Couture clash: Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?

Edward Klein’s Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? is a film I knew by reputation, but only just this weekend got around to watching. I loved it.

It’s had some high profile screenings this past summer, at Walker Art Center in my hometown of Minneapolis and at the Metropolitan Museum in my other hometown, in conjunction with the Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion exhibition.

This film has shoehorned its way into my all-time favorites list. From the opening scene, a fashion show where the models wear sheet-metal outfits, and the imperious editor (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Diana Vreeland) pronounces that the designer has “created the Eve for the nuclear age,” it’s a satirical tour de force, a commentary on fashion, celebrity and media that hasn’t lost any of its bite.

It’s funny, sexy, stylish as a film is possible to be, and shot in that gorgeous high-contrast black and white almost-verité style you see in Godard’s Masculin/Feminin and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, another film from an American expat. Oh, to have been one in those days!

The star, Brooklyn-born American fashion model Dorothy McGowan is pretty much just being herself and not really caring what anyone thinks of her.  She’s perfectly suited for her role, as were the Beatles, who had the same attitude. (See, especially, the classic “Dead Grotty/early clue to the new direction” scene where George stumbles into a youth marketing man’s office). Jean Rochefort plays the television producer who sets out to make fun of the superficial girl, but she is tougher and smarter than he thinks, and he ends up falling in love with her and pondering his own nothingness (I know! but it’s a sixties French movie, after all).  A good chunk of the film is occupied with a subplot involving a handsome prince who is smitten with Polly’s image, and the hapless spies he sends to track her down.

With her moon face, rabbit’s teeth (her own description), and  huge eyes (usually featuring some extreme deployment of mascara,  liner and false eyelashes), McGowan’s gorgeous, and impossible not to look at, even when she is out of makeup, in her tiny little apartment, more appropriate for a student than a cover girl.

Klein’s photography is spectacular: in the fashion scenes as you would expect, but also in many shots of the quotidian life of Parisians (he loves tight shots of crowds from belly-button level): queued  up for a cafeteria, getting into heated political arguments, stewing in traffic jams.  And there is this strange and wonderful animated sequence that brings to mind Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations.

Alas, McGowan apparently stopped modeling and acting after this film. “Every time they take my picture, there’s a little less of me left. So what will be left of me in the end? I’d like to know.”

Couture clash: Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?

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