SYLVIA Kristel sits opposite me, not, as in a million Seventies schoolboys' fantasies, cross-legged and pouting saucily in a wicker chair tugging on a string of pearls as she did for the Emmanuelle poster, but fully covered up by a smart trouser suit, in the corner of an Amsterdam café. On this hot June afternoon, she smiles mistily as she recalls the movie which has now been seen by 500 million people worldwide and which spawned a franchise making it the most successful softcore brand name in movie history.

The likeable, vulnerable charm rarely drops, but when it does, it's to inhale sharply with a pained grimace as she clutches her left ear. It may not exactly be raucous in here, but the sounds of gruff Dutchmen talking slightly above polite chatting levels is enough to pain this 54-year-old European icon. Her continued distress is a by-product of the cancer which began to ravage her at the end of 2001, but which she is quietly confident has been defeated.

"You're only as clear as your last check-up, but the doctors are so optimistic that they only want to see me once a year now," she tells me. After a lifetime of drugs, booze and cigarettes, she was eventually diagnosed with throat cancer. A metastasis in the lung and three courses of chemotherapy later, she has the all-clear.

"I stopped smoking four years ago and I hope that helps. Now I try not to drink alcohol, though sometimes it's unavoidable at a reception. But if I have three glasses of champagne, I'm punished for the next two days. The doctor said that I was really young to have this problem but then, I had started smoking at the age of 11. A new lifestyle now will help."

The discomfort and the deafness in her left ear are there to stay though, and this disability has caused problems during TV interviews. On one show, she was being irritated by the host's female sidekick. She was to Kristel's left, the host to her right. Then an unexpected question came from the woman. Kristel thought she had been asked how many movies she had appeared in. The actual question was: "How many orgasms did you have in your films?" Kristel proudly responded: "Fifty!" Cue studio audience uproar. At that moment, she felt as though she had truly become a "freak show". This was reinforced by her appearance on the Graham Norton Show.

"He was not unkind, just so quick and witty. Also, they ask you to come to the studio three hours in advance and fill you up with champagne. Jerry Hall was there, but she just drank water; I'll do that next time."

We're here to talk about her autobiography, Undressing Emmanuelle, which was titled Naked for the Dutch and French book buyers. The venue is Café Pleiznicht, located just around the corner from the flat where she now lives and paints regularly, having developed an interest in the early Eighties. These days her artistic endeavours are mainly a means to keep away from the public glare and to immerse herself in something other than talking about porno movies, but she has clearly been talented enough in this field, having had her work exhibited in Los Angeles in 1982.

Soon after our quasi-formal introduction when she thrusts a hand from a sleeve of her suit and calls me "Mr Donaldson", she says that the interview couldn't have taken place at home as there is nowhere to sit. A perfectly plausible explanation, though if she had stated that on no account would a journalist ever be invited into her home, I would hardly have blamed her. Kristel may be grateful that her fame arrived in an era just prior to the celebrity feeding frenzy we all endure now, but her brush with the Dutch tabloids left her with psychological scars.

In 1977, while holidaying in the Seychelles with Ian McShane, her sister Marianne, and her two-year-old son Arthur from her marriage to Hugo Claus (whom she had left for Mr Lovejoy), news came through of a storm brewing due to a salacious magazine headline back home: "Sylvia Kristel raped by her father!" The interview had been conducted by a journalist she had trusted, unaware that he was soon to be writing at the seedier end of the magazine market.

"There was a photo where they had painted tears in my eyes," she says with a mix of disbelief and disgust. "It was too tacky for words. But when my father and his wife started behaving so badly towards me I decided to go on national television and admit that I had said those things to the journalist but that I knew they were a lie."

While the tale about her father was not true and ended in high-profile court appearances, sexual abuse does play a part in her story. A man she knew as "Uncle" Hans, the manager of her parents' hotel in Utrecht, often watched the nine-year-old Sylvia as she played but on one occasion tied her hands and subjected her to a degrading attack. The timely intervention of an aunt saved may have her from the abuse going any further. In the book, she describes this moment as indicative of "the chaos of my young life" during which each of her adult relatives appeared to have a glass of alcohol permanently to hand, and who all seemed to fear intimacy: "We don't hug in my family" she writes.

While her later moves into modelling and erotic cinema might give psychoanalysts a field day, it was an action of her father that had the biggest impact on her life and career. When Kristel was aged 11, her dad gathered the family (the two sisters, their brother Nicolas and stricken mother) to introduce them to Hanny, the woman he was deserting them for. Kristel describes the moment as "still the worst thing that has ever happened to me", but it seemed to give her a heightened sense of ambition.

