Thursday, January 21, 2010

Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?

If you have found yourself at the bottom of the rue St Jacques in Paris, you may like me have been driven by thirst to step into a small dark bar on the west side of the street, with tan frontage and black lettering displaying the name: Polly Maggoo. Perhaps, of the few booths, you choose the one near the back, with a monochrome painting on the wall showing the face of a sixties model (it’s the eyeshadow) and a large black mass bearing the lettering “Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?” For many years I wondered. Perhaps you did too. But now, thanks to those nice people at Criterion, you can find out; one of their box sets under the Eclipse imprint is “The Delirious Fictions Of William Klein”, and of those delirious fictions, one is the fascinating sixties artifact, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966).

And a sixties film it very much is, with meandering narrative, zany in parts, and ever aware of itself as a piece of visual media. It takes satirical swipes at the fashion industry, the TV industry and the philosophy of identity, but never takes itself too seriously. It flirts with Absurdity and Surrealism. It’s swinging and modern and crazy and, as one poor poster on IMDB has it, “designed to make normal people feel left out”.

An American in Paris, Polly Maggoo is queen of the fashion models. Her life is invaded by the TV crew for the “Who Are You?” series, led by director Gregoire Pecque (hangdog Jean Rochefort) who interviews her, performs psychological tests on her, pranks around with her and falls in love with her. Meanwhile Polly is Cinderella to Prince Igor (brooding Sami Frey) of a distant land (complete with abundantly bearded chamberlain), who comes to France armed with a magazine page of her face, and dreams of taking her home as his princess. Dorothy McGowan, picked at random from a photograph of screaming Beatles fans, is a perfect dolly bird, her wide open face speckled with delicate freckles; add the triangle mouth and large front teeth and she is the spit image of Julianne Moore, with the same uncanny ability to convey complete blankness, a tabula rasa onto which to project whatever preconceptions, fantasies or judgments we may wish. Like all the idealised girls from this era (from Darling on down) she’s lovely and flighty and essentially unknowable.

It may well be that Darling also influenced the TV interview hook, and the movie is of a piece with the newfound freedom in British cinema (Lester, particularly The Knack). But of course it also recalls those free-wheeling, semi-sociological Paris films that one J-L. Godard was churning out; in that mode, the narrative above, such as it is, is presented in a very “modern” style, with jump cuts and apparent non-sequiturs and cod-verité filming on the street. There’s also some collage animation that’s strikingly pythonesque and similarly, a scene where the characters are around a TV set showing part of that same scene, which then appears on the TV set in a newsroom. Which itself then appears on the TV set back in the first scene.

It's the mid-sixties, and the optimism of rule-breaking, celebration of youth and beauty and refusal to take anything seriously are so attractive. But on balance, the various lines of possible enquiry are met with off-the-cuff analysis, open-ended questions and nonsense such as “I became what I am today otherwise I’d be something else. If I was something else I wouldn’t be what I am”. The most incisive insight comes from the sociologist who relates the alternative Cinderella story, wherein an ugly sister cuts off her toe to fit in the glass slipper, bleeding all over her white stocking. The prince takes her anyway. That’s fashion right there: fetishism, mutilation, suffering. And looking good.

William Klein was a fashion photographer before he dabbled in film, and he had this shot in lovely black and white. Amongst the most exciting parts of the movie are the fashion shows/shoots, in particular the fantastically surreal opening, where the girls wear curved and shaped sheet metal (the designer’s next collection is going to be in copper..). He knew the industry well, and the sideswipes are fondly affectionate (Grayson Hall’s harridan Vogue editor). This is a film that is determined to be light-hearted, peppered with puns and wordplay and dreams and magical imaginings, and to throw in some undercranking and slapstick. The big joke is that it has no interest in answering its own title, because who’d want to be so dull? That the question is not to be taken too seriously is revealed in another pythonesque absurdity: next week’s show, “Who Are You Paul VI?”. He was the Pope. The smug bespectacled writer of the TV show (Philippe Noiret) asks if modeling is a masquerade, and taking its cue from Polly’s profession, the film answers yes, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. This is a film in which the shallow and the ephemeral are celebrated right down to the willfully arbitrary ending. As the TV producer says, surface is reality too; while the thrust of the film’s satire may be self-defeating, for connoisseurs of the superficial it is a charming piece of flummery.

d/sc William Klein p Robert Delpire ph Robert (Jean) Boffety ad Bernard Evein m Michel Legrand cast Dorothy McGowan, Jean Rochefort, Sami Frey, Grayson Hall, Philippe Noiret, Delphine Seyrig, Anatole Dauman
(1966, Swe, 102m, b/w)
posted by tom newth at

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