Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?

a photo novel by William Klein, 2023, a film directed by William Klein, 1966

William Klein was born in New York and lived in Paris from 1949 until his death in 2022 at the age of 96. He is properly regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important documentary and fashion photographers. In 2022 the International Center of Photography in New York opened “William Klein: YES; Photographs, Paintings, Films, 1948–2013” and in October of this year a 544-page photo-novel based on his groundbreaking satirical film, Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, was published by Delpire & Co/DAP.

Klein’s initial view of photography was that it was a poor man’s art. He had wanted to be a painter and with the help of the GI Bill had studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. It was meeting Alex Liberman that led to a 10-year contract with Vogue magazine. Klein was dismissive of anything that was considered good photography and was enamoured of distortion, blur, graininess and compositional chaos. The photographs he took in New York on assignment for Vogue never appeared in the magazine, but they were published two years later in Europe under the title Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, 1956. That book was followed by a progression of city symphonies in photographic form on Rome, 1959, Moscow and Tokyo, both in 1964. They are iconic city profiles and no one has done anything as good since.

It wasn’t just his street photography that was unlike anything that had been done before; his fashion work was equally revolutionary. Klein took his models to the street and brought a degree of energy to fashion photographs that was unprecedented. He said, “In the fashion world you can never be too absurd.” One of the models he frequently worked with was Dorothy McGowan, whom he described as “a street kid from Brooklyn. She could improvise,” he told Wallpaper magazine in 2017, “she always knew the frame I was using, and fitted into anything.” He chose her as the star of his first fiction film, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, made in 1966. He’d left fashion photography behind, and his way of saying goodbye was to write and direct a film that was a scathing satire of that world. In addition to challenging notions about what constitutes beauty, it also managed to draw into its catch basin hints of espionage, political authoritarianism, corporate greed, the redistribution of wealth, French attitudes towards Americans and the banalities of investigative journalism. Wherever he turned his camera, he found something to satirize. He said, “My photographs are mostly parodies,” and he carried that irreverence into his filmmaking. “Half of everything I’ve done is chance,” he said, but he didn’t add that the other half was genius.

Who Are You, Polly Magoo? was filmed in Paris in 1965. It opens with a fashion show of metal clothes for women designed by Isidore Ducasse, which takes place in André Bloc’s habitable sculpture, a structure that looks as if Gaudi went minimal, played with cubism and then topped things off with some twists from Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House. It is a perfect setting and an example of Klein’s unerring visual sense. The show was attended by Miss Maxwell, the editor-in-chief of a major women’s fashion magazine, and her entrance with a cluster of sycophantic assistants who wear scowls identical to hers is unflattering and, perhaps, even unkind. Maxwell was modelled on the legendary Diana Vreeland, who was the real editor of Vogue.

The entire scene is madcappery at its best. For the models being bolted into their clothes, it was like wearing the tin lids of oyster containers; one model cuts herself and is bleeding— “we’ll put some base on it and you won’t see it”—culminating in the towering beauty of Donyale Luna, one of the first Black supermodels, who is like a divine visitation from the future, the divinity of which is undermined by the whisper of a smile on her face that lets us know she’s in on the joke.

Miss Maxwell is ecstatic, “MAGNIFICAAAT! He’s recreated woman.” Another of the now transformed scowling crew says, “Botticelli’s angels copulate. The French robot is born. You are more than a designer. You’re a galvanizer and I am galvanized.” Holding his tin snips up to the side of his face, Ducasse says, “I’m glad you understand. I have great plans. I’ll be doing the same collection in copper.” It’s worth remembering that Isidore Ducasse’s pen name was the Comte de Lautréamont, the French poet who defined surrealism. There are, assuredly, some chance encounters in Klein’s film as well, the fashion world is certainly familiar with sewing machines, and there may also be an operating table or two.

The next three segments of the film introduce the principal characters: the impossibly handsome Prince Igor of Borodine, who rides into the film on a horse, and Polly Maggoo, a young American cover girl who is repeatedly followed as she walks along the streets of Paris by a range of suitors, including a creep who cuts off a lock of her hair, a weirdo dressed as a Boy Scout and a very short man who offers her a bottle of shaving cream as a wedding present. The last stalker she encounters says that “models aren’t real women. They’ve never been with real men.” In his pursuit, he is hit by a car. Call in the operating table. The final part of the narrative is the television crew, headed by Grégoire Pecque, a producer from a television program called Who Are You? that does celebrity journalism with a tinge of exposé. When Polly gets back to her apartment, she finds his crew there, determined to make her the subject of one of their episodes. As the film unfolds, both the prince and the producer will fall in love with Polly.

