Eclipse Series 9:
The Delirious Fictions of William Klein

May 20, 2008

 

WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO?: HE HAS RE-CREATED WOMAN!

Top fashion models literally bleeding from sharp-edged aluminum dresses. A comic-strip American superhero oozing stigmata. A naked couple poked, prodded, and electroded for the delectation of the TV-viewing public. These are some of the images from the fiction films of American expatriate in Paris William Klein, mostly known in the United States for his early experimental photography and his later documentary films. But Klein also directed some of the most accomplished big-screen social satires of the sixties and seventies.

The grandson of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, Klein was born and raised in New York and planned to be a painter from an early age. He first went to Paris in 1946, to attend the Sorbonne on the GI Bill, and the experience was transformative: he studied briefly with painter Fernand Léger, and also met his future wife, Jeanne Florin, on his second day there. In the early fifties, an exhibition of Klein’s first abstract photos caught the eye of American Vogue’s legendary art director, Alexander Liberman, who offered him not just a magazine contract but also financing for a personal project—Klein wanted an image diary of his return to New York, captured in gritty, violent street photography.

The result was his groundbreaking book Life Is Good and Good for You in New York, hailed in Europe and Japan as a photographic revolution. But, ironically, no New York publisher would touch it, seeing it as too rough and anti-American; it didn’t come out in the U.S. until it was reissued thirty years later. And it wasn’t published until 1956, when Klein showed his project to Chris Marker, then editor at the French publishing house Éditions du Seuil. The two became friends, and Klein soon found himself part of Marker’s circle, the avant-garde filmmakers who became known as the French New Wave’s “Left Bank.” Klein befriended Alain Resnais and producer Anatole Dauman (who financed Klein’s 1958 short Broadway by Light, considered the first pop film), worked as art director on Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro (1960), made various films for French TV, including the feature documentary The Big Store (1961), with Simone Signoret, and even appeared in Marker’s La Jetée (1962).

Klein’s experience shooting for French TV and Vogue inspired his first fiction feature, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), a savage look at cultural image making that is all at once a fashion exposé, a raucous attack on media, and a fractured fairy tale. It’s a flipped-out portrait of an American model in Paris (Dorothy MacGowan) pursued by both a love-struck TV producer (Jean Rochefort) and an obsessive Prince Charming (Sami Frey), told with a Buñuelian eye for the surreal and absurd.

Klein had always detested the pretensions of the fashion industry; his sardonic photos so inverted traditional ideas of glamour that Vogue would often censor them. Klein’s ciao to that world, Polly Maggoo even blasphemously parodied Vogue’s editor in chief and fashion high priestess, Diana Vreeland. Klein would remain fascinated by fashion and ideas of beauty and desire, but he would soon move down ever more audacious avenues of political filmmaking.

 

MR. FREEDOM: ANTI-FREEDOMISM IS AT A NEW HIGH

William Klein’s friendships with the politically motivated filmmakers of the Paris Left Bank community took him even further away from America. Though never really a member of the New Wave, which he has said he found too literary and nonvisual, Klein showed a commitment to cinematic experimentation and social critique that attracted such like-minded artists as Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy. Klein found himself swept up in the causes of the sixties, protests against France’s Algerian war and America’s intervention in Vietnam, even collaborating with Godard, Resnais, Joris Ivens, and others on the omnibus feature Far from Vietnam. Politics came late to Klein, but when he got angry he came out swinging.

Klein’s second feature, Mr. Freedom (1969), is an uproariously incensed vision of run-amok American imperialism, personified by a demented superhero blinded by jingoism and so moronic in his patriotic pursuits that he destroys half of France in the process. Decked out in thick layers of football padding and space-suit gadgets, the titular superhero (a mountainous John Abbey) is introduced crashing through the apartment window of an inner-city African American family, before standing atop their kitchen table, guns ablaze, and caterwauling a song of freedom, off-key—patriotism at gunpoint. Domestic horror becomes international crisis as Mr. Freedom is sent off to a third-world France to combat alleged Stalinist and Maoist infiltrations from Switzerland. Satirically vulgar and politically sharp, Mr. Freedom is a dagger to the heart of American arrogance and folly that perhaps only a native son could have made.

