Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?

Bonjour, tout le monde! If you don’t understand that sentence, it’ll be pointless to tune in to France 2 this Tuesday night (at 01.00). The movie shown is the obscure cult movie Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966). If you are French or understand the language well, it’ll be well worth staying up for. If not, there are DVDs of the movie out there.

The movie was directed by photographer and filmmaker William Klein. It’s Klein’s debut feature (after a documentary about Cassius Clay). The movie opens with a fashion show, where a designer is about to show his new collection: iron plates bent around the models’ bodies. One girl complains the plate is cutting into her flesh, but never mind those minor details. Fashion magazine editor Miss Maxwell enters the room, ignoring the people in the audience muttering “There’s that dragonfly.” Maxwell likes the outfits, says it’s excellent (which is echoed by everyone else in the room – dragonfly or not, she’s famous and powerful) and claims the designer has “re-invented woman”.

One of the models is Polly Maggoo (Dorothy McGowan), the it-girl of 1966. Polly enters her room, only to find it filled by a camera crew and the producers of the television show “Qui êtes-vous?” (Who are you?), a show that claims to bare the soul of the interviews. The real question here is: who are you, Polly Maggoo?
Polly’s first attempt at self-analysis is abruptly stopped due to technical difficulties, her second attempt becomes a completely different story and, to top that all off, the production team lay words in her mouth. Who is Polly Maggoo? A beautiful girl with ugly teeth, who decides to keep her mouth opened rather than have her teeth fixed? A modern form of Cinderella? An American girl who becomes a model in Paris and learns a couple of French words and idioms every day? All of those? None of those?

The big producer of the show thinks Polly is nothing more but an empty shell: lots of poses on the outside, nothing on the inside. A model is like an onion: peel off the layers and you end up with… nothing.

Someone has a different opinion: Prince Igor (Sami Frey) is madly in love with Polly and wants her as his princes. The majesty of this small country has two spies sent to Paris, to dig up more information about Polly and to convince her to come to her monarchy. Despite displaying only incompetence, the spies manage to get near to Polly. Polly accepts the poster of the prince, which is apparently a sign of engagement in the Prince’s country.

Polly has another suitor: Gregoire (Jean Rochefort) is one of the people working on the tv show and feels rather confident: the more he sees Polly (while falling in love with her), the more he sees his role in the tv show grow. He assures himself, the producer and even Polly there’s more to Polly than just her outside.

Or is there? Is Polly nothing more than an empty shell with clothes, the flavour in the month who doesn’t know the month is almost over (the world changes, next thing you know mankind may travel to the Moon)?

Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? is a child of its time. If you didn’t know this was made in 1966, you’d guess it. London and Paris were in love with fashion (think of Carnaby street), pop-art hit the streets and above all the movies. Add to this the director of the film: William Klein came to Paris as a GI in 1947. He met the woman of his life there and has mainly operated from France ever since. In a way, this is reflected in Polly’s character. She’s also an American in Paris and in one of her daydreams she imagines how Gregoire’s family would react to her (the obvious stereotypes: is it true all the food in the US is canned? etc.).

For another link to Klein’s life, look at Miss Maxwell’s character. It was apparently based on Diana Vreeland, Klein’s former boss. She’s so satirized some wonder why Vreeland never sued. Miss Maxwell was played by Grayson Hall by the way: the actress was flown over from America for the role and had to learn French to do her part.
All of which brings us to the heart of the movie: it’s a satire, a mirror of its time laughing at itself. True, a movie like dates easily, but if it wants to be a sign of its time, that is not that big a problem. Yes, it looks as if it was made in 1966, but wasn’t that the subject of the movie? And have things changed? Really? Aren’t we still obsessed with models and celebrities? Aren’t we keen to think those models are dimwits? So we’ve been to the Moon ever since this movie was made, but did that change us?

A bit more annoying is the movie’s style: yes, it’s 1966 and it’s about fashion (albeit in glorious black and white, but executed to perfection – as one could expect from a director who’s also a photographer), but that swinging sixties style has always annoyed me. For me you’d have to be a Blow-Up or Femina Ridens to get away with it. Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? only succeeds in this partially, but it does. Maybe thanks to its satirical tone. Think of a Swinging Sixties satire, a Godard movie where the politics are traded in for fashion and philosophical rambling (I swear, a couple of scenes sound as if Godard and his gang were co-writing the film) and feel sorry for Polly Maggoo. Or not.

Here’s the opening scene (in French only), so you can check the lovely steelmetal dresses:

Here’s a scene with English subtitles. The tv crew ask Polly to tell the audience who she is:

P.S. It’s only a minor role, but always worth mentioning: Delphine Seyrig (Daughters of Darkness) also has a part in this movie.

France 2: Wed 30 July, 01.00-02.40

NTSC Region 0
Aspect Ratio: 16/9
Languages: French or English
Subtitles: English
Bonus: In and out of Fashion (a documentary on Klein with many excerpts)
Available at the ARTE shop

A box set containing Klein’s movies Polly Maggoo, Mr. Freedom, Le Couple Temoin
Available at Amazon.com


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