A Very Curious Girl
Politics of a feminist fantasy

by Linda Greene

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 13-14
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

Picasso is supposed to have said of Nelly Kaplan’s A VERY CURIOUS GIRL, ‘This is insolence raised to the status of a fine art.” An expert himself at raising insolence to the status of a fine art (consider the monster he created for Chicago’s Civic Center), Picasso described the spirit of Kaplan and her work very well with this epigram. The essence of Nelly Kaplan is an attractive prickliness like the friction of fine sandpaper on the skin—the same pleasurably abrasive, cocky honesty which Sylvia Plath captured in The Bell Jar when Esther Greenwood recalls looking at Buddy for the first time with his underpants off: “The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and gizzards.”

Kaplan’s first dramatic feature film, A VERY CURIOUS GIRL is the comic story of how one woman carries out an unique revenge scheme against her oppressors. The British title of the film, DIRTY MARY, does a better job than the U.S. one of suggesting the flavor of the film, in which Marie, the bastard outcast and scapegoat of a small provincial town, avenges herself against the townspeople who have exploited her. She does so by becoming a prostitute, exploiting then on their own terms—sex and economics—and thus reversing the power relationship between herself and them. The film is racy, sardonic and gleeful. It reminds me of a bawdy tale of Boccaccio’s or Chaucer’s except that it has a grimness which those medieval tales lack (the townspeople pose a real threat to Marie until she gains the upper hand).

The structure of the film is simple: the perfect fulfillment of revenge, once the need for it is established, is its dramatic machinery. Picasso has also been quoted as saying that he found in A VERY CURIOUS GIRL “the same atmosphere as in the best films of Luis Buñuel.” In structure and tone the film is similar not only to a medieval comic tale and a Buñuel film but also to an anecdote or joke. It has the neatness of an anecdote or joke plus the dramatic equivalent of a punch line. Marie’s triumphant coup is to play tapes in church of her customers’ most confidential remarks and thus embarrassing them publicly. (As you might guess, the film was completely scripted.)

Brenda Roman noted in Women and Film that A VERY CURIOUS GIRL resembles a play:

“For an original screenplay ... DIRTY MARY has many qualities of a stage farce and it could probably be adapted to the stage with little difficulty. It is tightly plotted, and Kaplan provides a clever exposition which uses the extraordinary event of the mother’s death to provide necessary background information—without once slackening the pace and without recourse to flashbacks, voice-over narration, or tedious monologue. Most of the action occurs in one location ... And the breakneck speed of the pacing, which doesn't allow the viewer second thoughts about the credibility of what he or she is seeing, depends not on quick cutting from shot to shot but on characters dashing into and out of the fairly static medium-long shots much as they would enter and leave a stage.”

Indeed, the camera really doesn't seem integral: the rhetoric of A VERY CURIOUS GIRL is that of fiction rather than file. That is, the narration—the way the story is told—hardly involves the special attributes of the camera at all. The presentation of the revenge scheme is a prime example. Through her method of narration—specifically, her particular ways of conveying information to and withholding it from the audience—Kaplan makes the “coup” a gratifying surprise. Early in the film we get hints that Marie is going to retaliate in a special way, besides in the obvious one of exploiting the villagers economically and sexually through prostitution. The several close ups of Marie’s determined face convince us that she’s made a secret resolution, that a plot is in the works. But the details of the plot remain a mystery until Marie springs the plot itself on the townspeople (and the audience) in the church. In this way Kaplan keeps the audience out of Marie’s mind almost entirely. She gives us no inkling of Marie’s mental processes, feelings, judgments, designs, etc.—except for that hint of resolution without the substance of the resolution. Furthermore, because Kaplan focuses us on Marie’s fumbling blindly with the tape recorder as though she hadn't the faintest idea of how to use it mechanically, let alone politically, we remain unprepared for the upshot, in which the recorder is Marie’s very instrument of revenge.

