If, like me, you have found yourself at the bottom of the rue St Jacques in Paris, you too may have found yourself a little thirsty and stepped 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 (you can always tell by the eyeshadow) and a large black mass bearing the lettering “Qui Ãªtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?” Who indeed. Well now, thanks to those nice people at Criterion, you can find out. One of their recent box sets under the Eclipse imprint is “The Delirious Fictions Of William Klein”, and one of those delirious fictions is Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966).
It should be stated from the off that this is very much a sixties film, with a 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, and has the same ability to convey an impression of 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 also of a piece with the newfound freedom in British cinema as personified by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack). But it also owes a debt to those free-wheeling Paris films of a few years early, by one J-L. Godard (Bande Ã part, Une femme est une femme). As such, the narrative above such as it is, is presented in a very “modern” style, with jump cuts and apparent non-sequiturs and cod-verite 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. The film very much characterises the mid-sixties optimism of rule-breaking, celebration of youth and beauty and refusal to take anything seriously. So its 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.
William Klein was a fashion photographer before he dabbled in film, and shot this 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 affectionate in the extreme, even down to 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, even 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’s 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 wilfully arbitrary ending. As the TV producer says, surface is reality too; while it may lack in satirical bite, for the connoisseurs of the superficial it is a charming piece of flummery.