Mister Freedom

March 13, 2008

Welcome news, Criterion’s is bringing William Klein’s brilliant Mister Freedom to DVD, along with a couple of his others, for a few ailing dollars. They call it a “delirious fiction.” It offers a gun-toting, corn-spouting superhero fighting Commies in France, all dreamed up by an expat American who found things out fighting in World War II.

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When Klein made his name as the photographer of New York 1954-55, he already looked at his homeland as an outsider. He’d left for Paris in 1949, briefly studying painting with Fernand L├ęger; I assume he found France treated artists much better than America. His photography, stealing fleeting moments on the street, secured him a contract with Vogue and a place in history. His films, however, remain little seen.

Shot on a modest budget with a dream cast including Delphine Seyrig and Serge Gainsbourg, Mister Freedom stars unknown expat John Abbey as the titular superhero. All chin and teeth, he chews cigars and patriotic cliches, attacking anyone his boss Dr. Freedom pegs as anti-freedom. The film opens with newsreel footage of race riots in Detroit or Chicago. Mister Freedom does his part, breaking into a black family’s dinner and shooting them all dead with smug cheer.

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Somehow, the film plays as a farce. Klein understands that comedy and politics both rely on stereotype. Dr. F sends Mr. F to ineffectual France, the “white man’s burden– our burden,” to fight Moujik Man and Red China Man. The cartoon of American foreign policy looks quite like reality. The US sells toothpaste and weapons; its Embassy is a supermarket. The bad guys are comic too, but Mister Freedom is a grotesque. He sums up America: self-assured, brash, infantile. His costume, a football uniform, shows how he sees the world.

This kind of irony has its dangers. The key insight of Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead was that anti-war propaganda such as Full Metal Jacket gets used as war porn by soldiers. An image can upend its creator’s control, and ostensible satires like Team America become welcome additions to Fox News staff parties. So Klein wisely keeps violence off-screen: we see Mr. F shoot the black family, but not their corpses. The budget allows for sound effects and red paint, but little else; a battle royale of the French Freedom agents plays as a lark, more chest hair than muscle.

Though it speaks directly to Vietnam, May ’68, and American imperialism, the film doesn’t feel dated. For one thing, Klein’s cinematic style exists somewhere between France and the U.S. The French New Wave had certain stylistic tics– shooting in the streets, handheld camera, fast film stock. Klein favors sets of his own design, a controlled handheld camera, and wide lenses. Certain still frames recalls his street photography more than films by Godard and Truffaut.

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And his design astonishes. He uses the same pop palette Godard perfected in Two or Three Things I Know About Her: red, white, blue, and a cereal box. But he infuses it with a cartoony play. Super-Frenchman and Red China Man both are inflatable, while Marie-Rouge’s red uniform reminds that one of the most attractive things about Communism was the smart clothes.

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With such broad strokes, Mister Freedom reminds why hard-left and hard-right positions feel so good. Both offer an encompassing, comforting way to see the world. This film debuted in 1968, but turning on the news in 2008 shows that, despite how the world has changed, the rhetoric hasn’t. Iraq is not Vietnam, and China is capitalist, but you would never know it for how it’s discussed. Mister Freedom maintains its power because it is not about the politics, but how Klein’s homeland sees itself. He hates its infantile view, but he also owns it more deeply than a condescending European ever could. A country is like family: even if you move away, you’re still stuck with it.

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(Note: the stills come from the French edition by Arte, not the Criterion. I had to have it early.)

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