Thus Kaplan gives Marie an air of infallibility and the film an air of the surreal besides increasing our pleasure in the fulfillment of Marie’s revenge. Speaking of the film’s surrealism, to get at what is surrealistic and more especially what is fantastic about it (terms which I think Claire Johnston was the first to apply to A VERY CURIOUS GIRL in Notes on Women’s Cinema) is to begin to understand the film’s values, limitations, and so its politics. A VERY CURIOUS GIRL’s wildly unconventional story and anecdotal quality are two manifestations of the surrealist influence. The unlikeliness of the events is another:

“In real life the townsmen would have imposed their ‘price control’ in earnest. Mary would be reduced to servitude again, her rebellion crushed. And the villagers’ humiliation would be at the price of her own. She would be unlikely to have such an ideal means of escape, since the lover (André, the projectionist) ... is an illusion, very much like the mounted messenger from the Queen in The Three Penny Opera who delivers a pardon at the last minute: In real life ‘they come far too seldom.’” (Karyn Kay’s quote of Brenda Roman; the French title of the film is LA FIANCEE DU PIRATE—THE PIRATE'S FIANCEE, a reference to Pirate Jenny’s song in The Three Penny Opera.”

As I mentioned, the presentation of Marie contributes to the sense of the surreal. By virtue of editing and narrative techniques, Marie is presented as invulnerable and mysterious, as witchlike in her ability to carry out amazing feats single handedly. But most important, A VERY CURIOUS GIRL is a feminist fantasy. The pleasure and psychological power of the film are those of wish fulfillment. To see the film is to symbolically enact a collective fantasy and experience the satisfaction of having a wild, evil, deeply satisfying dream come true. It’s like wishing, when a strange man makes a passing sexist remark to you, that you could tear him apart for it. A VERY CURIOUS GIRL’s attractiveness to feminists is that it arouses us and relieves us emotionally through its mingled violence and humor, by appealing to our fantasy life. As Claire Johnston noted,

“In her films Nelly Kaplan ... stresses the importance of fantasy as a liberating force.”

Any woman who feels the least bit of resentment against men (and who doesn't?) can't help feeling the impact of A VERY CURIOUS GIRL.

To elaborate on how the film plays out a feminist fantasy, Marie, for one thing, doesn't appear as a role model or someone like ourselves because she doesn't appear in a “realistic” film. We can't make an analogy between Marie’s situation and our own in a practical way. Rather, the film exorcises feelings of hostility which our experiences as women have created in us. Therefore, Marie is an agent in carrying out our fantasy of revenge against the oppressor, and the film purges us of our anger and restores our dignity and self-respect. Our own experiences don't appear in A VERY CURIOUS GIRL except in an exaggerated form. There is a greet disparity between the probabilities of the film and those of our own lives (for instance, the men in the file are complete slaves to lust).

The pleasure of seeing some of the scenes is exquisite. A VERY CURIOUS GIRL made film history (as far as I know) as the first film to contain a scene in which a woman successfully vanquishes a male assailant. This is no mean achievement for the director. I myself am fed up with movies in which, women get raped or smashed in the face with Coke bottles or hacksawed to death. I loathe the violence done constantly to women characters in man-made films. So, for women who are sick of the cupcakes, snakes, and doormats which usually pass for women characters in feature films, there’s an exquisite satisfaction in witnessing the scene of Marie’s victory over her assailant. For Marie, when he springs at her throat, responds as any sensible woman would: she gives him a good, hard kick in the balls. Paralyzed by the pain, her would-be attacker becomes her victim. Marie nudges his writhing body out the door with her foot and says coolly, “Next time. pick on someone your own size.”   During the fall 1973 screening of A VERY CURIOUS GIRL by the Film Center of the Art Institute of Chicago, this scene galvanized the women in the audience. Our spontaneous, collective outbreak of delighted laughter. cheers and applause scared and scandalized the men in the audience but for us was a rare, joyous experience.  

