William Klein came to film from the world of fashion. He had garnered acclaim for both his photographic essays on urban environments and his fashion spreads in numerous magazines long before he directed his first film Who Are You Polly Maggoo? (1966). At first, Klein seemed reliant on both the kinetic style of Richard Lester’s The Knack & How To Get It (1965), and the comic self-awareness exercised in the films of the French New Wave. But with the release of his second feature Mr. Freedom (1968), Klein demonstrated a remarkable progression in style. He had absorbed and taught himself the means to a style, though derivative of Lester and the New Wave, was quite his own. Mr. Freedom involves the title character (played to excess by John Abbey) on an anti-communist mission in Paris. Advocating American Imperialism and fascistic terror tactics to enforce these beliefs, Mr. Freedom leaves nothing but urban devastation and political unrest in his wake.
Klein depicts his title character as the embodiment of all that is corrupt and hypocritical about American foreign policy. The violent chaos Mr. Freedom inflicts on Paris serves as a mirror to the events unfolding in America’s Vietnam War as well as in Algiers and post-colonial Africa. In fact, when the French people demonstrate against Mr. Freedom in the film, the footage was actually shot by Klein during the real May protests of 1968. A film that begins as a campy satire soon morphs into a film whose depiction of violence as Tex Avery gag comedy and incorporation of real events is wholly disturbing. Klein has employed a two-part structure to his film. The first half is a campy comedy that absorbs the audience’s attention, giving them a sense of distance from the narrative à la Godard’s Alphaville (1965) whilst the second half embraces a loony barbarism that would not recur in the cinema till Roeg’s Performance in 1970.
For all of Mr. Freedom’s satire and political subversion, it’s most remarkable quality is in its design. Working with his wife Janine, Klein has correlated every color scheme in costume, set, and light to either match or contrast based on the scene with a Chester Gould recklessness. The meticulous attention to design in the film seems to be the direct result of Klein’s background in the world of high fashion. Janine Klein’s costume designs even evoke different stereotypes and clichés associated with the American propaganda machine. Mr. Freedom sports hockey pads, football helmets, and capes all striped in red, white and blue.
Delphine Seyrig, as Mr. Freedom’s French liaison Marie-Madeleine, is dressed in an array of swimsuits with thigh high boots incorporating the colors of the French flag, blue, white and red. The cast itself is equipped with political signifiers. French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg has a bit part as one of Mr. Freedom’s henchmen. Gainsbourg, at the time, was heavily associated with the Left Bank. Donald Pleasence plays Mr. Freedom’s boss, Dr. Freedom. Pleasence was a renowned character actor with an affinity for comical, but authoritative roles.
Klein has correlated every component of his film to maximize on his political lampooning of America. Mr. Freedom may even be difficult to watch, with all its excess in style and performance, if it weren’t for the careful and selective style of cinematographer Pierre L’homme. This kind of stylistic advancement, from Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? to Mr. Freedom is remarkable in just how rare such a feat is. Today the relevance and urgency of Mr. Freedom may have dwindled somewhat, but it is still the most flamboyant commentary of political injustice one could hope to find.