Judge Gordon Sullivan lives a life of delirious non-fictions.
These are colorful, surreal antidotes to all forms of social oppression.
Criterion's Eclipse line brings us three fiction films by acclaimed fashion photographer and American expat William Klein. Famous for undermining the visual language of the fashion world in his photographs for Vogue in New York, his talents transfer well to a series of films aimed at undermining our comfortable perceptions of ourselves and the world around us.
Facts of the Case
This box set from Criterion gives us three of William Klein's features in three slimline cases:
• Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)
Young model Polly Maggoo (Dorothy Macgowan in her only screen role) is the subject of a TV documentary made by Grégoire (Jean Rochefort, Lost in La Mancha). During the show we also see her would-be suitor Prince Igor(Sami Frey, Mr. Freedom) as well as her life as a model. As Grégoire delves into all the aspects of her life, the audience gets a glimpse into the Paris fashion industry.
• Mr. Freedom (1969)
Mr. Freedom (John Abbey) is a democracy-loving superhero decked out in an odd mixture of football and astronaut gear. He is sent by Dr. Freedom (Donald Pleasence, Halloween) to France to stop a Communist infiltration from Switzerland. The only problem is Mr. Freedom (and his methods) might not be as popular with the people as he thought.
• The Model Couple (1977)
Jean-Michel (André Dussollier, Amelie) and Claudine (Anémone) are chosen as the titular Model Couple, and they will live for six months in a house designed with the year 2000 in mind. They will be monitored and controlled so that manufacturing in the future can anticipate the demands of the populace. Naturally, things do not go as planned, and the couple becomes more and more disillusioned with the experiment until outside forces intervene.
Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? is the long-lost little brother of the French New Wave, with its simultaneous critique/love letter to the media and its offspring. According to the excellent liner notes provided in the case, William Klein was critical of the New Wave, thinking its proponents too literary and not cinematic enough. This, his first fiction film, does much to bridge this divide. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? contains the same kind of incisive dialogue we've come to expect from filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard (lines include such bon-mots as this response to the vapidity of Polly: "The surface is reality to. It's life") but couples it with an eye trained by years of still photography. The cinematography isn't better or worse than other films from the era, it just seems to from a tradition other than that which informs the New Wave.
Coupling fashion with fairytale was a master stroke. The scene where an expert (for the benefit of TV cameras) explains the origin of fashion and fetishism in the tale of Cinderella is priceless. The side of fashion that Klein shows seems very similar to images of the contemporary fashion industry, which is my only complaint about Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?: pointing out the ridiculousness of the fashion industry is like calling water wet. As Klein's "death of fashion" sequence shows, any criticism of the industry or its participants just becomes more grist for the mill. That said, the fruitlessness of his critique doesn't make it any less sharp or funny.
Mr. Freedom reminds me of the episode of MST3K which features Puma Man (no, it's not just because Donald Pleasence is in both). Both are films about ridiculous "superheroes" who fight dubious battles against silly foes. Both are also (by typical multiplex standards) completely inept, featuring a clichéd story, suspect acting, and basement-level production values. However, Mr. Freedom uses these features as weapons to wage a war against the vulgarity of American imperialism, both military and cultural. Like Puma Man, though, it's best enjoyed ironically, with full knowledge of its foibles.
Klein's critiques of America are nothing knew (the country's loud, vulgar, and hypocritical, not to mention racist), but the brilliance lies in using our own image against us. Mr. Freedom is himself a kind of alternate-reality Superman, spouting lines that are only a degree or two off from what we would expect of a comic book hero (or politician). In a world where words are losing their meaning in an increasingly Orwellian manner, Mr. Freedom seems like a prophet.
In contrast to the bold farce of Mr. Freedom, The Model Couple is a biting satire on the control that media exerts over the populace. After years of ubiquitous reality television, there's little here that's surprising from a narrative perspective. Of course the couple becomes increasingly irate with their handlers, and of course revolutionaries attempt to free the couple. The interaction between the couple and their observers are interesting, but the whole experiment can become tedious. However, what makes The Model Couple fresh is the visual handling of the story. The entire environment is captured in the most claustrophobic angles. So claustrophobic, in fact, that I felt uncomfortable for the actors as I was watching the story. I also found the film hilarious because Jean-Michel looks like a French Jon Bon Jovi and Claudine looks like the love child of Jennifer Grey and Molly Ringwald.
These films make me wonder what we would think of Swift's "A Modest Proposal" if the British had actually started eating Irish children. Despite their decades-old vintage, all of these films seem eerily prophetic. Polly Maggoo and The Model Couple seem to presage the reality television boom and our growing obsession with media, while Mr. Freedom seems totally appropriate in a world of missing WMDs and "The Decider."
Irrespective of their political or social aims, these films demonstrate a fascinating visual sense that seems to undermine subjects in the same moment it idolizes them. With so visual a filmmaker, it was essential that his work be presented adequately on DVD, and the Eclipse line has done it again. Despite the fact that these films didn't get the deluxe Criterion restoration treatment, they look surprisingly good for independent films from the late '60s and '70s. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? gets an excellent black-and-white transfer that has amazing contrast and very little print damage. The verité style is preserved, as the print looks immediate and direct. Mr. Freedom looks the worst, but it appears to be a difficulty with the source rather than anything amiss in the transfer. In fact, I found the slightly beat-up look made the film more enjoyable. The Model Couple has some discoloration and a slightly washed-out look, but nothing that detracts from the film. All three features get serviceable mono soundtracks that do a fine job conveying dialogue.
As with other Eclipse sets, this set gets no extras beyond the liner notes in each slimline case. These essays, however, are packed with historical facts, production details, and discussions of the film. It's amazing how much they can cover in about four paragraphs per film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Obviously, these films are not for everyone. They're not particularly entertaining in the traditional sense, and their critiques are likely to offend some tastes. If you are averse to any criticism of the United States (or the fashion industry for that matter), steer clear of Mr. Klein's films.
As I said, these films are not entertaining in the traditional sense, and while watching them I was often nonplussed. However, they have grown significantly upon reflection. I suspect that all of these films deserve at least a few viewings to completely soak in. So, don't go in looking for a direct, visceral experience, or you might be disappointed.
It seems kind of stupid to complain about extras when the films are so interesting, but it's because the films are so interesting that I want extras. Considering how rooted these films are in their cultural milieu, it would have been nice to see some documentaries on Paris fashion and the Left Bank, as well as some input from Klein himself.
Famous punk Jello Biafra has an album entitled I Blow Minds for a Living. I think that would be a fitting title for this collection. It's worth owning just to show to unsuspecting friends on a Friday night after some other (more mainstream) movie. Sure, your friendship may never recover, but the look on their face will be priceless.
Not guilty. The court hopes more of Mr. Klein's films make it before the bench.
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Scales of Justice, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?
Perp Profile, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?
Distinguishing Marks, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?
Scales of Justice, Mr. Freedom
Perp Profile, Mr. Freedom
Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Freedom
Scales of Justice, The Model Couple
Perp Profile, The Model Couple
Distinguishing Marks, The Model Couple
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