There’s no doubt that in many ways A VERY CURIOUS GIRL is, as a feminist fantasy, a very effective and valuable film. It presents actions we're starved to see on film and does so in a way that makes us laugh delightedly and triumphantly and feel proud instead of humiliated and angry. Because it speaks to us go powerfully, A VERY CURIOUS GIRL became, in only four years, a Movement classic. Because we love Kaplan’s film and because we want so badly to find an eloquent artistic expression of our feminism, we can't find A VERY CURIOUS GIRL easy to criticize. But there’s no denying that to some extent it disappoints us because it is a feminist fantasy.

If A VERY CURIOUS GIRL had a subtitle, it would have to be SEXUAL POLITICS. That Marie exploits her exploiters—fights sexual politics with sexual politics—is both the film’s strength and its weakness. The sexual politics of Kaplan’s film are tremendously effective because they satisfy the nearly boundless, well-justified vindictiveness which many women feel toward men. But because of its sexual politics, the film doesn't satisfy a more important need—the need we have for naturalistic, revolutionary feminist films which would present women (or women and men) working together toward a common goal in a non-competitive and non-exploitative manner.

As Kaplan remarked to the audience at the Chicago Women’s Film Festival last fall, Marie starts out on all fours like an animal and becomes a person by the end of the film. However, there is an important qualification: Marie becomes a “person” by exploiting and dehumanizing other people, and she becomes a subject only by treating others like objects—as they do her. Only her friendship with the projectionist André suggests the possibility of a subject-to-subject relationship, one based on mutual respect and cooperation.

Essentially, A VERY CURIOUS GIRL is individualistic. It doesn't imagine any new possibilities in people’s behavior toward one another or teach us anything new about ourselves but remains bound to the power relationships which it exposes as corrupt and shows to be defeatable on their own terms. It pokes fun at bourgeois behavior, but because of its satiric element it can't free itself from the sick human relationships it satirizes. The fact that it satirizes enslaves it to the object of the satire. The satire wouldn't be intelligible or enjoyable it the satirized object weren't recognizable to the audience by appearing in the film. By turning bourgeois values and attitudes inside out, Kaplan’s film tries to subvert sexual politics, but it ends up confirming them by organizing itself around that. Marie, for example, is presented as magical and mysterious, and thus the character is consistent with sexist myths of “Woman” and her “nature.” Bourgeois literature celebrates individual sensibilities, and A VERY CURIOUS GIRL is a bourgeois film insofar as it is an individualistic fantasy and can't help attaching itself to a bourgeois perspective on society.

Because it is this kind of feminist fantasy, A VERY CURIOUS GIRL couldn't contain a revolutionary sequence of events. Even when Maria becomes a “person,” she can't change the consciousness of the townspeople. She can't recognize the similarity of her situation as a prostitute to that of the women in the town as wives, and the film itself doesn't draw that conclusion. Class-consciousness and the development of a revolutionary movement couldn't become events in a film such as this one, for the only reality of social life which the film could present is warfare. For other human possibilities we have to look to different kinds of films.

That Marie’s revenge is the exploitation of her exploiters and fantasizes the cancelling out of exploitation with a lethal dose of it own medicine makes A VERY CURIOUS GIRL the ultimate feminist fantasy before the revolutionary feminist film—before in the sense of a dialectic, not time. Made in 1931, MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM is such a film: seeing it is an act of survival instead of escape. To use a remark made in 1911 by an anonymous woman factory worker about a story she'd read, Sagan’s film is the kind that gives us “courage in our hearts for the struggle.”

It would be convenient if I could give A VERY CURIOUS GIRL a rating according to the daily newspaper star system, but assessing its politics isn't as simple as that. I'm still ambivalent about the film and am not the first woman who’s tried to articulate her uneasiness about it. I can't dismiss a film which has as strong a hold on me as A VERY CURIOUS GIRL does. And I feel that this serious a film demands even more serious critical attention by feminists than it’s received already. Most of all, I'm confident that Nelly Kaplan. if given the funds and artistic control she’s always found difficult to obtain as a woman filmmaker, will do even better. After all, Kaplan herself wrote that “there is genius in the veins of women,” and she is no exception.