2019 Film Essays

The Seductive, Puzzling Films of Nelly Kaplan

“She seemed to revel in her provocative attitude,” one character remarks of the titular heroine in overlooked Argentine-French director Nelly Kaplan’s first feature film A Very Curious Girl (1969).

It’s a description that seems to fit its outré filmmaker too, whose work is the subject of a new retrospective at Quad Cinema in Manhattan, which includes full restorations of seven of her best movies. With their uncomfortable blend of sexual politics, dark comedy, quirky star power and social and moral critique, it’s no wonder moviegoers didn’t know what to make of Kaplan’s satirical stories when they were first released. Former Quad Cinema programmer C. Mason Wells recently remarked that the lack of a simple feminist message may be one reason that Kaplan’s films were largely unrecognized in their time.

Kaplan, now 88, is a director whose piquant comedic fiction films deal with social mores and class warfare. While the subject matter may sound drab, Kaplan’s treatment of these issues is colorful, intriguing, complex and never self-serious. In 2009, writer Benjamin Ivry described a published collection of Kaplan’s love letters with a French Surrealist writer (entitled Write to Me of Your Lofty Deeds and Crimes) as “teasingly playful… tinged with more than a dollop of acerbic, sometimes even sadistic, wit.” Her films are likewise comical, brutal and infused with an unpredictable, vital energy. “I’m a successful witch,” she remarked in 2016 to the French press.

Kaplan has led an adventurous life. The Argentine-born daughter of Russian Jews, Kaplan was a voracious reader as a child. She came to Paris at 22, she has said, with little more than $50 and a letter of introduction to Henri Langlois, a co-founder of the Cinématheque Française and a key figure in French cinephile circles at the time. She knew virtually no French. Once there, Kaplan — by then, an alluring woman with reddish-brown hair and arresting green eyes — wrote surrealist fiction under the pen name Belen, made documentaries about artists like Gustave Moreau and Pablo Picasso, and worked as a journalist/film theorist. (Read her harsh assessments of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as part of her coverage of the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, online at Film Comment.) She also had a tumultuous professional and romantic relationship with her mentor, the married and much older director Abel Gance. (Kaplan served as assistant director on Gance’s The Battle of Austerlitz (1960) and second unit director on Cyrano et d’Artagnan (1964). She also made a short and a feature-length documentary about Gance.)

Kaplan’s potent debut fictional feature, A Very Curious Girl, possesses a seemingly unstable tone, and an absurd sense of humor that is sure to disturb, even 50 years later. The semi-scandalous film, which earned an 18+ rating, was a hit at the Venice Film Festival and earned admiration from Picasso himself. (“Insolence raised to the status of art,” he declared.) Bernadette Lafont’s turn in A Very Curious Girl as a country servant is buoyant and ironic. The first time the character appears, she is scrubbing a dirty floor — on all fours — while two men leer at her. Her life is wretched and utterly devoid of people who care about her. But Marie doesn’t feel self-pity or see herself as a victim. When her mother dies, the destitute Marie ropes the men of her town into burying her after a few drinks. She segues from debased servant into empowered prostitute, upgrading her meager shack (she installs electricity and plumbing) and wardrobe before exposing the country folks as the liars they are. Kaplan recently told Film Quarterly that she knew nothing about the French provinces, except what she’d learned from Balzac.

With this film, Kaplan achieved synergy with a lead actress. The mischievous Lafont, a French New Wave star, who starred in Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut’s films, often played middle or working-class women (including shop girls, housekeepers and criminals). When used poorly, Lafont’s innate bravado and invigorating energy can become strident, grating and exasperating. But in Kaplan’s films, Lafont is a glorious embodiment of a saucy, liberated woman, who empowers herself and takes action to improve her life.

The complicated tone that A Very Curious Girl possesses is comparable to that of surrealist director Luis Buñuel — part magical surrealism, part moral fable. If her subsequent fictional films are often lighter and broader, the 1970s and 1980s movies I sampled have a Rohmer-esque flavor, as they subvert conventions and deal with Kaplan’s trademark themes cleverly. And they do so in a more digestible, and more enjoyable, way.

Kaplan’s 1976 film Néa, based loosely on a story by Emmanuelle Arsan, deals with the artistic and sexual coming-of age of Sibylle Ashby (Ann Zacharias), an imaginative, well-to-do 16-year-old girl with a melancholy look. Like most teenagers, she reminds her parents that she didn’t ask to be born. Unlike most teenagers, though, she quotes the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and devours the novels she steals from a local bookseller. When the handsome bookshop owner (Sami Frey) discovers her thievery, he takes interest in Sibylle, seeing her potential as a writer. They strike a deal: she’ll write an anonymous erotic novel and he’ll publish it. The ensuing storyline, and romance, is predictable, but on the whole, it’s a good movie. Despite some questionable elements — like the nudity of the thin, blonde lead actress, who was 19 or 20 when the film was released, but who looks younger — the film is witty, tender and filled with pathos. Especially funny are the scenes dealing with the immediate aftermath of the risqué novel’s publication. The inevitable backlash finds protesters picketing outside the bookshop, chanting “Down with Decadence” as they display signs saying “No to Néa,” the title of the novel and the name of the book’s protagonist. A critic’s review on television is also humorous: “A specialist in demolitions, in spasms, in excitement, her book has the form of a missile pointing at conventions,” he announces. “Néa displays a crazy sense of humor… try[ing] to accomplish the destruction of the sordid old order… An explosion of heat in a dark Siberia, this splendid book is not appropriate for everyone. But who hides behind Néa? It’s a complete mystery.”

Velvet Paws (or Draw In Your Claws, as the translated title card reads) is an amusing, lightweight caper that plays with familiar tropes from detective stories. A mysterious, black-clad blonde visits a clairvoyant psychic. The two women soon discover they’re married to the same man. Then they blackmail him, forcing him to clean, wash clothes, sew and act as their servant. Of course, they also torture him by subjecting him to their flirtations with other men. The 1986 made-for-tv film is an over-the-top farce with presumably intentional corny jokes (the bigamist husband’s name is Poltergeist) and madcap exchanges (the husband fumes to a male guest, “Instead of fighting for their man, they joined forces. Bitches!”). The women of Velvet Paws engage in a merry battle of the sexes, but they do so with self-aware humor and blithe repartee.

Kaplan’s wily female characters leverage their power and take matters into their own hands. Viewers cheer when the women of Velvet Paws blackmail the cheating man and when Lafont’s character insists that the tenant write checks out to her, rather than her husband. They are formidable but whimsical; resourceful but equally capable of being frivolous; vengeful but also lively, cheek and bold. Kaplan pokes fun at her characters’ interest in magic and clairvoyance (her witchy heroines are devoted to their cats and read books on sorcery) and their romantic, girlish preoccupation with the absolute. One can understand why her characters do what they do. Kaplan’s disquieting movies have aged quite well. They feel completely relevant today.

Julia Bozzone is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.

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