Me, I fall a little into both camps. For one, I've always been crazy about about the title. Perhaps that's because I was 13 years-old when the movie came out and the title sounded just gloomily cryptic enough to appeal to my adolescent taste for high-flown self-dramatization. (In an interview, director Jerry Schatzberg has stated that the title alludes to a plot element involving an abortion that was deleted in an early draft of the screenplay.) I adore Puzzle of a Downfall Child for its introspective examination of the elusiveness of happiness and the human desire to connect in the face of reality-distorting conceptions of image, sexuality, self-worth, and success. In the telling, few of the film’s insights are very acute, but there’s a psychological authenticity to the screenplay and performances that greatly mitigate the sometimes arthouse excesses of the film’s visual style.
|Faye Dunaway as Lou Andreas Sand|
|Barry Primus as Aaron Reinhardt|
|Viveca Lindfors as Pauline Galba|
|Roy Scheider as Mark|
|Two magazine covers photographed by Jerry Schatzberg|
Left: Anne St.Marie -1956 / Right: Faye Dunaway - 1968
|"If one can't keep some friends somewhere, then something is really wrong."|
I think perhaps my favorite thing about Puzzle of a Downfall Child is that it combines two of my favorite film genres: the 70s trying-to-find-oneself character drama and the 40s suffering-in-mink women’s weepie. How perfect is that? When I first saw this film, Faye Dunaway’s too-sensitive-for-this-world fashion model was an oasis of estrogen ennui in the testosterone-leaden desert of male-centric 70s films romanticizing male identity crises and masculine existential moments-of-reckoning. To my taste, there was a decided oversupply of movies featuring Jack Nicholson, George Segal, Richard Benjamin, or Elliot Gould grappling with the meaning of life while an uncomprehending female (usually a sweet-natured dumbbell, and almost always played by Karen Black) stood around on the sidelines. Aside from the vastly inferior (by comparison) Jacqueline Bisset drama, The Grasshopper (1969), Puzzle of a Downfall Child was one of the few films from this era to grant a female character an equivalent navel-gazing opportunity.
|To update Easy Rider's famous tagline, Puzzle of a Downfall Child could have been subtitled: "A woman went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere."|
To its credit, Puzzle of a Downfall Child tries to find the common thread of humanity in the privileged-class despair of Lou Andreas Sand. And as embodied by Dunaway and captured by Schatzberg’s loving camera lens (actually cinematographer Alex Holender of Midnight Cowboy), Lou may never look less than exquisite (even when in the throes of a foaming-at-the-mouth nervous breakdown), but her pain is recognizable and real.
Have you ever seen an old detective movie or TV show and marveled at the perversity of cops and reporters at a murder scene going on and on about how beautiful or desirable a female corpse was. I can't count the number of films I've seen where men stand over a dead woman's body lamenting the "waste" of a beautiful woman and how particularly tragic it is that said woman, so pretty or sexy in life, is now dead. It’s like there’s this overriding mentality that a woman’s looks and physical appeal matter even in death. Or worse, that one can be too beautiful to die...as if the loss of life is sad, but the tragedy is compounded if the corpse is attractive.
Puzzle of a Downfall
Child sensitively addresses the high value we, as a culture, place on beauty, and the
price enacted on those who fall prey to it. In placing this character drama in
the appearance-fixated world of fashion photography, Schatzberg and
screenwriter Carole Eastman take an insightful look at a woman whose entire existence
and sense of self-worth is tethered to her beauty. Whose need to please and always be
seen as desirable under the male gaze is both a desperate, deep-seated search
for approval and a profound denial of self.
|Beauty: Fetishism and Objectification|
Faye Dunaway’s participation was instrumental in getting Puzzle of a Downfall Child to the screen, and her passion for the project is evident in every frame. And it’s a good thing too, because to the best of my recollection there isn't a single scene in which she does not appear. Mind you, I'm not complaining, for in much the same way that Liza Minnelli is so good in Cabaret that she almost makes you forget “Liza Minnelli: The HSN Years”; Faye Dunaway so thoroughly blows me away in Puzzle of a Downfall Child that I'm reminded of everything her career promised before the whole Mommie Dearest / voicemail meltdown thing. One of my favorite but most problematic actresses (you have to have a taste for her mannerisms), Dunaway has every reason to be very proud of her work in this. After Bonnie & Clyde, Puzzle of a Downfall Child ranks as my all-time favorite Dunaway film. She is phenomenal in it.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I tell everyone, even if you don't have the patience for the entire film, just watch the first 15 minutes. The sequence chronicling Dunaway as a fledgling model navigating the battlefield of her first fashion shoot is cinema gold. Shot with an eye for detail only possible from knowing this world very well, Schatzberg peels back the illusions we hold in our America's Next Top Model preoccupation the fashion industry and reveals the dehumanizing reality. Sure it's satirical, sure it's depicted from the overwrought perspective of the heroine; but from the performances, the dialog (tellingly, Lou's voiceover describes the men on the set all looking at her as if they were sex maniacs. The visuals reveal her to have been largely ignored), and the stylish cinematography, this sequence is a great example of MY kind of moviemaking.
|Dunaway reacts (I'll say) to being required to share her close-up with a live falcon. This terrifying sequence recall actress Tippi Hedren's accounts of working with Hitchcock on The Birds.|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
One of the good things about viewing an old film (and at 43 years-old Puzzle of a Downfall Child definitely qualifies) is that one gets to watch it in an environment entirely different from that in which it was created. Puzzle of a Downfall Child bombed in part because it came at a time when audiences were wearying of the glut of European-influenced, tarnished American Dream films that filled theaters after the breakthrough years of 1967. When viewed from the comic book / 3-D / blockbuster perspective of today, the film looks nothing short of miraculous.
Bitterness Personified made this 70s film fanaticist extremely happy by informing me that the entire film is available for viewing on YouTube. I can't thank him enough. I hadn't seen this film since the 70s.
Mommie Dearest fans into wild ecstatics), this artifact from the days when movies sought to do more than make Variety's Top Ten weekend boxoffice list, has a little of something for everybody.
No matter how you prefer your Dunaway, overdone and theatrical or touching and deeply affecting, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a lost miracle of a film that is worth taking the time to discover (or rediscover).
|"One only breaks oneself apart in order to put oneself back together again...better."|
To view some of Jerry Schatzberg's magnificent photographs, visit his website HERE
Copyright © Ken Anderson