Film

All the Rage

Nelly Kaplan, A Very Curious Girl, 1969, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Bernadette Lafont as Marie.

THE CURRENT MINING OF FILM HISTORY for overlooked women directors has unearthed the confrontational oeuvre of the brilliant outsider Nelly Kaplan. An abbreviated retrospective of the Argentinian-born, French-language filmmaker—she’s made fiction features, documentaries, and shorts—is playing at the Quad in New York through April 25. “Wild Things: The Ferocious Films of Nelly Kaplan” kicks off with a weeklong run of her best-known movie, the newly restored A Very Curious Girl (aka La Fiancee du Pirate) from 1969, followed by more limited showings of six later features, among them 1976’s softcore coming-of-age sendup Néa (aka A Young Emmanuelle), which will have feminists alternately cheering and pounding their heads in despair.

The daughter of an intellectual Jewish family, Kaplan left Argentina in 1952 for Paris, where she still lives today. She was introduced by Argentinian Cinematheque to Henri Langlois, the head of the Cinematheque Francais. There, she met Abel Gance, whose monumental silent-era films Napoleon (1927) and La Roue (1921) combined visionary explorations of the moving image with populist epic narratives. Kaplan worked with Gance as an assistant and second unit director, and was credited as cocreator of 1956’s Magirama; she also was his lover. A few years after Napoleon, which for fifty-odd years had been diced and spliced by various distributors, was restored by the British Film Institute and the Cinematheque Francais, Kaplan made Abel Gance and His Napoleon (1983), an elegant chapbook that combines film clips, production stills, audio recordings of Gance, and on-location documentary footage. Necessary viewing for film scholars, it plays once at the Quad, on April 21, alongside several of the shorts on artists and art spaces that Kaplan made during the ’60s, among them A la source, la femme aimée (At the Source: The Beloved Woman) (1965), a ten-minute tour of the erotic drawings and watercolors of Surrealist André Masson. Kaplan organizes the images so that the latent violence in the early drawings explodes in the later ones, only to resolve in a large painting of a woman and a man standing face-to-face—a temporary truce, perhaps. 

Although Kaplan’s movies do not lack friendships and love affairs between women, her primary subject is the vicissitudes of heterosexuality, captured from the point of view of alert women who refuse to be exploited or dominated, and don’t hesitate to exact revenge on any man who abuses or tries to subordinate her. A Very Curious Girl, Kaplan’s first fiction feature and her only popular and critical success, stars Bernadette Lafont as Marie, introduced on her hands and knees, scrubbing the stone floor of a farmhouse where she takes care of the senile father of the land’s lesbian owner, who expects to be serviced in her bedroom. The sullen passivity with which Marie accepts these chores, and also the rape by the drunken imbecilic male power brokers of Tellier—a rural backwater of the kind occasionally shown to more picturesque advantage in films by the French New Wave (for which Kaplan has little respect)—suggests another Marie, one of the two central figures in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Bresson’s Marie loves her donkey, the titular Balthazar, but allows him to be as victimized as herself. Soon after Kaplan’s Marie loses her mother (slain by a hit-and-run driver at the beginning of the film), Tellier’s honchos shoot the only living creature she loves, a beautiful black goat. It’s a turning point for this Marie, who summons the witchy power of her gypsy mother and invests her measly savings in some bordello-like decorations for her wooden shack and some fetchingly skimpy apparel. Excited by the prospect of sex with a self-proclaimed whore, the male citizens of Tellier do not hesitate to pay for what they used to get for free, failing to notice the contempt and icy rage behind her minimal gestures of seduction. But on one of her shopping sprees, she acquires a tape recorder which she uses to record her clients’ postcoital chitchat. On her way out of town to what undoubtedly will be a better, and, given her capitalist talent, more profitable life, she leaves this evidence of hypocrisy, meanness, and stupidity as her legacy to the already blighted village. 

It’s the cool wit in Lafont’s performance and in Kaplan’s script, and the ingeniousness of Marie’s vengeance, that makes A Very Curious Girl seem utterly au courant. Revenge is also a dish that Kaplan serves, with similar wit but somewhat less cool, in Néa, a commercial flop based in part on a story by Emmanuelle Arsan, a writer of softcore fiction for whom Just Jaeckin’s gauzy Emmanuelle (1974) and its many sequels were named. Kaplan’s film is a bildungsroman about a sixteen-year-old girl named Sybille (Ann Zacharias) who employs erotic novels as masturbation aids before deciding that she can use her observations and, later, her experience to pen a more exciting one herself. A cross between Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s Lolita and Sandra Dee in various Gidget movies, Zacharias is wonderful when she’s inscrutable in the way that teenaged girls can be, and less compelling when she needs to make us feel that she’s in love, hurt, and angry enough to take revenge on her clandestine publisher/lover (Samy Frey) with a scheme that will be a nightmare for any #MeToo hardliners in the audience. Néa also has the faults of Roger Corman assembly-line productions—obligatory sex scenes occur at prescribed although not dramatically motivated places in the narrative. But for all its failures, the film is an exhilarating depiction of adolescent female desire. And like several of Kaplan’s films, it has many—perhaps too many—close-up reaction shots of a very beautiful cat.

“Wild Things: The Ferocious Films of Nelly Kaplan” runs at Quad Cinema in New York from April 12 through April 25.

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