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The Ferocious Brilliance of Nelly Kaplan

The French director of “A Very Curious Girl” and other vitriolic comedies is the subject of a new retrospective at New York’s Quad Cinema.
A Very Curious Girl
A Very Curious Girl. Courtesy of Lobster Films.
Nelly Kaplan’s eloquent, vitriolic comedies are often social parables of vengeance, in which the weak rise up to serve the powerful their comeuppance. Joan Dupont recently described in Film Quarterly how the Argentine-born Kaplan had a modest start: She arrived in France, in 1953, at the age of 22, with mere 50 dollars and a letter of introduction to Cinémathèque française Director Henri Langois. She then worked as assistant director to film legend Abel Gance, with whom she had a romance, and launched her own career, making some fifteen films, among them vivacious comedies, documentary portraits of artists, and films for television—including a documentary, Abel Gance and His Napoléon (1984), about the filming of Gance’s epic, Napoléon (1927). And yet, despite her promising start and her having worked into the early 1990s, by the time Dupont wrote about her, Kaplan had been mostly forgotten.
It’s a pity, since with her innate talent for social caricature, Kaplan can make even the caustic satires of Lars von Trier seem like a child’s play. Take her comedic masterpiece, A Very Curious Girl (1969), made to an extent from the same stuff as von Trier’s Dogville (2003). Both films are notably blunt: Where von Trier exposes do-gooders as closeted bigots, Kaplan did the same, nearly forty years earlier, poking fun at a wholesome French village, whose inhabitants she exposes as opportunists and liars. Kaplan repeated this theme in her later films, particularly in Velvet Paws (1986). In her work, women often compete with men in a ruthless battle for survival and dignity. What they discover in the process, however, is not so much bitterness or misanthropic despair as the wicked delight of transforming one’s weakness into strength with a bit of grit and cunning.
Kaplan’s great gift is not taking herself seriously, even when she’s deadly serious in her feminist critique of the status quo (particularly gender-based economic inequality). In A Very Curious Girl, after her outcast destitute mother passes away, a young woman, Marie (Bernadette Lafont), finds herself at the whim of her seemingly well-intentioned neighbors. Lacking funds for her mother’s burial, Marie scraps whatever money she can to throw a party for her male neighbors, and coerces them to bury her mother in secret. Once the deed is done, all men—from farmers and the postman to the mayor—are eager to exploit Marie. She decides to charge them for sex, and soon saves up enough to have hot water, gas, electricity, and luxury goods in her barren shack. The villagers, men and women alike, turn on Marie, scheming to drive her out, but she outdoes them with wit. In the unforgettable finale that takes place during mass at a local parish, Marie pays her persecutors back by exposing their secrets.
Kaplan’s scenario is mostly hyper-realistic, with bright flashes of fancy: Marie’s elaborately decorated shack becomes a veritable museum of kitsch. The shack’s surrealism presages von Trier’s fable-like setting in Dogville, while Marie’s increasingly scathing attitude and anarchic politics come across as an homage to the brazen feminism of Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966). There is also a Bressonian joke in the scenario: Marie’s great indefatigable friend, and the single creature for which she shows genuine concern, is her goat. Kaplan includes close-ups of the goat, as if evoking the spirit of Bresson’s beastly protagonist in Au hasard Balthazar (1966), a donkey that in a similar fashion served as a mirror and a sardonic counterpoint to human pettiness and striving. When the goat meets a violent end, its death spurs Marie’s social awakening, and stirs her to action.
One of Kaplan’s beloved topics is the battle of the sexes (even though in A Very Curious Girl some of Marie’s most vicious oppressors are actually women). In Velvet Paws, originally made for French television, a young widow, Iris—brilliantly played by Caroline Sihol—stumbles onto the country house of a mysterious fortune-teller, Jacinthe (Bernadette Lafont), only to discover that her husband, Poltergeist (Pierre Arditi), has also been married to Jacinthe, and that he isn’t even really dead. Rather than wallow in mutual misery, Jacinthe and Iris promptly blackmail the bigamist, and go on enjoying romances with other men. Their bliss ends, however, when a renowned crime writer, Quid (Michel Bouquet), arrives on the scene. As the two sexes try to out-con each other, Kaplan stages a series of oddball reversals, poking fun at the conventions of crime genre as much as she does at upper middle-class civility and morals.
Kaplan was clearly a passionate cinephile, and being even an episodic fan of French cinema heightens the pleasure of watching her work. For example, Georges Géret, who played the memorably violent oppressive farmhand in Luis Buñuel’s TheDiary of a Chambermaid (1964) returns as a vicious Peeping Tom who torments Marie in A Very Curious Girl. In both films, Géret is wickedness personified, parading as a savior. Michel Bouquet, on the other hand, an actor who played in over one hundred films, is delightful as wily Quid in Velvet Paws (Bouquet also stars in Kaplan’s Papa the Lil’ Boats, 1971, a light spoof in which a spoiled heiress—think Patty Hearst—is kidnapped for ransom). Kaplan even sneaks into Velvet Paws a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Jacques Tourneur’s cult noir, Cat People (1942): When Poltergeist complains that someone is trying to murder him, it seems for a while that the perpetrator may in fact be Jacinthe’s beloved cat. An outrageous scenario, for sure, but then in Kaplan’s films anything is possible (incidentally, Paul Schrader’s Cat People, a direct reworking of Tourneur’s classic, premiered a few years earlier, in 1982). More to the point, Kaplan uses the trope of a jealous woman’s repressed rage, so imaginatively employed by Tourneur, who portrayed it as a psychic, animalistic force. And is it really that far-fetched that, deep down, the seemingly overprotective Jacinthe and Iris would want to their bigamist husband dead? In her zany pastiches, Kaplan takes cinema’s frequently veiled, subconscious representations of women’s dangerousness and gives them concrete form. 
"Wild Things: The Ferocious Films of Nelly Kaplan" runs April 12 –25 at the Quad Cinema in New York.

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