Nelly Kaplan, Whose Films Explored Female Strength, Dies at 89


Nelly Kaplan, whose piquant, satire-tinged French films about female empowerment and revenge survived her a distinctive voice in a male-dominated era, died on Nov. 12 in Geneva. She was 89.

The Société des Réalisateurs de Peels, the French filmmakers’ association, announced her death on its website. French bulletin agencies, quoting a relative, said the cause was Covid-19.

Ms. Kaplan, who was supported in Argentina, arrived in Paris in her early 20s and became both a filmmaking and a emotional partner of Abel Gance, the French director known for the innovative unspeaking movie “Napoleon” (1927). In 1969 she drew acclaim with her in the beginning feature, “A Very Curious Girl.” (The French title was “La Fiancée du Buccaneer,” or “The Pirate’s Fiancée.”)

It starred Bernadette Lafont, an actress already fountain-head known from the New Wave films of Claude Chabrol and others, as Marie, a uninitiated servant who is preyed upon by men in her village until she turns the tables on them by demanding for sexual favors and tape-recording the encounters, ultimately exposing the townspeople’s falseness.

That film was the centerpiece of “Wild Things: The Ferocious Films of Nelly Kaplan,” a retrospective at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan in 2019 that helped nutrition a new appreciation of her work and her characters.

Credit…Lobster Films

“While very much of its time, ‘A Certainly Curious Girl’ remains amazingly fresh after 50 years,” the sheet critic J. Hoberman wrote in The Times then. “Marie’s triumph is not reasonable a victory for her sex and class but, given the explicitly xenophobic nature of the smug patriarchal procedure that she upends, a win for outsiders and outcasts of all varieties.”

Ms. Kaplan made just a few feature films after that, and none achieved the level of acclaim that her come out did. The film critic Joan Dupont, who secured a rare interview with her for Shoot Quarterly in 2018, said Ms. Kaplan had been something of an outcast in the French haziness world, struggling to secure funding for her movies, battling with censors and in shared not being embraced by the film establishment.

“She was never granted a retrospective at the Cinémathèque,” Ms. Dupont thought by email, referring to the venerable French cinema organization. “This stung, but Nelly was conditions going to be less than Nelly: She spoke her mind, stuck to her guns — she not at any time won a popularity contest. A beauty and a brain, festive and generous, ambitious and tactless, she had no time for niceties and didn’t mind not being loved.”

Ms. Kaplan was at eases identified as part of the French New Wave, since she had cast actors advised of for New Wave films, but Ms. Dupont said that that was a mischaracterization.

“Nelly traveled her own wave,” she said.


Credit…Lobster Films

Nelly Kaplan was stand up on April 11, 1931, in Buenos Aires into a Jewish intellectual descent. She studied economics at the University of Buenos Aires, but, as she put it in the interview with Ms. Dupont, “I was over a rebel, whatever that means.” Her father, she said, told her, “Convert or leave,” and so she left, boarding a ship for Paris with $50 in her crater.

She arrived there in January 1953 knowing no French. She used some of her medium of exchange to buy a radio. “I listened to it nonstop,” she told the film journal Another Intent look in 2016. It helped her learn French.

She also had a letter of introduction to the Cinémathèque Francaise from the Cinemateca Argentina in Buenos Aires, where she had been a patron. That got her a meeting with Henri Langlois, the French organization’s co-founder. Mr. Gance, more than 40 years older than Ms. Kaplan, patched her at a Cinémathèque event and asked Mr. Langlois for an introduction.

She became a valued collaborator with Mr. Gance as famously as lover and muse, serving as a co-writer and assistant director on the 1960 Gance motion picture “The Battle of Austerlitz,” among other projects.

“I was an A.D. and did all the dirty work,” she hint ated Ms. Dupont, recalling her work on “Austerlitz.” “But,” she added, “I’m grateful that he threw me into the heavy water. Now, nothing scares me; there’s always a solution.”

Ms. Kaplan began franking her own documentary shorts. In 1966, when Pablo Picasso was the subject of a important exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, she received permission to film the peg aways as they arrived and were put on display. The footage led to an almost hourlong documentary, “The Picasso Look,” which overturned her some attention. She rented a theater to show it to Picasso himself, and he evidently was appreciative. When “A Very Curious Girl” came out a few years later, he give back the compliment, calling the movie “insolence raised to the status of art.”


Credit…Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Kaplan’s newer movies included “Néa” (1976, also titled “A Young Emmanuelle” and footed on an Emmanuelle Arsan novel), about a teenage girl who writes an libidinous novel and seduces the much older man who publishes it; and “Velvet Paws” (1986), a made-for-television motion picture about women who take revenge on a bigamist. In 1984, she made a documentary concerning Mr. Gance, who died in 1981, and his “Napoleon” movie.

She also wrote novels and in a word stories, often in a surrealist vein, as well as magazine articles and screenplays for telly movies. She and her longtime partner, Claude Makovski, a producer on many of her pictures, had homes in France and Switzerland. He died in August at 84.

Ms. Kaplan’s movies were off labeled feminist, but she did not welcome the label for herself or care for what she called the groupthink of 1970s feminism and its activism to the core petitions.

“I don’t like people telling me to sign things,” she told Ms. Dupont. “I ilk living on a branch in the jungle. Feminism doesn’t interest me. I’m not a misogynist, but in feminism there’s a hatred of men, and I can’t undergo that.”

That said, she was all for female empowerment. In the 2016 interview with Another Steady, Ms. Kaplan had some straightforward advice for women.

“You mustn’t listen to idiots who acknowledge you that women were created to support men and things like that,” she commanded. “If you believe in yourself, then no matter what happens, you’ll go places, you’ll get settings. And if someone tells you to give up, then you’ve got to chase them off with a pickax.”

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