A Brooklyn-Born Cover Girl Plays a Brooklyn-Born Cover Girl

02/27/2013 4:00 AM |

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)
Directed by William Klein
March 1 at the Museum of Art and Design

The Museum of Arts and Design begins “Without Compromise: The Cinema of William Klein” with this, the best-known of the photographer-turned-filmmaker’s three fiction features. (Klein’s documentaries will comprise the rest of the two-month retrospective.) A sneering satire by a Paris-dwelling expat with multiple axes to grind, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? finds Klein transitioning to a new medium and skewering mid-60s sartorialism along the way. It’s a high-style hatchet job as influenced by the radical politics and formal experimentation of his contemporaries on the Left Bank (namely Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda and Chris Marker) as it is by the proto-MTV poetics of Richard Lester.

Brooklyn-born Vogue cover girl Dorothy McGowan stars as Brooklyn-born Vogue cover girl Polly Maggoo, a budding supermodel who becomes the object of obsession for both the lonely Prince Igor (Sami Frey, wearing a black turtleneck and entering his castle astride a horse) and documentarian/armchair psychoanalyst Grégoire Pecque (Jean Rochefort). Igor’s castle is a groovy pad fit only for a prince, boasting an assortment of nonsensical knickknacks (including a robot and a stereo that plays canned applause to punctuate his Schmaltz-speare soliloquys). A Serious Intellectual, Grégoire declares that all models are “androgynous Little Red Riding Hoods and Itty Bitty types.” Whose romantic overtures will win our titular heroine’s heart?

A much-stalked, soft-spoken and freckly waif, Polly is an haute couture Candide. “Every time they take a photo of me, there’s little bit less of me. So in the end, what will be left of me,” she wonders aloud during a TV interview. However, Klein is less concerned with teasing out the existential consequences of a life spent in front of (or behind) the camera than with orchestrating a runway showcase of the silly and the grotesque. Sight gags and stylistic libertinism abound as Klein presents one lavish, ridiculous set-piece after another. (A personal highlight is the revelation of the fact that Polly has authored a book entitled “Polly Maggoo Par Polly Maggoo.”) In a letter to Klein, Stanley Kubrick supposedly said that Polly Maggoo was 10 years ahead of its time. Maybe, but the film is also unmistakably of an aesthetic piece with the zeitgeist investigations undertaken by Klein’s French idols and peers.