Essay by Pamela Church Gibson Qui Êtes-Vous, Polly Maggoo?

Pamela Church Gibson

The photographer William Klein, who directed Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966), was very much a part of the French nouvelle vague. He had already collaborated with the filmmaker and New Wave activist, Chris Marker on La Jetée (1962), for which Marker received the prix Jean Vigo (as did Klein for his Polly Maggoo in 1967). Klein would later work with Marker on the well-known New Wave collaboration Far From Vietnam (Loin de Vietnam, 1967), a collective effort in which five other French directors made contributions, including Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais. These different directors, in their various ways, expressed their feelings about the escalating conflict and their frustration at being, literally, far from Vietnam. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Polly Maggoo, Klein’s first feature film, should display its kinship with New Wave cinema through its visually innovative techniques, its subversive stance and its speculations on the relationship between “reality” and surface. Klein’s critique – playful in form but nevertheless telling – is not confined to the world of fashion, in which he had himself worked, but extends to the milieu of television, the new obsession with celebrity and to contemporary consumer culture itself. We find here not only the trademarks of the New Wave – handheld cameras, improvisation, the techniques of cinema vérité, and a knowingness around cinema itself – but also new formal strategies; the use of graphics, montage, and fantasy sequences.

There is much speculation in the film about the nature of contemporary fashion, social change and questions of “reality”. The television producer Grégoire, who is making a television programme about Polly, ends up questioning his own raison d’être. His relentless interrogation and pursuit of Polly are, he insists, necessary if he is to explore and display the bizarre world of fashion. Certainly its extravagance and absurdity are carefully conveyed, not only in the footage Grégoire captures, but in the film itself. Klein, too, is on a similar mission to that of Grégoire, though with one important difference. Grégoire wants his programme to rip off the masks that he believes Polly to wear, and to reveal that, beneath it, there is nothing whatsoever. Klein, however, seems to suggest that Polly has managed to retain her innocence and her autonomy within a world of artifice and pretension. There are extravagant fashion shoots within the film, one in a cemetery where Polly must lie in a coffin, another atop the Opera House where she must merge with the statuary. There is also a magazine editor who bears a distinct resemblance to that monstre sacrée, Diana Vreeland, but she is not treated here with the affection that director Donen had extended to Vreeland in Funny Face ten years earlier.

The first sequence sets the overall tone of the film. We see Polly’s face circled in the ‘O’ of her name on the credit sequence and the camera moves in to show her face being painted, her hair flattened, while a “designer” (a real-life sculptor in the French art world of the time) is encasing the bodies of the models in sheets of gleaming steel. Instead of the usual backstage scissors and pins, he uses pliers and screws to bolt them into his sculptures. Then the models totter around a small white building, a cross between a chapel and a crumpled egg-box, where the fashionistas of the day perch gingerly on open shelves.

Polly survives the antics of the fashion world, the intrusion of the television company, and the pursuit of two secret agents trying to procure her as a bride for Prince Igor of Borodin. The Prince, seen astride a white horse and at home with Scandinavian design, may or may not succeed in capturing his Cinderella. That fairytale, a staple of popular cultural and magazine journalism, is here carefully undermined and subverted.

Klein’s visual innovations – the excursions into surrealism, the way in which he moves from film to frozen image and beyond – would be stolen and applied elsewhere in film and television. His stylistic quirks seem to prefigure later postmodern cinema. The questions he raises around identity and masquerade are still resonant – while the excesses of the fashion world and the mania around celebrity are even more relevant today.

© Pamela Church Gibson 2006

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