The controversial French feminist filmmaker Nelly Kaplan is known for her fantastic films that utilize her unique combination of gentleness, grotesquerie, vulgarity, boldness, and contradiction. Kaplan came to filmmaking by way of her work as an archivist for the Argentine cinematheque. After traveling to Paris to represent her native Argentina at an International Congress of film archivists, she decided to remain to work as a correspondent for Argentinean film journals. In 1954 she met the legendary French director Abel Gance and became his assistant. He taught her film production?though they had different ideological perspectives?and they worked together on four films. In the early 1960s, Kaplan directed her first short films, including the short documentaries about artists: Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin, Dessinset merveilles, Abel Gance, hier et demain, and ? la source, la femme aim?e. Subsequently she gained renown as a successful feminist feature-film director. Kaplan?s renderings of feminine sexuality celebrate female fantasies of desire and do so with lovely and slightly surreal images that suggest the power of feminine pleasure and the possibility that fantasy may be a liberating urge. But her films have provoked considerable controversy among feminists, with some charging that her films are nothing more than commercial pornography.
Kaplan?s first feature film, La Fianc?e du pirate tells the story of a young Gypsy girl who returns to her small village to exact a sometimes hilarious revenge upon the people who sexually enslaved her. She becomes the village whore and makes herself up with makeup, scents, sexy attire, and an amusing collection of cheesy consumer items in order to showcase her sexuality and to conquer and destroy her enemies, while making them pay for it, pitting them against each other, and destroying the community?s economy. The film was distributed as soft-core pornography, but Kaplan has said that her aim was to make an allegorical fantasy of the avenging archetypal witch/prostitute woman. As she explained, ?I wanted to tell a story in which witches burn the others.? Her second feature likewise depicted a woman in revolt. Papa les petits bateaux is a satirical, indirect tribute to Tex Avery and Betty Boop that has a relentlessly improbable cartoonish fantasy of a luscious heiress, Cookie, who is kidnapped by a gang of ugly bumblers who hold her in a suburban house. Despite their imagined macho, Cookie manages with her single-minded determination and rapier wit rather than violence to eliminate them one
N?a reveals the feminist politics that characterizes all of Kaplan?s work. One feminist critic described it as a feminist ?erotic art? movie in which its adolescent heroine unabashedly seeks sexual experiences. Accordingly, it is vastly different from the pornography made for male spectators that depicts women as the passive objects of male sexual desires. Nevertheless, in England N?a received an ?adults only? rating, was retitled A Young Emmanuelle, and was screened in soft-core pornography theaters. Its heroine Sybille is the daughter of wealthy straight-arrow parents from Geneva who finds personal liberation by writing an erotic novel. Constrained by her prejudiced father and a hypocritical family existence, she becomes determined to publish the novel anonymously, to urge her lesbian mother to leave her father for her lover, and to take her own lover in order to attain the experiences she lacks. During the course of her writing, Sybille sees and experiences a panoply of sexual activities, and she is presented as having supernatural powers that she deploys to get precisely what she desires. In the whimsical Charles et Lucie, a romantic comedy, an elderly working-class couple tries to secure a fortune and happiness by gambling, though they are swindled to the point of pennilessness. They are hunted by the law through the south of France so that they must use their wits to survive. Ultimately, their unhappiness with each other is replaced by a rekindling of their love. Although the film is sentimental, Kaplan brings her usual ironic sense of humor and a surreal absurdity to her offbeat story.
Some critics allege that Kaplan is a technically proficient filmmaker, but that her work fails to challenge conventional filmmaking. Her early films were influenced by surrealism and by Freud. An admitted feminist, Kaplan also has confessed to a weakness for animated cartoons, humor, audacity, nonsense, and the absurd, in order to counter the more familiar stereotypical ideas about women depicted on-screen. She explained that to combat 40 centuries of ?slavery,? any extreme was permitted. Further, her films are not only radical but generous, clever, and engaging. In her recent work, Kaplan has moved toward less radical themes though her stories are still generally female dominated. For example, her film, Plaisir d?amour concerns three generations of women. In addition, although she has not gained wide recognition in the United States, Kaplan continues to enjoy success in the arena of feminist commercial filmmaking in France.?