The Eclipse line from The Criterion Collection focuses on “lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics.” Series 9 is entitled The Delirious Fictions of William Klein, and although I can’t argue with the adjectives, I don’t know if I would go so far to call any of the three films in the collection “classics.”
William Klein rose to prominence as a photographer, equally gifted with subjects on the streets of New York and in the pages of Vogue. The DVD case notes that aside from the documentary Muhammad Ali, the Greatest, “his film work is barely known in the United States,” and after viewing them, it’s easy to see why. Klein has some interesting ideas, both in subject matter and in his direction, but not enough of either to create one good, satisfying film. Unfortunately, the ratio of enjoyable scenes to disappointing does not favor the viewer.
Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966) is Klein’s insider’s look at the world of celebrity through fashion, television, and even royalty. Polly is a model who becomes the focus of a television interview program entitled Who Are You? The producer becomes smitten with Polly, his initial lust progresses to something deeper as they work together. At the same time, Prince Igor grows listless as he longs for Polly. His mother the Queen puts into action a plan for Polly’s return to the country. The film is an odd wonderland with hints of Godard and Fellini as the viewer is transported through the different worlds, but unfortunately it delivers more odd than wonder.
Mr. Freedom (1969) tells the story of the title character, a redneck sheriff costumed in red, white and blue football pads, who goes to France to save it from the Commies coming in from Switzerland. It is an interesting take at how the United States was perceived during the late ‘60s, a sentiment that remains largely the same today. This satire pokes fun at the country’s cowboy mentality and actions during the Vietnam War, and while the country was, and still is, certainly deserving of ridicule, the film is rather simplistic and naïve in its view of the U.S. and how the U.S. sees the world. No effort is made to see any good in the U.S. or examine its actions. Not that any is required since U.S. filmmakers have not always fairly depicted all other nationalities, but a more accurate depiction would have given stronger validation to the criticisms. Instead the film comes off as poorly constructed far-left agitprop.
The Model Couple (1977) set in the future of the year 2000 the Ministry of the Future selects married couple Claudine and Jean-Michel to take part in a sixth-month experiment to design a model apartment. They are constantly under surveillance by scientists and television pundits as different experiments are conducted, including some tests that are not what they seem. While Klein was dealing with government intrusion into people’s lives, he was unintentionally prescient about the intrusion of the media, most specifically reality television.
All three films offer great topics for discussion over coffee and cigarettes, but as movies they all falter. Not that every film needs linear stories, but everything is done haphazardly. There doesn’t seem to be a purpose why rules are broken, more like an arrogance that they are not necessary or else an ignorance to their existence. Klein obviously wants to say something, which is why so many characters speak profoundly rather than talking naturally, causing the dialogue to come off very heavy-handed.
This is too bad because there are small moments of brilliance that deserve to be seen. The opening fashion show in Polly Maggoo with models wearing shaped pieces of aluminum and the animated sequence of Polly and Igor that looks like the work of Terry Gilliam during his Python days, the use of vivid colors and the documentary footage from the May 1968 protests in Mr. Freedom, and the time-lapse meal sequence from The Model Couple.
I can’t recommend The Delirious Fictions of William Klein to the average movie viewer, but for those who have an interest in studying the art of film, Klein teaches a great deal in both his successes and failures.