"Being an actor was a way of attracting the attention of my father, and the only way to cope with the divorce. We were just dismissed like personnel and it was not good for our self-image. But it saved us in a way because my mother sobered up fast and got a job in a tailor's and bit by bit we started to have fun again."

Fun was something which Kristel had to almost fight for. Her young life in a convent was a perpetual rebellious struggle; she was appalled to be told that the consumption of cognac was a no-no. At 11 years old, this was the first time alcohol had been denied her: "Three Hail Marys will send you to sleep just as well," insisted Sister Assissia. She drifted her way through catholic boarding school, going back home each summer to face the debris of her parents' messy split: "There's nothing to be proud of about coming from such a circus," reprimanded one nun when Kristel is overheard talking about her fragmented home life.

She enrolled at a protestant teacher-training college aged 17 and immediately upset her mentors with persistent questions about the Virgin Mary. She writes in Undressing Emmanuelle of one aghast minister's reaction: "Miss Sylvia Kristel, there is no Holy Virgin, only the mother of Jesus. I think you had better learn the basic principles of Protestantism before coming back to this Sunday school."

Kristel's first break in the movies arrived when Jacques Charrier (formerly married to Brigitte Bardot) picked her out of a crowd at the Utrecht Film Festival and invited her to Paris, though it all came to nothing in the end. When a flute playing deadbeat stopped her in the street to announce that one day she would "be better known than Sophia Loren", the fates started turning her way and a photo shoot with Elle led to a spot on Miss TV Holland. Having won that contest, she headed for London to take part in Miss TV Europe where she pipped the English favourite to the title, receiving a telegram of congratulations from the Dutch Prime Minister.

Despite her success in modelling, the movies was where she wanted to be, and having appeared in some small films, heard about an audition for a French production of Emmanuelle Arsan's autobiographical novel. Apparently, no French actress would touch the role for fear of ruining their career by appearing in porn, but Kristel was confident that she could turn the part into something less nasty and more sophisticated.

"I'm quite prudish and uncomfortable with nudity," she writes in Undressing Emmanuelle, and when you revisit the 1974 movie, her inherent coquettishness (or gross naivete) shines through. Although her tufty-haired tomboy appearance was far from the long-locked Eurasian the casting agents and the book's author had imagined, director Just Jaeckin was intrigued by her mix of the sensual and the pure. When I ask her if she was ever offered anything more hardcore following the first Emmanuelle movie, she is taken aback.

"Maybe I was offered something, but my agent never told me. They were protecting me I suppose, making sure I wasn't doing anything that would hurt my career." She reflects with distaste on the increase in stronger material in adult cinema and within the mainstream movie industry. "Do dramas really need explicit sex for their story? It's getting too close to method acting for me. I doubt Robert De Niro would shoot up some heroin if it was in the script."

In the early Seventies, eroticism was making genuine inroads to the mainstream, with Don't Look Now's ongoing debate over whether Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie actually had intercourse, and the controversial Last Tango In Paris with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. When Emmanuelle came along, it blurred the line between softcore and the mainstream, and by having a largely plotless tale interspersed with random segments of masturbation, consensual sex and rape plus a scene of a Thai stripper doing unmentionable things with lit cigarettes. Despite some problems in France where for the first six months, the movie was deemed suitable only for porno cinemas rather than respectable film theatres, the first Emmanuelle was an international sensation.

"When you consider what goes on in TV now, it was nothing," Kristel recalls. "But at the time it was oh la la, very risqué. In France, the feminists were very much against it, because they felt it was another exploitation of women, but in Japan, the feminists loved it, because in one scene the woman was on top of the man."

It was followed the next year by a rather more frank sequel as the central character went from a deflowered waif exploring her own bisexual desire into this all-new ravenous sexual being.

The movies certainly look great, but they do include archetypally awful dialogue which seems even worse when badly dubbed into English. Not only are the men made to wear some inglorious facial fuzz, they get to utter lines of such arch nonsense as: "You're not my possession. You're not my beauty. You are beauty". And there is also this one: "You must make love freely and without shame. Chastity is a lack of generosity and love should know no limits. And if anyone tries to create them, then they are artificial." The fact that this moving speech occurs just prior to a brutal sexual assault only makes the philosophical pontificating more nauseating. While the sex in the films that made her name is of the distinctly soft variety, her drug of choice was hard. A massive cocaine habit was fostered after her initial success and despite having people who were employed to look after her interests, her partying became addictive and threatening. "In the Eighties, people with money were doing cocaine as though it was candy and it was socially accepted," she says. Kristel recalls being amazed to discover that her doctor was an habitual user. "I mean, this guy was the one who was deciding whether I was fit enough to do a film. Incredible. I asked him if his mother knew about his habit."