Klein’s dazzlingly detailed expressionism and brutal sense of visual humor, broad and idiosyncratic in equal doses, elevate Mr. Freedom way above mere of-its-moment agitprop. Amid its colorful, comic-book excess, the film is full of economically composed visual jokes in which Klein makes splendid use of the entire frame (as when Mr. Freedom offhandedly throws a hapless window washer off a balcony in the background of a shot) and cannily interpolates documentary footage. Like Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, Mr. Freedom is a natural progression from Klein’s photography—here his ragged yet brilliantly framed street work—and a coming attraction of his later documentary interests.

The release of Mr. Freedom was delayed by French censors for nine months in the fervor of the events of May ’68—even though shooting, which began at the end of 1967, wrapped before the protests began. (Those events further radicalized Klein, who would later say that in between the film’s shooting and eventual release “a midlife crisis of politics got to me”; he took his camera to the streets to shoot footage of that momentous time, later edited into the classic documentary Maydays.) When Mr. Freedom finally came out, some critics were nonplussed. Yet as Klein later stated, “A lot of French critics said it wasn’t realistic . . . But now, if you want to win an argument about a film, you can always say it’s a comic strip.” Singularly ahead of its time, Mr. Freedom wins arguments all on its own, wedding politics with burlesque surreality for a visionary cinematic experience.

 

THE MODEL COUPLE:FAIRLY HAPPY”

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? and Mr. Freedom had certified Klein’s talent for filmic fantasias combining social commentary with visual absurdity, yet it wouldn’t be until 1975 that Klein would again dive into a fictional world. In the meantime, he became an acclaimed documentarian with The Panafrican Festival (1969) and two portraits of contentious black American heroes, Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970) and, his most famous film, Muhammad Ali, the Greatest (1964/74).

His next feature venture after the sensation of Muhammad Ali, however, showed that his need for political catharsis through fiction had not been dulled. Partly an indictment of state control of television and radio, The Model Couple (1977) was intended to launch into a broader critique of how easily democratic institutions can slide into totalitarianism. Klein explained his impetus: “The French had these delusions of grandeur, inherited from de Gaulle. They wanted to make, out of nothing, new cities, and I wanted to show how ridiculous all this was.” He never got the money to make the epic satire he envisioned, so Klein—ironically with a small government advance—ended up focusing on one aspect of his original idea: a model couple in a model apartment.

The film concerns a government program, put forth by the Ministry of the Future, in which an average, middle-class couple, chosen after a national campaign, will be monitored, controlled, and televised for six months in a high-tech apartment modeled on expectations for the year 2000. The apartment is a claustrophobic four-room prison, a blank page of stark-white walls on which Klein draws and scribbles. With its austere, Mondrian-like view of the future and shades-of–Ilse Koch supervisor (Zouc), the film’s Fascist overtones are overt; yet Klein shoots in such a naturalistic manner, and he allows such breathing space for his actors, that The Model Couple in the end is more blithe farce than drama. Klein doesn’t excoriate the central couple, Claudine (Anémone) and Jean-Michel (André Dussolier), who come across initially as submissive but do not long remain zombies in the ministry’s experiment.

Though Klein keeps things psychoslapstick in this self-contained world of spaceship gadgetry and monitored orgasms, his depiction of a government usurping personal privacy and freedoms—as well as of a constant-surveillance reality-TV scenario—is soberingly prescient. As with Klein’s prior fictional outings, the film remains remarkably fresh; Klein’s social satire carries a timeless sting. He has continued to make films in the years since, but Klein has left behind the frenzied world of the imaginary, focusing instead on the fantastically real in unconventional documentaries on the May ’68 revolution, Little Richard, and Handel’s Messiah—just some aspects of a whirlwind multimedia career. Klein’s fiction films nevertheless stand apart, heightening reality in order to harness its frightening, absurd truths.

Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.