Just Jaeckin's glossy sex film, about a young woman's sexual 'education', was made in 1972 but was held up for a couple of years by censorship problems in France. However, when the film was finally allowed by the French censorship board in 1974, it was not long before it arrived for classification for UK release.
In spite of the fact that the film had become something of a hit with mainstream French audiences, rather than the usual niche audience for 'sex' films, the BBFC was not hugely impressed with the argument put forward by the distributor that the film was of great significance or importance. As Stephen Murphy, Secretary of the BBFC, said in a letter addressed to several local councils: "With the best will in the world, we were unable to see it in these terms. It struck us as a sex film quite outstandingly well photographed and edited but still containing material which, to our minds, would be unacceptable to British taste".
Accordingly a number of cuts were made to the film, principally to reduce the sexual detail to levels that the BBFC regarded as likely to be acceptable to the local councils on whose behalf cinema films were classified. As well as reducing the amount of implied thrusting, oral sex and masturbation in a number of sequences, the BBFC deleted an entire scene showing a night club act in which a woman 'smokes' a cigarette with her vagina.
Perhaps surprisingly given the later treatment of the film, a sequence in which Emmanuelle is raped in an opium den as part of her 'sexual education' was left largely intact, with only minimal cuts to reduce the amount of thrusting seen.
When James Ferman took over from Stephen Murphy as Secretary of the BBFC in 1975 (by which time the film had already been seen by millions of UK cinema-goers), he made it clear that he was very concerned about what he saw as the increasingly 'irresponsible' portrayal of sexual violence in films. In Ferman's view, rape was a subject to be approached with caution and the portrayal of sexual violence in a flippant or erotic manner was unacceptable.
Ferman's response to the perceived irresponsibility of some film makers was to suggest that the current situation, whereby films were excluded from the Obscene Publications Act, should be removed. This would mean that 'serious' films, such as Salo, L'Empire Des Sens and Last Tango in Paris could be protected from the arbitrary dictates of the test of common law indecency (under which films were considered scene by scene rather than as a whole and without the benefit of any arguments of contextual justification). It would also mean that films that treated rape in a less than serious - or even erotic - manner could be rejected or cut as liable to 'deprave and corrupt'.
As a result of his petitioning, the Obscene Publications Act was extended to cinema films in 1977. Ferman's first response to the change of law was to waive the existing cuts to Last Tango in Paris (a 'serious' film whose overall context and artistic integrity would protect it from prosecution). Shortly after this he instructed the distributor of Emmanuelle (still playing in the West End of London) that the original X certificate, issued in 1974, was to be withdrawn and that the film would have to be cut to remove the eroticised rape scene.
As Ferman stated at the time in a letter to the distributor: "It has been put to me that the rape scene in EMMANUELLE is at least as depraving and corrupting as anything in THE STORY OF O [another film directed by Just Jaeckin, which the BBFC had rejected], since rape is presented in EMMANUELLE as if it is beneficial to the victim, a view of sexual liberation which is emphasised by the attitude of her elderly mentor both during the rape and after it. I have been asked whether in a court of law I could consistently say that this scene is not depraving or corrupting, and I have had to say that, in all conscience, I could not. For that reason, I must now ask you to delete that sequence from the film for all future British distribution". In spite of the distributor's reluctance to make further cuts to the film, a further one minute one second was deleted in 1979 for the film's continued availability in the UK. No further cuts were required.
Emmanuelle was subsequently submitted to the BBFC for a formal video classification in 1990. On this occasion, the BBFC accepted that the 'sex' cuts required on film in 1974 were no longer necessary by contemporary standards and only two cuts were insisted upon for video release, namely (i) to remove the woman 'smoking' a cigarette through her vagina and (ii) to remove the entire rape in the opium den, as cut on film in the late 70s. Unfortunately, a duplication error led to the uncut version being released on video in 1991, leading to a major and costly product recall.
After this, the film was seen again in 2001 (for DVD release), at which time the cut to the 'smoking' of the cigarette was waived as tasteless but not harmful or illegal but the rape scene was still reduced to establishment (the only cut still required to the film at the time).
Subsequent to this, the film was resubmitted uncut for DVD release in 2007.At this time, the BBFC agreed that the rape scene, although undeniably 'tasteless' in its message, was sufficiently dated and ridiculous to be accepted at the adult level as an example of the kind of historical attitude towards sexual violence that was prevalent in the early 70s. Furthermore, in the scene itself the woman does not appear to enjoy the experience and the actual detail of nudity is minimal. Given the extremely dated nature of the film and the ridiculous dialogue through which the audience has to wade in order to get at the offensive message, it was considered that the scene lacked sufficient detail or credibility to have an effect on attitudes today. The DVD was therefore released at 18 uncut.