The prince plays with windup toys, performs the occasional magic trick and carries on meaningless official inspections only in his imagination. His obsession with Polly Maggoo causes him to pine away like a distracted Hamlet in his home country of Borodine, where there is no sign of his father or his mother, the queen. He is advised by a Rasputin-like figure who is dressed by Malabar’s costumers and who conspires with CIA agents who are worried about the political implications of the prince’s infatuation. The queen is distraught: “He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t sleep. That girl must be brought from Paris, but not a word to the ambassador. If our enemies got word of this, it would be a catastrophe for our country. We need our best top-secret agents.” The top-secret pair that shows up is a cross between Laurel and Hardy and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and before the film is over they will masquerade as chimney sweeps and steal the page proofs of the magazine article on Polly. The film pushes all its scenes to a level of absurdity.

The attacks are so relentless that it’s hard to get our bearings. At one point Polly says, “Fashion endures because it changes. What doesn’t change dies.” This sounds wise and Klein himself might agree but it comes from the same mind and mouth that says, “I read in the paper that the imperatives of fashion are even more categorical than those of philosophy” just after she has recorded in her taped diary that “today I have a pimple.” Fashion’s claim on our attention moves from existentialism to eczema.

What you can trust is the quality of the writing. When Miss Maxwell phones in the content of her article, Klein’s script is fabulous: “Headline: Designer Isidore Ducasse has slain fashion. Fashion is Dead. Long live Fashion.” Then she gets anatomical: “Engineer of knees, wizard of calves, sculptor of thighs, architect of the abdomen, the great choreographer of the human body. He has recreated woman. Born of his rib and his electronic brain, she emerged fully clothed, our Eve for the atomic age. France’s incomparable soul has produced a wardrobe fit for Joan of Arc. Peter Pan collars in sheet metal.” Klein hoovers in stories from multiple sources; he riffs on the birth of Venus, the creation of a new Eve for the atomic age, robotics and Peter Pan, monarchical succession and dragon slaying. Not a narrative stone is left unturned and then they are thrown at the glass house of fashion’s pretensions. The visual layering is equally rich: a hair-washing scene includes a deconstruction of Polly’s physiognomy that is a kaleidoscope of cartooning, Hannah Höch collaging and Daliesque surrealism.

Klein is inclined to play with his own sense of play. He introduces the fairy tale and then ramps up its meaning. The prince and Polly operate in their Cinderella world; he’s always riding around on steeds and declaring his love for her. There is even a fanciful sequence where the two of them oat above the streets of Paris in their wedding clothes. But then Grégoire’s television program interviews a sociologist who offers another version of the Cinderella story. In this telling, when the shoe doesn’t fit the eldest sister’s foot, acting on her mother’s advice, she cuts off her big toe. “Queens are carried when they’re married,” she says. The surgery works and the deception passes until, riding off with her on his charger, the prince notices that the bride’s white stockings are stained with blood. The sociologist sums up the meaning of the tale: “So there you are: fetishism, mutilation, suffering—it’s fashion in a nutshell.” This story reveals things important to a child’s development, notably the economic value of tiny feet, and later fine clothes, for a successful marriage. Then the sociologist concludes: “Also, it reveals fashion’s erotic nature. The prince is excited by the slipper; he’s actually something of a fetishist. Fashion is primarily sex.”

The photo-novel carries the weight of all this text and all these images. What the book can’t convey is the velocity and the convolutions of the intersecting narratives that propel the film, especially in the last 30 minutes when the various romances and fairy tales begin to overlap. Klein’s description of his first book on New York was that it was “a tabloid gone berserk, gross, grainy, over-inked with a brutal layout and bull-horn headlines.” The bullhorn headlines do turn up in the photo-novel, but the sense of brutality in the layout has been softened and there is little evidence of the berserk. It retains some of what Klein called “a kind of Dada-tabloid jargon,” and his instinct for combining radically different typefaces and character sizes is remarkable. The book is always very good-looking, but there are times when it seems almost polite. The really rough edges of the film have been led down.

It isn’t so much that Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, both film and photo-novel versions, comes to a conclusion as much as it ends. Polly has been betrayed by her look-alike neighbour and by Prince Igor’s disconnection from reality. As the clever cartoony end credits roll on, we are treated to a final song, “Oh, Polly, the bubble’s burst. Your prince is gone, your neighbour’s got him first.” The moral to this brilliant and unforgivingly cynical story is posed as a question like the one asked in the lm’s title. Not “Who are you?” but “Where are you?” What happened to Polly Maggoo was that she wasn’t home.To succeed in the fashion world, everything depends upon presence. Presence is the protective umbrella. ❚

The Delirious Fictions of William Klein, which includes The Model Couple, Mr. Freedom and Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, is available in the “Eclipse Series 9” from The Criterion Collection.