William Klein was already a noted painter and modernist designer when he shifted to photography in the mid-'50s, annoying the establishment with an off-kilter style halfway between documentary and abstract art. By the end of the decade, he'd moved on to fashion photography, and found the commercial art world unusually receptive to his use of natural locations and pop surrealism. Inspired by the absurdity of his career to that point, Klein made a movie: 1966's Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, a freewheeling beauty-industry satire steeped in French New Wave technique and graced with an uncanny eye.
The budget-priced three-disc Eclipse box set The Delirious Fictions Of William Klein matches Polly Maggoo with Klein's mind-bending 1969 action-comedy Mr. Freedom, about a costumed American superhero spreading neo-fascism in Europe, and 1977's fantastical The Model Couple, about a pair of newlyweds who live in a futuristic apartment monitored by state sociologists (and a nationwide TV audience). Like the documentaries Klein made prior to, during, and after his flirtation with narrative filmmaking, these three features sport a piercing wit, a wild imagination, and a general disinterest in proper storytelling.
That last part may be a sticking point for some. All three of these Delirious Fictions are funny, exciting, and visionary—but only in spurts. They range freely into overkill, making the same points over and over about media fatuousness, excessive consumerism, and governmental abuse of power. And since the people in Klein's films are cartoony by design, they're hardly the easiest folks to spend time with. The closest Klein comes to relatable characters are The Model Couple's model couple, who share the same anxieties about merging their preferences and making good impressions as all young marrieds.
That said, it'd be blinkered to judge Klein's work solely on plot. Ultimately, they're compendiums of great scenes: the fashion show in Polly Maggoo, which consists of models stapled into aluminum sheets; Mr. Freedom rousing the rabble at assemblies that are half pep rally and half orgy; the sped-up montage of "the model couple" preparing and eating a succession of state-of-the-art meals. Of the three films, Mr. Freedom is the strongest because it's the most concise, and shows a flair for political grotesquerie that should be familiar to fans of Godard, Kubrick, Altman, Vonnegut, and even comic book artists like Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller. But all of Klein's films artfully express the philosophy espoused by one of the cultural commentators in Polly Maggoo: "The surface is reality too."
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