Wild Things: The Ferocious Films of Nelly KaplanQuad Cinema
April 12 – April 25, 2019
The death of Agnès Varda this past March comes not just as a significant loss, but as a historical marker, prompting reflection on the often cookie-cutter selectionism of even the most iconoclastic of cinematic legacies. That Varda, through creative persistence, would slash through the New Wave’s boys club and ultimately earn herself the apparently single open slot, the “den mother” post, within the famed non-movement movement of bourgeois table-turning, would seem a minor miracle, not least of all because she was hardly the only woman making films that echoed the era’s rallying cries.
Nelly Kaplan, along with writers and directors like Nina Companeez, Paula Delsol, and Nadine Trintignant, made lauded films prior to and well after the pivotal 1960 release of Jean-Luc Godard’s revolutionary classic, Breathless, and yet these women have long been obscured from our male-dominated view of French film culture after the political upheaval of the late ’60s. Misogyny is of course to blame for this near erasure, though Kaplan’s case seems doubly egregious considering the scope of her output, and the feminist impetus of her subversive storytelling. But still, a contemporary appraisal of her work proves challenging. Hers is not a feminism easily shepherded into the ranks of feel-good feminine empowerment that many modern-day feminists consider necessary for the reimagining of women in art.
Born in 1931 in Buenos Aires to Russian-Jewish parents, Kaplan arrived in Paris in 1953 equipped with a resume attesting to her journalistic experience and a letter of introduction to founder and curator of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. Her ascendance into the upper echelons of Parisian intellectual society would be expedited by her fateful meeting with Abel Gance, who fifteen days after Langlois’s introduction would recruit Kaplan as his assistant, and therefrom continue to nurture the young artist as his protégée. Their relationship would in part ignite Gance’s relatively tepid second act efforts, culminating in the star-populated Austerlitz (1960), featuring significant work by Kaplan both above and below the line.
Kaplan’s strangely idyllic actualization as a filmmaker (and her Parisian reinvention) evokes the storied (mis)adventures of starry-eyed emigrés and exploitable naifs, yet the films she went on to make and the she-protagonists at their center counter precisely this stereotype. Kaplan’s films do not envision a world guided by feminist ideals; on the contrary, her characters suffer horrific abuse, betrayal, and violence as a result of their feminine alterity. Her ongoing fascination and self-identification with the mythology of “witches” would define her storytelling impetus, and ultimately complicate her relationship to Feminism. In an interview with Joan Dupont for Film Quarterly, Kaplan wrinkled her nose at the women’s movement of the 1970s: “I’m a solitary panther. I don’t like people telling me to sign things. I like living on a branch in the jungle. Feminism doesn’t interest me [. . .] I am a witch. I know that.”
Her most widely known film, La Fiancée du pirate [A Very Curious Girl, 1969] is incidentally the shining exemplar of Kaplan’s modern witch fables, the tale of a woman who in Kaplan’s words, “doesn’t let herself be burned, [but] sets fire to the others.” Played by repeated Kaplan collaborator Bernadette Lafont (better known for her ménage à trois in Jean Eustache’s epic bedroom talkie The Mother and the Whore, 1973), Marie is prompted by her gypsy mother’s death to abandon her post as farmhand and sexual whipping post to lesbian landowner, Irène, and other entitled townsmen that frequent the property. Rather than languish in complicit oppression, Marie reinvents herself as the local prostitute, and swiftly improves her material conditions thanks to predictably high demand from begrudging provincials. Peeved at needing to pay for what they once considered theirs for the taking, bottom-dwellers and authority figures alike revolt against Marie’s growing enterprise under the guise of religious correctness.
A blaring hypocrisy distinguishes Kaplan’s satire of “principled” French provincial life. Tantalized and enraged at the prospect of an autonomous female body, Kaplan equips her scarlet woman with the means to control and ultimately overcome her tormentors. Giving the whore the last laugh—and refusing to inscribe the sex worker as a casualty of tragic failings—provoked backlash from French censors at the time, prompting Kaplan’s intervention and the triumphant release of the film with an age restriction of 18 and over.
Kaplan peeled off from the aging Gance to dedicate herself to her own artistic agenda, which was met by Gance with skepticism and feigned indifference. (In a remarkable display of masculine fragility, Gance would insist until posthumous letters revealed otherwise that he did not bother seeing La Fiancée du Pirate.) Nevertheless, Kaplan’s interest in Gance’s legacy would be a recurring trend, actualized through a spatter of books, a short film, and ultimately her illuminating feature-length documentary, Abel Gance et son Napoléon (1984).
Despite the perceived cool towards her former mentor, a palpable sense of anger runs through Kaplan’s work, a cry for restitution that is seized through vengeful means. Marie’s triumphant church-side mockery in La Fiancée du Pirate resembles teen girl Sibylle’s carefully executed rape accusation (and faux hysteric collapse at the steps of, again, a church) in Néa (1976), Kaplan’s adaptation of the Emmanuelle Arsan novel. Sibylle (Ann Zacharias), the anonymous, underage writer of an enormously successful erotic novel, revolts against her illicit lover and publisher, Axel Thorpe (Sami Frey), when he betrays their agreement and relishes in the laurels of a work that does not belong to him.
In Pattes des Velours (1987), two women discover their weasley husband is a bigamist, and respond by enslaving him under the threat of reporting his crimes to the authorities. Perhaps my cynical estimation of the modern romantic comedy is misleading, but two women in love with the same man—regardless of his evident guilt—rarely cooperate. The “fun,” as it were, would be in the rivalry. But Kaplan subverts these expectations by making partners of her slighted heroines (Lafont and Caroline Sihol), whose witch-like inclinations for cats and crystal balls underscore the film’s surrealist strain of humor.
Comedy tempers Kaplan’s otherwise sober (if not bleak) subject matter: aberrant sexuality (pedophilia) paves the way to frisky self-realization in Néa, while reckonings with deception, trauma, and sexual autonomy take the form of bright, larky sex comedies in La Fiancée du Pirate and Pattes des Velours. In Papa, les p’tits bateaux (1971), Sheila White’s Cookie is kidnapped and held for ransom to a father that never cares to come to her aid, yet her tinkering with easily bamboozled captors results in breezy slapstick. Charles et Lucie (1979), perhaps the least interested in feminine subversion, is a screwball comedy that posits a certain amour fou between an impoverished middle aged couple as they evade authorities after a series of misfortunes leaves them in possession of a stolen car. Left with literally nothing to their names, the couple’s misadventures are whipped in charm and light fantasy that softens the class critique.
All of Kaplan’s films are powdered with a shade of magic—cataclysmic orgasms, enchanted animals, sorcery, and eroticized natural scenescapes. A modern viewer will be struck with the parallels to a feminine aesthetic popular today (of astrology and healing crystals). Pablo Picasso, a Kaplan champion, would famously compare La Fiancée du Pirate to the films of Luis Buñuel, overrun with the color of taboo and unconscious desire. Though Kaplan’s work would seem to correspond to the timeline of the New Wave, her greatest mentors were of the older school of Surrealists—Gance, of course (though he’d eventually fall out of step with the group) as well as André Breton and Philippe Soupault. Straddling the line between two great French cinematic traditions, Kaplan ultimately belonged to neither. She refused to wave any flag other than her own—a marker of genius for male artists at the time, and a dubious act of dissent for women.