Born in the mid 1930?s into a Russian family which had lived in South America for over three generations, Kaplan ran away from her home and place of birth ? Buenos Aires ? and at the age of 20 settled in Paris, where she has remained and worked for over 50 years. A film buff at heart, Kaplan began working as a correspondent for Argentinian film magazines in Paris; however, her filmmaking career quickly took flight in 1954, when she met the legendary French film pioneer, Abel Gance, (Napoleon: L?Accuse, 1927) and became his assistant and chief creative associate. She went on to make three major films with Gance ( Magrima, 1956; Austerlitz , 1960; Cyrano et d? Artagnan, 1964) before becoming a filmmaker in her own right. Nearly two decades after their first meeting, Kaplan would write and direct the critically-acclaimed documentary, Abel Gance et son Napoleon (1984), a personal testimonial using unique unpublished documents and sound material tracing the genesis of his masterpiece of the seventh art.
In the late 50?s, Kaplan also developed a strong interest in Surrealism - which would later influence her own writing and filmmaking ? an interest strengthened through her friendships with Andr? Breton, Philippe Soupault and Theodore Fraenkel. She began making short documentaries on art, which, to this day, are still internationally acknowledged for their representational sensitivity towards the artist and artistic practice (e.g., Gustave Moreau , 1961; Rodolphe Bresdin, 1962; Le regard Picasso, 1967 ? Lion d?Or, Venice Film Festival).
Even before Kaplan directed the film on Picasso, she had already established herself as a novelist, publishing under the nom-de-plume, BELEN, poems and novels, as well as a series of short stories, Le Reservoir des Sens (1966), erotic tales, inspired by surrealism and dreamwork ? la Freud.
Nelly Kaplan, however, came into her own stride in 1969 with the international success of her first feature, La fianc?e du pirate (USA title: A Very Curious Girl), a provocative and caustically humorous film starring Bernadette Lafonte (Truffaut?s Une belle fille comme moi, Eustache?s La Maman et la putain) in the lead. Picasso is supposed to have said of the film: ?This is insolence raised to the status of a fine art.? It tells the story of a part-time prostitute and full-time witch who cunningly annihilates the hypocritical pretenses of a small-town. Originally publicized as a kind of soft-porn, Fianc?e is far from it. Rather, it is a raucous comedy, (Kaplan has cited Laurel & Hardy and the Marx-Brothers as influences in her work), with a sensual, magical, freedom-fighting and morality questioning heroine pulling the strings. These traits would become hallmark in her subsequent two feature films, Papa, les petits bateaux... (1971) and N?a (1976).
In Papa, the story concerns the kidnapping of a wealthy, publicity-seeking young heiress Venus de Palma (nick-named Cookie, played by Sheila White), by a gang of misfits. Like a comic-strip set in theatrical motion, the kidnapping is successful, but the gang become ludicrously incompetent when another bunch tries to muscle in on the ransom. All hell breaks loose when Cookie resorts to her cunning and feminine wiles to spread dissent into the mix.
Her third feature, an adaptation of Emmanuelle Arsan?s novel, N?a, is perhaps Kaplan?s best-known film in Germany, having been co-produced by Artur Brauner?s production company, Central Cinema Company (CCC). The film portrays an exploration of adolescent sexuality with an almost fairytale atmosphere. The heroine, Sybille (Ann Zacharias), is a young girl revolting against her bourgeois family and their hypocrisy. Caught shoplifting ?dirty books? by a bookshop owner, Axel, she proclaims she could write better stuff herself. He challenges her to do so, and she does indeed, producing an erotic novel partly based on ?practical first-hand experience.? When the book N?a is released, it becomes a scandalous success; however, Sybille must keep her under-age, underwraps in the public eye. Axel rejects her for this and her plot for revenge and witchy ways are unleashed.
Kaplan?s fourth feature, Charles et Lucie (1979, Daniel Ceccaldi and Ginette Garcin) stays on course with her sense of humour and irony. It is a compassionate comedy about a middle-aged couple whose lives are turned upside-down as a result of the news of an unexpected inheritance. An on-the-road movie in the sun of southern France, the couple?s often tragic adventures lead them to reassess their love for one another, rekindling their spirits. Kaplan herself lends the film a magical touch with her role as the fortune-teller, Nostradama in search of the fleeting ?Green Light? in the sunset.
In the interim after directing Charles et Lucie, Kaplan did a great deal of work for French television, co-writing with her long-time colleague and TV-screenwriter, Jean Chapot. In 1990-91, she wrote and directed her fifth and last feature, Plaisir d? Amour which reasserts her commitment to the feeling of errance, infinite possibilities of life, marked with her comic signature. A 1930?s Don Juan (Pierre Arditi), tired of his life of womanizing, seeks a change. In the guise of a private tutor, he sets foot on a tropical island to work for a family. However, this family turns out to be comprised entirely of women, a Catch 22 which brings back the easy temptations he had been trying so hard to circumvent.
Despite Kaplan?s erotic themes, often charged with a paradoxical, undercurrent of feminism (qualities, which, some critics have noted may have made it difficult for Kaplan to find broader distribution at the time), she has been quoted as saying ?I insist that technically and formally there is no difference between men?s and women?s films. When people tell me they could tell my films were made by a woman...I say it?s only because my films are not misogynous. But men can make non-misogynous films, one in a million or twice...?