Searching for Nelly Kaplan

Joan Dupont

From Film Quarterly Summer 2018, Volume 71, Number 4


“The strange thing had been for me to discover in England that she was still alive: it was as if I had been told Mrs. Siddons was, or Queen Caroline, or the famous Lady Hamilton, for it seemed to me that she belonged to a generation as extinct.”

—Henry James, “The Aspern Papers”

I met Nelly Kaplan at an awards ceremony in Paris over a decade ago. She was famous for one film, La fiancée du pirate (A Very Curious Girl, 1969), which had taken France and the international world of women’s film festivals by storm. A tall beauty with tawny hair, she was also famous for her much earlier liaison with the legendary Abel Gance, creator of Napoleon (1927) and the antiwar film, J’accuse (I Accuse, 1938). Kaplan herself became something of a legend, perhaps like “That Hamilton Woman.”1

She had slipped out of sight; nobody seemed to know where she was or why. At the Cinémathèque Française, there was only a kind of embarrassment when her name was mentioned and no plan to show her films.

This was the woman, proud as a lioness, who in her early twenties had landed in Le Havre, France, in January 1953. She had $50 and a letter of introduction to Henri Langlois from the Argentine Cinémathèque (she was a regular there, and she was smashing). She found a room at the Hotel de Seine where she worked on improving her French. Abel Gance, then sixty-four, the monument historique of French cinema, spotted her at a Cinémathèque event and asked Langlois to introduce him. It was a coup de foudre: in one fell swoop, she conquered Gance. Their collaboration began on his La Tour de Nesle (Tower of Lust, 1955), an all-star kitsch adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s play about outrageous behavior and violent punishment among princes and courtesans under the rule of Marguerite of Burgundy, who was famed for shoving her lovers into the Seine, and worse, when she was through with them.

Gance gave Kaplan a small part as a topless courtesan. One day, the shoot was interrupted by his wife who came on the set and attacked Kaplan, scratching at her with cries of Sale Juive (“Dirty Jewess”)! Kaplan herself has described the scene in her edited volume of letters between herself and Gance.2 The assault was vicious, but it was the fact that her lover did not take her side that stung even more. Yet she went on to become essential to him—as mistress, muse, actress, diarist, second-unit director, assistant director. “I brought him back to life,” as she recalls.

Gance’s Napoléon was the great movie of French cinema, like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) in the United States a decade earlier, spreading his renown across oceans. Napoléon had multiple versions and restorations, as did J’accuse, Gance’s pacifist film on World War I. Kaplan worked on Gance’s ultimate version of the war to end all wars, Magirama (1956), projected in Polyvision, an invention that preceded Cinerama, showing terrifying images of “broken faces” (gueules cassées) on a tryptich screen.

In Austerlitz (The Battle of Austerlitz, 1959), a light version of Napoléon with an all-star cast, Kaplan played Madame Récamier, the one who flirts with Napoleon from her famous settee—and off-screen, she took care of just about everything that could go wrong on a set abroad. Orson Welles, who had a walk-on as an American inventor, turned up days late; the great Michel Simon, a key officer in the final battle, had trouble retaining his lines. Gance had invited those he most admired to join his new Napoleon venture, especially if they were Italian. Vittorio De Sica played the Pope.

Kaplan’s book about the making of the film, Le Sunlight d’Austerlitz (1960), is a field diary rich with riotous accidents. The stars came and the armies clashed in the fields and plains of Zagreb that winter of 1959. At the end, Gance thanked them all in Napoleonic grand style, quoting the Emperor’s congratulations to his troops: “Soldiers! My people will receive you with joy! It will suffice to say: I was at the battle of Austerlitz, to evoke the response, Here is a brave man!” (This, of course, has a Shakespearean ring, evoking as it does Henry V.) Luckily, the film was a popular success, a great relief to all.



Abel Gance and Nelly Kaplan c. 1959.

