Streamers: A forgotten feminist filmmaker, and the stellar biography “Mike Nichols: A Life”

Celebrating the French director Nelly Kaplan on the Criterion Channel; a vivid and engaging biography of an American director-of-all-trades

By the time this column posts, it will be April, and another Women’s History Month will have come and gone. But does that mean we should stop spotlighting the contributions made by, for example, women filmmakers? If you think for a moment that was not a rhetorical question, we probably can’t be friends. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the work of a director whose name and filmography were new to me, but who deserves recognition for at least a couple of movies that captured a spiky, often hilarious feminism at a time when such a thing was rarely expressed, even in the relatively progressive milieu of post-’68 France.

Nelly Kaplan in 1969. Photo: Cythere/Paris Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock,
Cythere Films/Paris Film, On/Off Set, “La Fiancee Du Pirate.”

Her name was Nelly Kaplan, and she was born in Buenos Aires. After embarking on the pursuit of an economics degree, she fell in love with cinema and moved to Paris, where she frequented the Cinematheque Francais and became a trusted assistant and mentee of the legendary filmmaker Abel Gance, whose Napoleon had revolutionized the art in 1927 and who was still going fairly strong. After dabbling in short documentaries, Kaplan made her feature directing debut with 1971’s A Very Curious Girl.

Bernadette Lafont in “A Very Curious Girl.”

It’s a scathing takedown of patriarchy and hypocrisy, set in one of those insular French villages that capture the best and the worst of that nation’s character. The prolific actor Bernadette Lafont stars as Marie, who lives with her mother in a ramshackle hut on the outskirts of town. Marie slaves away for a local landowner while being ogled, harassed, and assaulted by the pudgy, slobbering men of the town. When Marie’s mother suddenly dies, she decides she no longer has any fucks to give—literally. She starts charging for her services, making herself over into an unabashed, mercenary harlot and using her considerable feminine wiles to make fools of the pathetic schlubs around her. Lafont is beguiling and sharp, and director Louis Malle has an amusing cameo as a farmworker.

A Very Curious Girl was apparently a modest hit, and Kaplan followed it up with Papa, the Lil’ Boats, another, far goofier, look at female empowerment that turns objectification against itself, judo-like. This time it’s British actor Sheila White who gets to turn the tables on the idiots plaguing her. A quartet of bumbling crooks, led by Marc (Michel Bouquet), kidnap Venus de Palma (White), the blonde, free-spirited, seemingly ditzy daughter of a wealthy industrialist. As they hold her hostage, though, she proves to be, at first, an annoyance, and eventually a scheming threat to their plans. Imagine The Ransom of Red Chief with Betty Boop as the abductee.

Sheila White in “Papa the Lil’ Boats.”

Kaplan wisely directs Papa, the Lil’ Boats as a zany cartoon, stuffed with slapstick and surreal antics. The visual style compensates for the somewhat rote premise and the one-dimensional (though well-acted) characters. Veteran French screen presences Michael Lonsdale and Judith Magre play two other members of the gang, and one of the movie’s highlights is an utterly goofy, knock-down, drag-out between White and Magre. Kaplan’s second feature isn’t as bracing as her first, but it’s still a more-than-amusing trifle with a scathing critique of chauvinism and hypocrisy at its core.

Kaplan was the subject of an American retrospective in 2019, and of her eventual five fictional theatrical features, four are currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. The other two don’t rise to the level of her earlier output, although 1979’s Charles and Lucie is an endearing portrait of a struggling long-married couple who rediscover the spark in their relationship after they supposedly inherit a large estate in the south of France, only to find themselves beset by one setback after another. Kaplan’s final feature, 1991’s The Pleasure of Love, follows a washed-up, suicidal academic who accepts an invitation to serve as a tutor for a teenaged girl on a remote island. When he arrives, he finds the girl’s sister, mother, and grandmother, who each take their turn seducing the hapless would-be Lothario. It’s a promising premise, but ends up feeling somewhat dated.

After 1991, Kaplan largely retired from filmmaking, but continued her other career as a novelist into the 21st century. She passed away in November of last year, from COVID-19, at the age of 89.

***

The film and theater director Mike Nichols may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of auteurism. Throughout his lengthy and acclaimed career, he never became identified with any particular visual style. He was, at first blush, seen as something of a utilitarian, someone who was most at home adapting the work of others rather than imbuing a project with an internal, personal passion.

This wouldn’t be a knock, per se, on a screen career that began with the one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate and a stage career that ranged from Barefoot in the Park to Waiting for Godot (with Steve Martin and Robin Williams) to, of all things, Spamalot. But it makes the new, voluminous biography, Mike Nichols: A Life, by Mark Harris, all the more valuable for illuminating the core of Nichols’ genius: his ability to appreciate humanity in all its guises, and the ways he helped his actors achieve the same appreciation.

Harris’s previous books include Pictures at a Revolution, about the tumultuous movie year of 1967, and Five Came Back, about the ways their World War II service affected five classic Hollywood filmmakers. Like those volumes, Mike Nichols manages to be packed with detail and insight without bogging down into one of those biographies where it feels as if the author couldn’t bear to omit any unearthed factoid. Hefty but brisk, it benefits hugely from the recollections of many of Nichols’ collaborators, including Meryl Streep, Whoopi Goldberg, and Elizabeth Ashley, who almost universally adore the man.

This is not a hagiography, however. Harris acknowledges that the book was written with the permission of Nichols’ widow, Diane Sawyer, and his children, but that they had no input or right of approval. Its subject’s occasionally vicious temper, his episodes of drug addiction (including crack cocaine) and depression, and his flops (who remembers the Garry Shandling misfire What Planet Are You From?) all make appearances.

It occurred to me reading this book that I’m glad I’m a cinephile and not a theater nut. There’s something bittersweet in learning about legendary, but ephemeral stage productions that can’t be revisited. The films, on the other hand, are out there for the viewing. Personally, I’m most eager to return to Silkwood, Angels in America, and Carnal Knowledge. But each reader of Nichols: A Life will surely compose their own watch list, a fitting testament to an artist whose work was his life, and who richly deserves this elevation into the pantheon of modern stage and screen.

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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