Paris. When I asked him about Sylvia’s legacy in my book, Jaeckin recalled, “I was so sad to see all the journalists say, ‘Oh, she was just Emmanuelle.’ It’s not true! She did so many things.”. It was an apt personal description as well for an extremely talented and influential director who has only recently started to get his due.  

Jaeckin continued with his artistic and personal interests for the rest of his life. He published an acclaimed autobiography Tout Just in 2006 and passed on his great artistic genes to his talented children. For many, Just Jaeckin remains just the man behind Emmanuelle but his career and life were so much more.

Like his incredibly varied work that stretched across popular culture’s landscape decade after decade since the sixties, Jaeckin always deserved more acclaim and respect than granted. 

Thankfully, in the last few years of his life, Jaeckin finally saw the tide shift for his feature filmmaking legacy, such as when the Cinematheque Francaise hosted acclaimed and prestigious restored screenings of his films with a visibly emotional Just in attendance.

After leading a life much less ordinary, Just Jaeckin passed into the great unknown at 82 on September 6th at Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, Ille-et-Vilaine, France. He was surrounded by his loving family.  

Just Jaeckin left us a startling body of work that has no equal in its diversity and innovation. He was that rarest of flowers…a completely original and unique artist who never compromised his totally distinctive vision. His passing leaves a great void, but his legacy will survive long after the memory of those who tried to diminish it fade completely into deserved obscurity.  

Viva Just Jaeckin and the FREEDOM all of his work offered us at its core.

-Jeremy Richey, 2022-

Here are some valuable links to a number of Jaeckin’s special editions on home video, including my publisher Cult Epics’ exceptional releases of Madame Claude and The Last Romantic Lover. The Jaeckin family gallery is also linked below as well, along with some additional links.  

Emmanuelle
Emmanuelle (4K Director’s cut)
Madame Claude
The Last Romantic Lover
Gwendoline

Tout Just

Jaeckin Gallery

Official Page

Instagram
Facebook

IMDB
Letterboxd

Also, don’t miss the rare opportunity to see Emmanuelle on the big screen at The Films of Sylvia Kristel fest playing at the Metrograph in New York starting September 23rd. I will be introducing the show on the 25th.