Gance’s letters when he and Kaplan were apart were anguished, desperate. She became pregnant with his child and went to Switzerland for an abortion. He did not help much with money, she noted. Yet she was there for him again, heading his second unit on Cyrano et d’Artagnan (1964) in Italy and found conditions even more hellish than they’d been on Austerlitz. On December 8, 1962, she wrote Gance, citing his reproaches and jealousies, declaring herself to be out of steam, à bout de souffle, signing off as: “Nelly. Profession: Wandering Jewess.”

She had met a younger man, Claude Makovski. He would go on to produce her lauded documentary on Picasso, Le regard Picasso (The Picasso Look, 1967) and her one hit, the sensational La fiancée du pirate starring Bernadette Lafont as Marie, a girl on the bottom of the social ladder in a forsaken province.3 Marie, despised by all, sells herself to farmers, pharmacists, even a local lesbian power broker, and then turns the tables on the town’s local dignitaries by secretly taping them to the tune of the taunting “Moi je me balance” (“I don’t give a damn”) famously sung by the cult figure cum pop star Barbara. The film’s dénouement of the tape playing to its audience takes place in church. Everybody loved Pirate—except Gance, who always claimed he hadn’t seen it. Only after he died did Kaplan discover, reading his letters at the Bibliothèque Nationale (The National Library of France), that he had indeed seen and admired her film.

With Makovski, Kaplan went on to make more ferocious, original movies with brilliant casts but less success. Her biggest flop was the radical Néa (Young Emmanuelle, 1976), adapted from a story by Emmanuelle Arsan. The film stars the sensual Sami Frey as a publisher, playing opposite Swedish actress Ann Zacharias in the role of a teenager who writes an erotic novel—and seduces Frey along the way. Most of the action takes place in a beautiful chalet in the Swiss Alps. Micheline Presle, as the girl’s ahead-of-her-time mother, makes love to her sister-in-law, while Ingrid Caven also beds Frey. Clearly way ahead of its time, Néa was ferociously rejected, mocked by the press, and did dismal business at the box office.



La fiancée du pirate. Courtesy of Lobster Films

A Kaplan movie usually has a cat, a cat who looks as if she is at the helm of this wild cast of characters. Like the cats she loves and like the characters in her films, Kaplan has led several lives. While she was with Gance, she seduced the Surrealists. She had flings—amitiés amoureuses (“amorous friendships”)—with André Breton and others. She became a Surrealist writer herself, publishing under the pen name Belen.4 Belen created a collection of wicked satires, such as the brilliant “Election de M. Univerge” about a beauty contest in which the women in power judge the “members” of male contestants. Her short film on Gustave Moreau (Gustave Moreau, 1961) was shown at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Picasso Look won a Golden Lion in Venice in 1967.

In the wake of May 1968, when consciences were aroused, Kaplan, busy at the helm of her own women’s movement, was absent from the feminist marches of the 1970s. Her signature was not affixed to the 1971 petition for the rights for abortion that was signed by the 343 “bitches,” including her friend Françoise Sagan. Yet, her writings and films are certainly feminist, at times violently so. She had already crashed the Paris scene single-handedly, had captivated the Surrealists, and entranced Gance, the genius who rode his own wave. She had already made the pioneering Pirate and Nea, the most fiercely feminist and trailblazing films of their day. Kaplan’s originality and her success were remarkable, but in those days of revolutions and revelations, she was perhaps overshadowed by the contemporaneous creative talents of Chantal Akerman with Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and Marguerite Duras with India Song (1975).



On the set of La fiancée du pirate.

Kaplan’s Fiancée heroine was described as a modern-day witch. She, too, she says, is a bit of a witch. Far too beautiful, brilliant, and fearless, she had perhaps more enemies than friends in the French cinema world. As soon as there was a shift in the ruling classes, the New Wave rolled over her. Langlois died, Gance died, the Cinémathèque moved upstream, friends and allies broke, and Nelly Kaplan vanished from the scene.

When I began looking for her, I was told by one reliable source that she had died, another said she was ill; there were surmises that she was in hiding for some unknown reason. In disbelief, I went digging. I searched for her in Provence, where she has a house with an indoor swimming pool in the old town of Bonnieux, the place where Agnès Varda shot segments of Visages, villages (Faces, Places, Agnès Varda and JR, 2017), but Kaplan was not at home. And then I heard that she might still be living in her longtime apartment atop a Champs Elysées shopping arcade. Somehow, I got a telephone number. Nelly answered and invited me for tea.



