In terms of its structure, tone, and imagery, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a daring, singular creation. Inspired by real-life interviews with a mentally fraught fashion model and filtered through her distorted recollection of real-life events, the film conjures a dissociative space between reality & fiction. Faye Dunaway is, on a practical level, the most unreliable narrator imaginable as a fashion model who can’t even trust her own recollection of past events, since her mind often defensively softens or alters the truth to protect itself. Her narration doesn’t sync up with the logic of the imagery it accompanies, and the exact nature of the Patriarchal trauma that snapped her mind is only vaguely hinted at as the film expresses her mental anguish through giallo-flavored sensory experimentations. For all that dissociative play in form & tone, however, the basic premise of the story it tells is an echo of a fairly ubiquitous trope in Hollywood narratives. This story of a beautiful, naïve young woman being chewed up & spit out by the entertainment industry is a classic template in mainstream filmmaking. From the sappy melodrama of The Valley of the Dolls to the twisted, excessive camp of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the story of Fame destroying a young starlet’s mind & body has seen an expansive range of cinematic interpretations. As formally daring as Puzzle of a Downfall Child can be, the macro view of its basic plot is yet another entry in that expansive canon.
Curiously, the best example I can think of where a film actively subverted the power dynamics of this trope is also specifically set in the fashion industry. My favorite film of 2016, The Neon Demon, was yet another entry into the woman-destroyed-by-fame canon, but it actively disrupts the usual power imbalances of the “genre.” Much like Faye Dunaway’s troubled protagonist in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (and hundreds of other fictional starlets besides), Elle Fanning stars in The Neon Demon as a young fashion model with big dreams and empty pockets. The wolves of the fashion industry – photographers, designers, agents, makeup artists, other models, etc. – surround her with ravenous intent in all the traditional ways, but what The Neon Demon engages with that most other adoptions of this genre template don’t is that there is a power inherent to that attraction. Elle Fanning plays the typical corrupted fashion model archetype in the film, right down to a violently tragic end, except that she acknowledges and shamelessly revels in the power her youth & beauty afford her in the industry. She warns, “I’m not as helpless as I look,” and often gains confidence & power in her lengthy stares into the mirror. When a fellow model asks, “What does it feel like to walk into the room and it’s the middle of winter and you’re the Sun,” she responds, “It’s everything.” Other characters around her pontificate “True beauty is the highest commodity we have,” and “Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” even going as far as to single her out among other models as “a diamond in a sea of glass.” While most destroyed-by-fame narratives portray their gorgeous damsel protagonists as naïve & innocent, The Neon Demon mischievously plays around with the idea that there’s a power inherent to their alluring beauty, even if the result is ultimately the same.
As perversely fascinating as it is to see the young-starlet-in-peril enjoy the power her own beauty affords her in one of these pictures, it’s important to keep in mind that The Neon Demon is still honest about how outweighed & outnumbered its protagonist is in her industry. Just like in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, she’s immediately negged for her body (this time for a lack of plastic surgery) and her perceived naïvete. Her agent says, “I think you’re perfect. I would never say you’re fat,” in their very first meeting. She’s alone with no money and no social safety net in a motel run by a pedophilic rapist (Keanu Reeves playing drastically against type). There’s no explanation of her backstory and how she arrived in Hollywood with no family to speak of, but it’s not too difficult to her imagine her homelife was just as abusive as the one hinted at in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. As it also plays out in that film, the one acquaintance she considers to be a friend (a lesbian make-up artist played by Jena Malone) pressures her for selfish sexual gratification instead of getting her the help she needs. She’s hounded from all directions, to the point where a literal, honest-to-God mountain lion appears in her bed, read to devour her. The difference between that hounded-from-all-sides pressure in this fashion model tragedy vs. how it’s handled in Puzzle of a Downfall Child is that Elle Fanning’s character isn’t afforded enough time to have a psychological break. Instead, she’s devoured alive by a supernatural world of vampires, cannibals, witchcraft, and necrophilia. That sounds like a pretty major difference on paper, but the overall effect of her arc is largely the same: a young, damaged woman tries to make a life for herself as an artist in the fashion industry and is unfairly destroyed for that ambition. Her resulting destruction just fluctuates between the mental and the physical, depending on the example.
In our original conversation about Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that “Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” Perhaps Blood and Black Lace would be the best place to look for a pure-giallo take on the fashion industry, but The Neon Demon follows Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s exact narrative template while fully indulging in the excesses of horror cinema: supernatural occultist threats, intense neon crosslighting, bathtubs brimming with blood & gore, etc. While pushing the narrative of Puzzle of a Downfall Child into a full-blown horror aesthetic, it also plays around with the traditional power dynamics of that story template in perversely exciting ways. They make for deeply fucked up, disturbing sister films in that way – high fashion descents into madness & bloodshed.