Despite appearing in two more Emmanuelles, her star was never again to be as luminous as it was in the mid-Seventies. She attempted to enhance her reputation with more serious works beside French cinema icons Gerard Depardieu, Alain Delon and Philippe Noiret, but would always fall back into the typecasts of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Private Lessons, both of which traded heavily on the Emmanuelle brand, which was no longer a potent force.

"I was dressed, but people preferred me naked. I realised that the public had been deeply affected by Emmanuelle and wanted to prolong their fantasy, to keep me within it, symbolic and naked, idealised and necessary."

The last time she sat through her debut was when Channel 4 made a documentary entitled Hunting Emmanuelle. "I was sent the film on DVD as I couldn't find my videotape copy. It was kind of fun to watch them as they were far more elegant and charming than I remember." Which is rather a an odd thing to say given the rape scenes that book-end the film, the second a particularly horrific sequence with Kristel set upon by a band of local Thai youths who were not even professional actors. Twice during our interview, Kristel peers back into her history and is visibly upset by what she sees. The death of her confidante Freddy De Vree, a journalist and poet who taught her that she could live without alcohol and whom she describes as her "final refuge", is a relatively recent source of pain. "I find it very difficult to talk about Freddy's death. It's now the third year of his absence and I hope that after this book I will get into some new projects." She aims to go behind the camera again (her short film, an autobiographical animation Topor And Me, won a director's prize at last year's Tribeca Film Festival) and she harbours ambitions to succeed with some commercial art, "designing cups and saucers or bed linen".

Perhaps more surprisingly, given the steady passage of time, some sad emotions bubble to the surface when she talks about Ian McShane, in particular the way their relationship ended.

"Those years were hard on both of us," she says generously. "As for the relationship, when we weren't fighting we had a good time together, but we were both heavily drinking and tooting, so it was more like Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf; one minute we'd fight and the next we'd laugh and make love."

Kristel doesn't believe that she was really McShane's type, yet their affair lasted four years, ending after she became pregnant. "He didn't want to have the child so we started this pregnancy off with doubts and we were still drinking; there was little chance that the baby would live."

And sure enough after yet another shouting match, Kristel lost her balance, fell down some stairs, and miscarried. McShane had just finished shooting the 1978 TV mini-series Disraeli in which he played the title role of the 19th-century British statesman, but Kristel recalls that he was more interested in making arrangements for the wrap party than in taking care of her in hospital. "Finally, I thought, well, it's no good..." She winces at the memory, her spirits only rising when she professes pride at the way his career has rocketed since.

"Now things have turned out well for him, he's been clean for 30 years or whatever, still married to Gwen Humble and very successful with what he's doing and that makes me happy because with his talent he deserves it." She recalls reading a newspaper with the TV on in the background, and slowly tuning in to some familiar tones booming from the set. "Suddenly I heard this voice and it just had to be McShane," she notes, recalling her first experience of his Al Swearengen character in Deadwood, the HBO Western drama which brought him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in 2005. "I heard a lot of "f**king this" and "f**king that" and it could be only one person. But we've not had contact since we split; he's not the type of person to write Christmas cards."

With a host of psychological and physical damage reminding her of the many lost weekends and stolen years, you have to imagine that she has a barrowload of regrets. "Probably only that I was so careless with my body and that I was not a traditional mother. I was in love with the camera and Arthur was doing his best to stay away from it." Her boy did make one stab into the movie business, with a role in a 1999 movie called Nachtvlinder about murder and intrigue in royal Dutch circles in the Middle Ages. It didn't do too well.

"The life is too uncertain for him," she says. "He wants to have a monthly pay check and not have the worries of a freelancer, so he's been working for 15 years in my sister's coffee shop in Utrecht." It's illuminating that her son should have chosen to get as far away from the film world as he possibly could. He clearly had some unsettling experiences growing up with a mother who, by any stretch of the imagination, was not the perfect parent. At the height of her drug dependency, Arthur was taken back to Holland by Kristel's mother and sister who left her to self-destruct. Mother and son are now close and she describes herself as "a late-developing, loving mother who is making up for lost time".

When we continue on the topic of regrets, she about-turns, believing that discussing it is bad karma. "I try to avoid that question because I don't like to look back, don't want to look over my shoulder. No grudges. No negatives."

Undressing Emmanuelle: A memoir by Sylvia Kristel, published by Fourth Estate, £14.99