Nelly Kaplan in her apartment on the Rue de Rivoli, c. 1958.

A door opposite the elevator revealed no apartment number or sign of life. When I buzzed, a voice responded, and after a while the door opened onto a rooftop garden wild with bushes and trees looming over the city—but there was no cat, because a top-floor aerie such as this is dangerous. Cats can fall, she said. So there she was, hiding in plain sight, exactly where she always has been, with an eye on tout Paris, movie theaters next door, and a head full of stories.

The legendary Nelly Kaplan is perhaps less tall, less imposing than before, but French cinema’s Cleopatra, ever outrageous, rages still. We took tea in a room piled high with books, paintings, souvenirs, and brilliant pieces of past lives—and we talked.



Nelly Kaplan’s accreditation papers from the Cinemateca Argentina, 1953.

Joan Dupont: Let’s start with your arrival in France: you landed in Le Havre on January 1, 1953, after eighteen days at sea.

Nelly Kaplan: I was twenty-two. I thought I knew what was what. I had it made. I knew I wasn’t stupid.

Dupont: In only a couple of months you learned French and were writing in French! How did that happen?

Kaplan: When I got to France, I did everything in French. Nobody helped me. I read all the time. I read, and one day I spoke and wrote. It became my language—it came like that. I had to speak and had to write and read in French. I got rid of my South-American friends and had French friends. I was young, not too ugly.

Dupont: So you began by writing?

Kaplan: I’ve always written, always. When I was little I wrote, and I remember something that happened when I was around ten and we were supposed to write on some childhood memory. The teacher called me to the front of the room and said that my composition was too good to be mine. I didn’t know what “plagiarize” meant, but I felt it was an insult and I was hurt.

Dupont: Were your parents proud of your success in school?

Kaplan: I don’t know. … They were happy with my grades. Yes, I felt it. … They got along (with each other). There was no drama in my childhood.

Dupont: Not like the parents in your film, Néa [Young Emmanuelle, 1976]?

Kaplan: Not at all. And that film didn’t work at all either. A complete flop.

Dupont: Your heroine, played by Ann Zacharias, is a sexed-up teenage terror who sets her sights on the publisher of erotic literature—the irresistible Sami Frey—and won’t let go. Heinz Bennent is the uptight father who slaps his precocious daughter around, and beautiful Micheline Presle plays the mother caught in bed with her sister-in-law. What a family!

Kaplan: Ah yes, that scene with the parents at breakfast! I remember very well! But no, that wasn’t my family.



Nelly Kaplan upon her arrival in Le Havre, 1953.

Dupont: When you first arrived in Paris, what did you think you’d do?

Kaplan: I knew what I didn’t want. … I was Jewish, from an intellectual family. My grandparents had come to Argentina from Kiev and Odessa. There was anti-Semitism in Russia, and a Baron Hirsch founded colonies in the provinces of Buenos Aires for Russian Jews. Nobody had birth control, so we had plenty of relatives, lots of cousins. In Buenos Aires, I might have been a great filmmaker, but a bourgeoise.

I was a real brat, always rebelling. I think it was the South American educational system. I had to break away—I wasn’t angry, but I had to break. I was an adventuress. I took sail and really didn’t know what I was doing. When I landed in Le Havre, I thought, “I’m nuts!” I knew hardly any French; Italian and Spanish helped, but I couldn’t speak. So I got a room at the Hotel de Seine and bought a radio: I learned to speak by listening.

Dupont: Did you have a love life then?

Kaplan: I had decided that the Virgin Mary was no relative of mine, so I had some experience—but my real sex life, my pleasure, that happened in France. I had come to Paris, not the provinces. South Americans are so macho, and I was such an individualist.

Dupont: So, you found everything in Paris?

Kaplan: You never find everything.

Dupont: You went to the movies a lot.

