I don't want to fall into that trap. You know the one where because we are seeing a film, or listening to music 40 years after it was made it doesn't seem to be all that shocking. As a teenager I walked out on Godard's "Breathless", the very first time I went to a midnight movie. Of course, I am horrified at that juvenile snafu, but I didn't know any better. I had to be taught to understand French Cinema in all of it's oddities. Yet, I have been watching "Who are you Polly Magoo?" for over a week now: rewinding, fast forwarding and I still don't have a clue what to say about it. Cinematography wise it's a gas. Fab angles, odd shots of crowds and high places in Paris, the fashion world has never looked more extra terrestrial. But these stylized images are so part of our almost mainstream now it's hard to be as shocked as we might have been had we sat in the audience on opening night of William Klein's 1966 film. Criticizing the Parisian fashion world at the birth of its youth market is an easy hit. Models always look silly when we see them from behind the camera, vamping and sashaying to and fro. Magazines and still photography seem to create a peace that separates the action from the outcome and allows the observer to fetishize, belittle or worship as we please.
William Klein was a fantastic photographer before he shot this film, with heavy credits in the fashion industry. He knew firsthand the insanity of the magazine hierarchy and its' willing subjects. Because this film was made as the French New Wave was winding down, that influence feels hearty and obvious. After all, Klein was an American, at the height of anti-American feelings in France. One couldn't just waltz in and not make a big nod without trench coats flapping or ballet flats mussed up. Klein interjects humor and absurdity that frees his influences from their New Wave forefathers and offers up an early Woody Allen quality that suggests we are all in on the joke, we just don't know where we heard it first.
My only complaint about "Qui Etes-Vous Polly Magoo?" is that the story we are being sold, about how vapid the fashion industry is, especially its models, is such a duplicitous tale. While we mock them, we also worship, and look to them for strength of good style character. The women in his film are seen as robots to visual reward, yet the male viewers enjoy those efforts. It's hard to be sympathetic to the poor male lead who frets about Polly's vacuousness while he day dreams about her fashioned false front. As seen through the eyes of a male film maker this recurring tale will always be resolved with 'man in foreground, woman behind'.