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Photographer and filmmaker William Klein is famous in fashion circles but barely acknowledged in American film criticism. Klein's films of the 1960s are eccentric and insightful pop snapshots of their time, but few were given American releases. Eclipse's The Delirious Fictions of William Klein collects three of his best, including the legendary Mr. Freedom, a daringly anti-Yankee comedy that until a short while ago was viewable only as a few enticing stills in rare copies of the French fantasy film magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique.
Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (Qui êtes-vous Polly Maggoo?) is the best film in the package. It's a satirical look at the 'image' industries of fashion and television, using a French TV program's rather cynical investigation of a big-time fashion model. Polly Maggoo is a twenty-year-old New Yorker discovered by a talent agent at a Beatles rally, which is exactly how Klein found the actress who plays her, Dorothy MacGowan. Slightly bucktoothed, with huge eyes, Polly is a top runway model and photographer's darling. She's pegged as an empty vessel by the gruff producer of the "Who Are You?" TV show. Director Grégoire Pecque (Jean Rochefort) begins filming her bio and immediately falls in love. Although the TV people dismiss models as hopelessly shallow, none of them cares what's beyond Maggoo's pop image; an ordinary, pleasant young woman isn't good enough. Meanwhile, in the Eastern European kingdom of Borodine, Prince Igor (Sami Frey) plays with his toys while swooning over photos of Polly. He dispatches two comic spies to tell her that he's coming to Paris with a proposition of marriage.
Polly Maggoo is a fun, free-form satirical comedy in an eclectic style. Some of the comic timing resembles Richard Lester's work but Klein's own point of view predominates. The riffs on high fashion are more than convincing: Klein spent ten years as a photographer for the American edition of Vogue. A brooding designer showcases a fashion collection made entirely of sheet aluminum. His dressers use metal shears, and during backstage prep one of the models receives a bad cut in her armpit. Klein's old boss Diana Vreeland appears in the form of "Miss Maxwell", a domineering and slightly ridiculous top editor played by American actress Grayson Hall (The Night of the Iguana). Lesser journalists wait like lemmings to hear Miss Maxwell's verdict on the metal 'dresses' that turn models into rather dangerous statues.
Ms. MacGowan is slightly kooky but doesn't play the role "cute", like Rita Tushingham in Richard Lester's The Knack... and How to Get It. Klein's photography experience gives him the ability to conjure up dozens of unique and amusing set pieces, as when a line of nervous models learn that a prince is coming to seek out a Paris model for his bride. (see B&W pic below) Backstage scenes crowded with TV crew people and fashion lizards appear to be completely authentic.
The movie looks far more expensive than it probably was. The smooth score is by Michel Legrand. Fantasy sequences interrupt the narrative at regular intervals, and Klein stages a railroad station welcome and a VIP motorcade for his visiting prince. More than one sequence uses cleverly animated photo cut-outs, in the exact style that brought Terry Gilliam fame on Monty Python. One of the jittery 2-D montages superimposes an image storm of design changes on Polly Maggoo's face, much like the 'police sketch' sequence in the next year's Diabolik. Star Phillippe Noiret has a substantial role as a jaded TV writer. Unpleasant surrealist filmmaker Fernando Arrabal plays a part as well, billed only as "Arrabal."
Klein's intelligent script pokes fun but doesn't draw blood, satirically speaking. After innumerable plot and style tangents, the ending finds a new twist on the Cinderella story. The handsome but somewhat juvenile Prince anxiously rings the doorbell of the woman of his dreams but receives no answer. The door of the neighbor apartment opens up instead...
The obscure Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (Qui êtes-vous Polly Maggoo?) carries a formidable underground reputation. Judging by the number of online fashion fans that claim to have sought out inferior bootlegs, Eclipse's beautiful enhanced widescreen B&W transfer will be a welcome purchase.
Daily Variety's original 1969 review does its best to dismiss William Klein's next film as aberrant anti-U.S. propaganda, which was probably all that was needed to discourage an American release. Klein's pop art comic strip satire of American arrogance and aggression is as blatant as anything in a Soviet propaganda film. Often wickedly funny, it plays out every possible variation on its one joke. Mr. Freedom is the story of -- who else -- Mister Freedom (John Abbey), a lanky deputy sheriff who takes time off from terrorizing ghetto blacks to fight America's ideological battles overseas. His super-hero costume is a mix of football, hockey and test pilot gear, color-coded in star-spangled hues. Located on the top floor of a building occupied by giant corporations, Freedom Incorporated communicates with Mr. Freedom via a Dick Tracy- like two-way wrist TV communicator. The slogan-spouting zealot Dr. Freedom (Donald Pleasance) dispatches our hero to France, where the local Captain Formidable (Yves Montand, seen only for a couple of seconds) has been murdered. The treacherous Commies Moujik Man (Phillipe Noiret) and Red China Man (a large paper dragon) are key suspects.
A combo killer and Yankee propaganda machine, Mr. Freedom guns down anybody who resists his ideas and works his fan-operatives like an ideological cheerleader: "F-R-double-E-D, D-O-M spells Freedom! We fight for freedom, for one and for all! It's you-and-me-dom, and ten foot tall!" He's a sexist, racist know-nothing galoot in love with his own presumed superiority; his speeches to his French supporters promise mountains of consumer goods. Mr. Freedom's main French ally is the pro-American freedom fighter Marie-Madeleine (Delphine Seyrig), who wears her own campy costume and a large red wig. The only thing that slows Mr. Freedom down is Marie-Madaleine's disobedient son, who persists in calling him a fascist.