Kaplan: Every day! I represented the Argentine Cinémathèque, and at the Paris Cinémathèque, I met Langlois, Mary Meerson, Marie Epstein, and Lotte Eisner. Poor Marie was so crushed by her brother [filmmaker Jean Epstein], a little mouse. Marie was Langlois’s slave, too.

Dupont: You were no mouse!

Kaplan: I haven’t changed, still a rebel!

Dupont: You met Abel Gance at the Cinémathèque?

Kaplan: One evening at an event in honor of Georges Méliès, I saw him across the room, a man with a silver crown of hair: he was sixty-something and I was twenty-something. I saved him; I brought him back on the scene. But he stayed with his wife … She wasn’t cultivated, she drank, and she hated me. She came on the set of Tour de Nesle … but it’s a bad story. It hurt me back then. Now, it makes me laugh! Luckily, I hadn’t lived under the Occupation … Gance stayed with her.

Dupont: He stayed with her, this revolutionary man?

Kaplan: Yes, he had his habits. She ironed his sheets. I was happy in my own place, living, well, a busy life. I was a correspondent for foreign publications.

Dupont: And you also did some work on La Tour de Nesle?

Kaplan: I played a bit part, and he let me watch—I kept my eyes open.

Dupont: When you say that you saved Gance, are you referring to your work on his production of Austerlitz?

Kaplan: Yes, I worked on Austerlitz in 1959. By then I knew French.

Dupont: You kept a marvelous field diary on the shoot.5 It has all the details on Gance’s mood swings—and everything that can go wrong on a shoot abroad. There you were with the renowned Henri Alekan as the director of photography and an all-star cast of clashing characters.

Kaplan: Yes, we worked on the plains of Zagreb in freezing winter. I worked like a dog, got to bed at 4:00 a.m.

Dupont: Was that when you started to grow apart from Gance?

Kaplan: Actually, the separation came later, in Italy, on Cyrano et d’Artagnan.

Dupont: How come the great director of Napoleon and of J’accuse—so traumatized by World War I and terrible images of the Gueules casséees—was forever fascinated by Napoleon?

Kaplan: Bonaparte was somebody! Gance admired his character; he knew every detail of his life, everything.

Dupont: What do you think of Austerlitz today?

Kaplan: For me, it’s not a great movie, but it’s not bad if you look at it carefully. Not bad … it’s not the BIG film, but it’s not bad. It’s hard. I can’t judge. … He was no longer young, and he was tired; he had three assistants.

Dupont: Why did you have a hard time with Martine Carole, who played Joséphine?

Kaplan: Ah, a bitch, mean and jealous! She tried to humiliate me, sent me to fetch her coffee. I didn’t give a damn; there was work to do, and I led my own life. Between midnight and 6:00 a.m., I did what I wanted.

I did practically all the casting for Austerlitz. Shooting in Communist Yugoslavia was a nightmare [because] the Yugoslavs were badly fed and paid, and the actors were nuts; they hated us. It was tough. We had a magnificent cast: Vittorio De Sica as the Pope and Pierre Mondy as Napoleon [my suggestion to Gance] were so good. Orson [Welles] came a few days late. And we were worried about Michel Simon remembering his lines, but he was fine.

Dupont: It was a success?

Kaplan: A triumph at Gaumont Palace where it opened and a big popular hit, although the reviews were mixed. Some critics said, “Where is the Gance of Napoleon?”



Nelly Kaplan in Abel Gance’s La Tour de Nesle.

Dupont: Do you have friends still from that period?

Kaplan: Most of the cast hated me because of my relationship to Gance. Michel Bouquet, whom I met on La Tour de Nesle, is still a friend.

Dupont: It looked like Austerlitz had too many stars, no?

Kaplan: Claudia Cardinale was fine; Jack Palance playing an Austrian General was quite crazed. … Jean-Louis Trintignant had a bit part.

Dupont: Everybody was in that movie! And you did everything?

Kaplan: But that was my job. I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and had lots of energy.

Dupont: And you were in love?

Kaplan: Yes, but I had another life on the side.

Dupont: Revenge?

