In William Klein’s Fashion Films, Humor and Critique Clash Playfully


William Klein’s Mode in France, a 1984 frolic through the world of contemporary fashion, opens with designers taking bows at their fashion shows as extravagantly dressed models on the runway applaud. It’s a characteristically witty move for Klein — starting his film with an ending. The photographer-turned-filmmaker, whose ninetieth birthday arrives in April, is being feted with “The Eyes of William Klein,” a retrospective at the Quad. Klein’s work includes fiction and documentary, often blurring the boundaries between the two. The series is well positioned to cater to a variety of tastes: Klein’s nonfiction subjects include the French Open, Handel’s Messiah, and the social unrest of the late Sixties; his fiction films range from sci-fi to political satire. Klein’s oeuvre also offers particular appeal to fashion enthusiasts: Alongside Mode in France, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966) and In & Out of Fashion (1998) combine to make a stylish and irreverent cinematic triptych.

Polly Maggoo, Klein’s fiction film debut, is an experimental look at the life of a model (played by Dorothy McGowan). It bursts with the mod style of the era, and, while some of the onscreen digressions don’t quite cohere, it’s fascinating to witness Klein’s skewering of the fashion world. In an early scene, models wear dresses made of large pieces of sheet metal; they look dynamically sculptural but, of course, there’s no practical purpose to such a thing, a fact compounded when a model gets cut by the sharp edge of the “garment.”

The men of Polly Maggoo are by and large leering and interchangeable; one of their number presents this potent philosophy: “Fashion is primarily sex.” Fashion can be a tool of desire, of seduction, or of self-love, but Klein isn’t afraid to see it as, also, a bit silly — both fashion and sex can benefit from a sense of humor. The title refers to a television program–within–the film starring protagonist Polly, a wide-eyed model. We never really learn who Polly is, but we know the world she’s in: alluring, exhausting. In a shot that has inspired many a Sixties-channeling fashion designer, models all line up wearing stripes, bowl cuts, and heavy eye makeup: They’re basically interchangeable. The effect is visually lively, but one senses the women being stifled by their industry.

Klein’s late-autobiographical doc, In & Out of Fashion, relies heavily on clips from his previous films, and, in doing so, functions as a good overview of the director’s style. In voice-over, Klein recalls his photographic work in the Fifties, saying that, when it came to shooting for fashion magazines and setting himself apart, “my motto had to be ‘Anything goes.’” His fashion photographs are elegant but playful — frequently they’ll subvert our sense of scale or appear candid. In & Out of Fashion also includes Klein’s footage from Yves Saint Laurent’s very first fashion show; the hustle and bustle backstage plays like a precursor to the hectic world of Polly Maggoo. The title of the doc accurately sums up Klein’s perspective as a director: He’s been submerged in fashion, but always takes an ironic distance. Far from an insult, “out of fashion” suggests the humor Klein can inject into the field by standing at a relative remove. In letting himself be both in and out, Klein has created portraits of fashion that endure and that, while distinct products of their times, also display a more eternal inventiveness of sensibility.

In one scene from Polly Maggoo, Polly’s face, in close-up, becomes covered with a sequence of drawings and collages. Rather than gawk at a model’s beauty, Klein makes from it a wry art piece. Mode in France, which features more fabulous Eighties silhouettes than you can shake a stick at, also takes an unexpected approach to the world of modeling. While the fashion-show footage that begins the pseudo-documentary is a delight to behold, the film soon moves elsewhere: to the streets, or to fantasy sequences. Klein’s vision of fashion welcomes new environments: In one memorable sequence, a woman watches a “peep show” in which a coin-operated television unfurls a selection of stylish models semi-reclining in a boxy white space while they dish about their lives. It’s oddly poignant to hear the models talk in such a context — their profession is not one known for speech, and the sleazy male gaze of the peep show is rebranded here as a stylish confession booth. We hear the models talk about their relationships and childhoods while they hold their poses. The various sides of a fashion image — photographer, model, audience — are compellingly in dialogue with one another.

Mode in France also features a charming, sped-up history of fashion trends, in which a trio of models don a variety of outfits as a voice-over guides us in style changes throughout the decades. This presentation isn’t really educational, nor is it meant to be — it might even first seem out of place. As the scene goes on, though, it turns out to be a perfect wink: Fashion is ever-changing, and Klein’s going through its motions so quickly shows us the silliness inherent in trends or fads. The totems of fashion throughout Klein’s films — the models acting in unexpected ways; the metal dresses — are flourishes from a director with a special pair of eyes. He treats the milieu with a joking and self-referential yet ultimately aesthetically pleasing attitude — like a pop artist of the runway.

‘The Eyes of William Klein’
Quad Cinema
Through March 13