Mr. Freedom reacts to every challenge with righteous rage. He humiliates and murders a hotel maid who attempts to serve him a poisoned breakfast. He checks in with the American Embassy, which turns out to be a fully stocked supermarket. Wherever Mr. Freedom goes, nubile American girls and French collaborators adore him. But he fails in destroying Mr. Moujik Man, a jolly Russian in a puffy outfit and winter hat who claims to be America's friend. Convinced that France has been hopelessly infiltrated by the forces of Non-Freedom, Mr. Freedom decides to carpet-bomb the entire country. But don't worry: he'll only have to destroy 60% of it.
The mood is Captain America and Batman with a generous helping of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville: like Lemmy Caution, Mr. Freedom investigates the disappearance of another 'freedom fighter' and saves Paris by utterly destroying it. Mr. Freedom vents his anger by shouting to the heavens from a rooftop crowded with neon signs. He's too obsessed by his preconceived enemies to detect his real enemy, but lovers of Freedom need not fear. Should Mr. Freedom fail, a new Mr. Freedom will take his place.
Although William Klein invests Mr. Freedom with spirited characters and lively art direction, it loses steam before the finish. Some scenes go on after their point has been made, such as a sequence of Freedom troops learning to torture enemies. Klein's ferocious message must have been a real shock in 1969. Had this show been given American distribution, we can easily imagine picketing and theaters set on fire. Today, of course, the word 'Freedom' has become a semantic smokescreen for political speeches, and some will recognize Klein's jingoistic nightmare as our dominant reality. It's all very funny, but the sick joke is on us. Wherever J. Edgar Hoover is, I hope he's being forced to watch Mr. Freedom for eternity.
John Abbey is fine as the brutal all-American jerk hero, and we're not surprised to see that the actor made no more American films. Top-billed Delphine Seyrig Last Year at Marienbad, Daughters of Darkness) is both sexy and funny as Mr. Freedom's cheerleading French lover, a strong contrast to her more glamorous roles. The amusing Phillipe Noiret is a funny Russian threat and Sami Frey returns in an irreverent bit part as Jesus Christ.
Eclipse's enhanced transfer of Mr. Freedom makes the most of Klein's eye-popping color design. Some scenes are grainy and the overcast French skies don't always cooperate with Klein's pop art imagery. The film's closest American correlative is Philip Kaufman's first effort Fearless Frank (Frank's Greatest Adventure), a micro-budgeted comic-book fable starring Jon Voight. Kaufman's oddball film is nowhere near as organized, but it has a lot more warmth.
1977's The Model Couple (Le couple témoin) is a satirical science fiction film possibly inspired by the PBS television experiment An American Family, an early reality series that followed the Louds of Santa Barbara as they lived their 'real lives.' Its unsettling highpoint occurred when Mrs. Loud demanded a divorce from Mr. Loud, on camera. The history-making show later inspired Albert Brooks' comedy Real Life.
Klein's movie does what it can with an essentially claustrophobic concept. Happy young couple Jean-Michel (André Dussolier) and Claudine (Anémone) volunteer for a 'Ministry of the Future' experiment to study an 'average couple' as an aide to designing a perfect city. The young marrieds undergo an unending series of humiliating and meaningless tests. The researchers make them answer a multitude of questions while standing naked against a wall, before a battery of cameras.
The cruelties of being a human lab rat are immediately apparent. Claudine and Jean-Michel are offered choices, and then rudely told to accept what's already been planned for them. They wear paper jumpsuits and arrange plastic furniture in a windowless environment riddled with microphones and cameras. The researchers tell them to be grateful that all the appliances, etc. being forced on them will be billed at discount rates. Jean Michel spends his workday performing stupid consumer tests while Claudine must do housework. Their entire life is televised, with nightly updates carried on the news.
The leading female researcher (Zouk) addresses her captives in insultingly condescending tones intended to provoke discord. One 'experiment' demands that the pair get into a fight, a fake spat that quickly becomes real. When Claudine and Jean-Michel say that they are happy, the researcher keeps pounding at them until they change their decision. When they express doubt about the test methodology, the researcher becomes petty and spiteful, warning them that if they want to ruin the whole project, it can be stopped at a great loss to all. The researchers enjoy keeping their test couple in torment; it's like having one's life monitored by a team of vindictive bureaucratic clerks.
We discover that the test has nothing to do with future happiness; the state wants to define and quantify the exact minimum living requirements that citizens will accept. One bureaucrat says that just lowering ceilings by a foot will allow more floors to be added to already-crowded residential buildings.
The couple is eventually visited by an official delegation. The patronizing Minister of the Future makes lame speeches during a televised meal. The psychologist (Eddie Constantine) thinks little of the experiment, and proves his point by cruelly demonstrating how passively Jean-Michel obeys verbal commands. That's all that Jean- Michel and Claudine have been doing for months.
The Model Couple finishes rather abruptly when a group of 'terrorist children' take the couple hostage. Claudine and Jean-Michel get into the anti-authoritarian spirit and are upset when the moppets turn out to be ordinary hooligans pulling a prank. The story resolution is logical but unrewarding. The Model Couple is true to its depressing concept, as it makes us think of the banal ways our lives are 'controlled' by technology.
William Klein's fantasies clearly deserve more recognition. The charming Polly Maggoo? is a nostalgic time capsule of fashion culture and Mr. Freedom wields a raw political outrage that found relatively little exposure. Klein's films have keen pop sensibilities coupled with unusually witty and intelligent scripts. Eclipse's arresting disc release will hopefully spur renewed interest in this unique filmmaker.
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