Kaplan: No, more like: since you’re that way … I can be that way too. Gance was an immense filmmaker, and his films still have impact, although he’s a bit forgotten today. He never accepted Claude [Kaplan’s partner to this day], so we had a break for a few months. And one day he called and admitted he was being stupid, so we saw each other, but I was hurt by his attitude.

Dupont: You had been so close!

Kaplan: I had brought him back to life, taken him out of obscurity! And I had talent—all of a sudden [for him], I had none!

Dupont: After Gance’s Cyrano et d’Artagnan [1964], you went off and had your own career. And now you had someone to help you: Claude Makovski began to produce your films. How did you come to make your film on Picasso [Le regard Picasso]?

Kaplan: Picasso had a big art exhibition in 1966 at the Grand Palais. I went with Claude and got permission to film the paintings and sculptures as they arrived in crates. Then I went to Cannes and called Jacqueline Picasso. I said, “I don’t want to ask you for anything, I just want to show you a movie.”

We rented one of those theaters on the Rue d’Antibes, and at 11: 00 the next morning, they appeared, Jacqueline and Pablo Picasso. After the screening, they were quiet. My good luck was that they adored the film! I asked for nothing; I gave, and I think they appreciated that. We won the Golden Lion in Venice in 1966 with the film—and Ernesto Laura who was the president, accepted the Medaille d’Or [Gold Medal] for La fiancée du pirate in 1969.

But, of course, the standing ovation we got for La fiancée du pirate was the real triumph—a standing ovation!



Nelly Kaplan photographed in her home in the early 2000s.

Dupont: What do you think of Pirate today?

Kaplan: Of course, we can’t hate our children. I think the film is haunted—I gave a lot, and it shows. Bernadette [Lafont] really didn’t get it, but she was great anyway. Young people today can’t believe this movie was made in 1969.

Dupont: Did you know the setting—the French provinces, la France profonde, the sticks—yourself?

Kaplan: No, but I read a lot. I knew nothing of the sticks, but I knew Balzac. I read everything first in Spanish in Buenos Aires and then in French later … and I loved the Surrealists.

Dupont: But La fiancée is not surrealist, is it?

Kaplan: But it’s not realist either! I see Marie as a witch who doesn’t let herself be burned; she sets fire to the others. Bernadette didn’t quite get what Marie was about. Michel Constantin [who plays one of the more decent men] told me I should be at home taking care of a family, not making a movie. In Venice, we were amazed, almost to tears [by the response].

Dupont: What gave you the idea for the film?

Kaplan: It started with one line, one idea. My documentary had been well received, and I had gotten recognition. One day I said to Claude, I can picture a movie about a witch who sets everybody on fire—and is not burned. I wrote and wrote, up here (gestures to a staircase in her apartment leading upstairs) and then came down and showed him what I had written, and he said: you can do better. So I wrote more, and he said, “It’s magnificent; we’ll make the movie!”

Nobody wanted it! No producer wanted it! We made the movie on our own and even the actors didn’t get it—they didn’t get what was going on! But since there’s a good devil for witches, the head of the Venice film festival—my good fairy—asked to see it and he was enthused. We arrived in Venice on December 3, 1969 [to show it to him].

Dupont: Pirate has the spirit of 1968 and seems to herald the woman’s movement, too.

Kaplan: This film will always be modern, contemporary; when I show it, people think it was made today. I say, “No, see, they are paying in French francs; it was made yesterday!” I showed the movie at the Cinema Reflet Medicis at a retrospective of my films just a couple of years ago, and again, it was big hit.

Dupont: It was your first film and biggest success despite attempts to censor it.6

Kaplan: Yes, but I think they made me pay for it! The success came from the public reaction, and the critics had to follow. When the movie opened in Paris, I used to sit in the café across the street and watch them line up.

Dupont: You always have great actors; they seem as if they are all a family.

Kaplan: But it was tough. I was very alone. Other directors were jealous—how come this little Argentine girl made a hit?

Dupont: How did this film fit with the New Wave movies of the time?

Kaplan: I think maybe May 1968 helped; I don’t think I could have made the movie without May 1968. There were no longer big bonfires, but [its] embers were still glowing. After the triumph at Venice, the film was bought for the whole world. It was a nice story, a lovely witch’s tale!

