Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mr. Klein

Here we have the cover of MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE #20, one of the most arresting covers ever perpetrated by the greatest of all French magazines dedicated to the fantastic cinema. I've always loved this image and wondered about the obscure film it was from, even before realizing that the woman in the photo is none other than Delphine Seyrig (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, MURIEL, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS). If you, like me, have long been attracted to this photo and puzzled over its point of origin, you'll be interested to know that the movie in question is scheduled for release here in the States later this month.

On March 25, MR. FREEDOM (1969) will be released by the Criterion sub-label Eclipse as part of a box set bearing the provocative title THE DELIRIOUS FICTIONS OF WILLIAM KLEIN. I've just finished going through the whole set, which I've reviewed for the April 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, and people need to know that this is the science fiction/fantasy release of the month and possibly of the season. MR. FREEDOM more than lives up to the promise of its promotional stills as the wildest superhero satire I've ever seen, a clear-cut antecedent of what Paul Verhoeven got up to in ROBOCOP. Also included in the set is Klein's feature debut, WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO? (1966), a prescient spoof of Reality TV in which a camera crew invades the privacy of a ubiquitous fashion model that incorporates Felliniesque fashion shows and animated collage sequences reminiscent of Karel Zeman; and THE MODEL COUPLE (1977), in which an "average" French couple consent to live without privacy for six months to provide an entertainment program for the public, without realizing that the whole enterprise is a governmental experiment in reduction, calculated to gauge how much the average French citizen can comfortably live without.
Director Klein got his start as an award-winning photographer, specializing in layouts for VOGUE. He is also an American expatriate, having moved to Paris in the early 1960s, and these three films can be read as a trilogy of sorts about his disillusionment with America and his fears about the encroaching Americanization of his adopted country. These are brilliant and remarkable films, perhaps sharing a tendency to burn too brightly and to burn out sooner or later in the third act, but satisfying nevertheless on the strengths of their concepts, their sawtoothed satirical bite, and Klein's consistently dazzling eye for style. (These three films are written, directed and designed by William Klein -- the sort of possessory credit to which only William Cameron Menzies and Robert Fuest, I believe, have otherwise staked claim.) Klein's style and personality are unique, and even if one can readily discern his influences (Fellini, Méliès, Godard -- especially ALPHAVILLE), they never overwhelm what he brings to these projects. And what he brings to these projects includes a number of impressive fans who consented to appear in them: the aforementioned Delphine Seyrig (in two), Philippe Noiret (in two), Serge Gainsbourg, Yves Montand (as French superhero Captain Formidable!), DARK SHADOWS diva Grayson Hall, and le grand Eddie Constantine.
If you count yourself a discerning genre connoisseur, your future status will be determined by whether or not you own this set. At least two of the three films look and sound terrific, aside from a brief patch of roughly recorded dialogue in MR. FREEDOM). While it also looks good for the most part, there are enough instances of disruptive cropping in THE MODEL COUPLE to suggest that it was shot in 1.33:1 and should only be screened that way.

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