Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (France, 1966) * * *
D: William Klein
The ninth box set from the Criterion Collection's Eclipse imprint collects three rare films from the little-known, American-born satirist William Klein: Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), Mr. Freedom (1969), and The Model Couple (1977). A renowned New York fashion photographer who became an expatriate, Klein's first feature-length film is French, and wholly absorbs swinging 60's Paris; it's a biting but playful critique of the fashion industry and pop culture in general. I couldn't help but be reminded of Richard Lester's imaginative satires, including Help! and How I Won the War. And, like those films, it's impossible to imagine it being produced in any decade but the 60's.
Polly Maggoo (Dorothy MacGowan) is a Parisian cover girl adored worldwide. She is also something of a blank slate, upon which the various characters of the film--including a TV documentarian, a wealthy prince, bumbling secret agents, and haughty fashion designers--project all their ideals, lusts, and fantasies. On top of this threadbare plot (which can be summarized as: "Polly is pursued"), Klein layers witty dialogue, pointed satire, surreal dreams, endless digressions, TV commercials, sloganeering, even cut-out animation, all to demonstrate how Polly the person disappears beneath Polly the idol, a papier-mâché construct whom all the peripheral characters have built in their private fantasies.
At 101 minutes, it's all a little too much, and becomes slightly exhausting after a while. But the film picks up in its final stretch--even as the narrative becomes even more disjointed--with an odd and unexpected finale, followed by one of the funniest ending credit sequences I've seen (with drawings by famed cartoonist Roland Topor). What's most impressive about the film is that it demonstrates Klein to be an instant natural as a filmmaker. With restlessly creative techniques--super-fast editing, crowded and dizzying compositions--he reinvents his film every few minutes. The effect is like reading a glossy pop-art magazine: a little Vogue, a little Mad Magazine, a little New Yorker, with plenty of eye-popping ads.
Most of all, as a freewheeling, madcap 60's satire, Polly Maggoo is endearing for actually being clever and fun--something many of its larger-budgeted rivals (What's New, Pussycat?, Casino Royale) only dreamed of being. But this would make a brilliant double-feature with Godard's equally stylish Masculin-Féminin, a yé-yé girl critique of a (slightly) more serious tone. Have at it.