Dupont: Did you follow the New Wave? Did you like Godard?

Kaplan: Not at all; a fake. He took us for a ride!

Dupont: It’s interesting that you based Néa [1976] on an Emmanuelle Arsan story about a girl who uses sex to get what she wants from men and who punishes them when she doesn’t get what she wants.7 The director Just Jaeckin made the soft-core hit Emmanuelle [1974] also from a book by Arsan, about a woman who is there for men’s pleasure, to seduce, not to punish. No wonder Emmanuelle was the one that was the big hit! Me, I love Néa!

Kaplan: Me too, but yes, Néa was a flop. Mustn’t be paranoid, but I think it was in revenge for Pirate, a kick in the pants. It’s a free movie and that doesn’t please men. The reviews were ugly: Néa Neant [“Nea Nothing”]. Emmanuelle Arsan suggested the story to me. I liked her and read it, found it insipid, changed things, and made the movie I wanted.

Dupont: Yet Néa is a film for today, even, perhaps especially, since it’s outrageous. It’s about women’s desire and how men don’t always understand it. Néa is about a girl’s eroticism. It’s the women who are the movers.

Kaplan: Women are never passive in my movies!

Dupont: You assembled such a brilliant cast: Ann Zacharias was great as the girl, Micheline Presle gorgeous, Heinz Bennent perfect as the obtuse dad. And filmmaker Martin Provost is touching as the boy caught between desire and fear; he was just eighteen.

Kaplan: I remember him, he was very nice. … I don’t know what happened to Zacharias. She was Swedish and a pain, but who cares? I like the film a lot: there’s a lot of myself in it. Ingrid Caven—another of Sami’s lovers—was marvelous!



Papa les p’tits bateaux. Courtesy of Lobster Films

Dupont: Is it also about revenge?

Kaplan: My women are never victims! Look at the end of Pirate: she takes revenge on all those who have mistreated her. One mustn’t accept a kick in the ass—slap or kick them back. I never accepted being dragged in the mud. I react like a panther!



Daniel Ciccaldi and Ginette Garcin in Charles et Lucie.

Dupont: So what did you think of the Women’s Movement of the 1970s? What about the petition [published April 5, 1971] for the right to abortion?

Kaplan: I don’t like movements! 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’m not a misogynist, but in feminism, there’s a hatred of men and I can’t accept that. There are idiots, but good men too. If people are good, I like them; if not, no. I am a witch. I know that.

Dupont: What about movements today, such as, “balance ton porc” [#MeToo]? Do you follow them?

Kaplan: No, I never liked trials, except for the collaborationists in wartime, and I don’t shoot anybody. I understand esprit de corps, but it’s not my cup of tea. Do you want another cup?

Dupont: Well, in your movies and in your writing, women take over. I’m thinking of Patte de velours [Velvet Paws, 1985] that you made for TV with Bernadette Lafont again and a brilliant cast with Pierre Arditi and Michel Bouquet. In it, the women gang up on the men. And in your book of surrealist tales, Reservoir des Sens, especially in the story L’election de M. Univerge [The Election of Mr. Uniprick], you really stick it to them!

Kaplan: Yes, in my literature, women take revenge. And I know I can be tough.

Dupont: You are a one-woman women’s movement. What about books? Apart from the Surrealists, who were the writers you liked?

Kaplan: I liked Françoise Sagan, very smart, a fake dilettante …We had lunch together; we recognized each other as two adventurers.

Dupont: What do you think of writers like Marguerite Duras or Irène Némirovsky?

Kaplan: I liked Némirovsky a lot. Duras? She was gifted, but she never touched me. Némirovsky did.

Dupont: Némirovsky had such difficult parents—her novella Le Bal [1930] was about her nasty mother.

Kaplan: I wouldn’t say nasty; I would say that the daughter rebelled.

Dupont: Hiding in a village in the French provinces during the Nazi occupation, Némirovsky didn’t fully understand what was going on; she reported to the local police station and so she was sent to Auschwitz.

