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In the ’70s and ’80s, Joe D’Amato was a prolific font of Italian exploitation cinema, making horror, sexploitation, post-apocalyptic action flicks and even full-fledged pornography (he’d finish out his career specializing in this final option). If you grew up watching Skinemax, you most closely associated his name with the Black Emanuelle series, a barrage of globe-trotting sexploitation films starring Laura Gemser. Many a young mind was blown by these films, which would offset the expected sex and skin with excursions into snuff films and cannibal tribes.

Shortly before he got going on the Black Emanuelle films, D’Amato made a film called Emanuelle And Francoise. It had nothing to do with his later successes, as Gemser is nowhere in sight, but it does the set the tone for his sexploitation style by mixing the carnal and the macabre in a dark, occasionally disturbing manner.

The premise of Emanuelle And Francoise was lifted from The Wild Pussycat, a Turkish exploitation film that Bruno Mattei had a hand in reshaping for Italian release. Mattei and D’Amato wrote the script for their uncredited remake, which begins with cute model Francoise (Patrizia Gori) throwing herself in front of a train after being cheated on and kicked out by her sleazeball boyfriend Carlo (regular D’Amato collaborator George Eastman).

Francoise’s sister, chic columnist Emanuelle (Rose Marie Lindt), identifies the body and the authorities give her an unsent letter from Francoise that reveals how she suffered endless abuse at the hands of sadistic, gambling-addicted Carlo.  Emanuelle plots a unique revenge by seducing Carlo, drugging him and putting him in chains in a hidden room in her apartment. Said hidden room has a two-way mirror and Emanuelle torments Carlo by trotting out an array of lovers male and female.  As he descends into insanity, the stage is set for finale with ironic outcomes for both people.

Like a lot of D’Amato’s best work, Emanuelle And Francoise is an intriguing combination of artful technique and grimly perverse content. D’Amato was his own cameraman here, a double-duty he often pulled on his own productions, and he’s got an eye for the glossy, soft-focus erotica that was in fashion in the mid-’70s: the opening titles montage with Francoise going through a number of alluring poses for a cameraman is a perfect example.

However, D’Amato can also pull off a surreal horror setpiece where a drugged, mentally fragmenting Carlo looks on behind the mirror as Emanuelle enjoys a dinner with a group of friends.  In short order, he begins to hallucinate that they are eating raw meat and severed body parts before the women rip their clothes off and rush in to torment him with their bodies. The comingling of sex and death is as unnerving as it is surreal.  D’Amato also seems to tease his audience over their voyeurism by cutting away from the sex to show bestial, lust-crazed Carlo helplessly leering with an ever-more-manic stare.  On a similarly ironic note, Emanuelle discovers that trying on Carlo’s lust and sadism don’t bring her the vengeful satisfaction she craved.

In short, Emanuelle And Francoise stands out from the mid-’70s sexploitation pack because of D’Amato’s singular touch. He takes joy in giving the audience what it wants in a way they didn’t expect to get it, couching his cheap thrills in a world of predators and victims where greed and lust corrode the souls of the people chasing them. It’s a daring tack for a softcore film director to take but D’Amato built an entire leg of his career on this kind of film.  This was just the shot across the bow for the willful weirdness he’d explore in the worlds of sexploitation and horror through the rest of the decade.