Kaplan: I think today we don’t know what’s going on either. I think there is going to be a kind of fascist power [takeover], and I know I won’t go to report to the police. I’ll scram. … I must intuitively know that you have to flee the Cossacks, run away, change identity, and hide. Above all, not go to the police!

Dupont: Writer and filmmaker Marceline Loridan-Ivens has a new book out, L’amour après [Love After the Camps]. She is open about how long it took for her to feel, to trust, or to love years after she returned from Auschwitz: how she made love without love.

Kaplan: I knew her, and I knew Joris Ivens [her filmmaker husband], too—good friends.



Nelly Kaplan photographed at her country home in the early 2000s.

Dupont: Is writing still important to you?

Kaplan: I like to work; it keeps us in shape. We can read and write till the end. I write and try not to be anguished; life is short, even if we have several lives. I used to mind my films not being shown, but today, I don’t care, I promise!

Dupont: What films do you see these days?

Kaplan: Everything, but there’s not much I like. I have all the movie theaters downstairs on the Champs [gestures], and I keep my eyes open because there’s always something, even if you’re mostly disappointed. We have to go to movies.

Dupont: Would you like to make another movie?

Kaplan: Yes! But not if I have to make changes in my script … they find my stories too violent!

Dupont: By the way, when do you get to wear your Légion d’Honneur?8

Kaplan: I wear it when there’s an official occasion, and I wear it to the Cinémathèque because it annoys them! I used to like going when it was at Chaillot [its former location]. I have memories of Langlois, mad as a hatter, presenting movies there … there will always be movies.

Dupont: One last question. What do you consider your best period?

Kaplan: The next one!



1. That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1941), a black-and-white drama set during the Napoleonic wars, stars Vivien Leigh as Emma Hamilton, who lost all for the love of Lord Nelson (played by Laurence Olivier), who famously defeated Napoleon.
2. See Nelly Kaplan, Mon Cygne, Mon Signe: Correspondances Abel Gance-Nelly Kaplan [My Swan, My Sign: Letters between Abel Gance and Nelly Kaplan] (Paris: Rocher, 2008).
3. Le regard Picasso was one of Kaplan’s series of short films. See filmography.
4. Belen [Nelly Kaplan], Le Réservoir des Sens [The Reservoir of the Senses] (Paris: La Jeune Parque, 1959/1966); reissued by J.J. Pauvert, 1988.
5. Nelly Kaplan, Le Sunlight d’Austerlitz, Le Tour d’Austerlitz en 80 Jours [Tour of Austerlitz in 80 Days] (Paris: Plon, 1960).
6. The film was censored, in fact; but then, after Kaplan’s intervention with the censorship board, it was given an NC-17 rating.
7. Emmanuelle was one of the highest-grossing French films of the 1970s and was adapted from Arsan’s best-selling novel of the same name.
8. Kaplan was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1996 and was upgraded to Officier in 2010.

Editor’s Note

For a taste of the wondrous Nelly Kaplan of today, visit the Another Gaze website for their 2016 conversation with the filmmaker.

Lobster Films is releasing four of Kaplan’s films in 2018 in their Editions series.


1956 Magirama (co-directed with Abel Gance)
1961 Gustave Moreau
1962 Rodolphe Bresdin
1963 Abel Gance, hier et demain [Abel Gance, Yesterday and Tomorrow]
1965 A la source, la femme aimée [At the Source, The Beloved Woman]
1966 Les années 25 [The Mid-20s]
1966 La nouvelle orangerie [The New Orangery]
1967 Le regard Picasso (The Picasso Look)
1969 La fiancée du pirate (A Very Curious Girl)
1971 Papa les p’tits bateaux (Papa, the Little Boats)
1976 Néa (Young Emmanuelle)
1979 Charles et Lucie [Charles and Lucie]
1983 Abel Gance et son Napoléon [Abel Gance and His Napoleon]
1985 Pattes de velours [Velvet Paws]
1991 Plaisir d’amour (The Pleasure of Love)

Header Image: A scene from Papa les p’tits bateaux (1971). Courtesy of Lobster Films

Read reviews of Kaplan’s films from past issues of Film Quarterly


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