Deerskin (2020)

I remember being affectionately amused by Quentin Dupieux’s meta-philosophical horror comedy Rubber when I reviewed it a few years back, but I wouldn’t fault anyone who wasn’t. There’s a “How goofy is this?” Sharknado quality to the film—an ironic B-movie about a sentient, killer car tire—that I could see being a turn-off for a lot of audiences, even horror nerds. At any rate, Dupieux’s latest work is much more straight-faced in its commitment to its own gimmick, with no winking-at-the-camera fourth wall breaks to temper the Absurdism of its premise. Even speaking as a defender of Rubber, it’s all the better for it (and now I’m doubly curious about all Dupieux’s films that I’ve missed in-between).

Deerskin stars Jean Dujardin as an unremarkable middle-aged man who purchases a vintage deerskin jacket. The jacket transforms him from an unfashionable divorcee on the verge of a Mid-Life Crisis into a self-proclaimed fashionista with “killer style.” The jacket itself is tacky & doesn’t quite fit his Dad Bod correctly, but it absolutely changes his life with a much-needed confidence boost. Only, this newfound confidence quickly snowballs into an absurdist extreme. Whenever alone, he converses with the jacket. Anytime he encounters a mirror, he stops to admire himself in it. He lovingly films the jacket with a digital camcorder, convinced its greatness must be documented. Then, deluded that no one else in the world should have the privilege to wear any other jacket (as his is obviously the superior garment), he begins indiscriminately killing jacketed strangers in its honor.

The most obvious way that Deerskin succeeds as an absurdist comedy is that it’s damn funny from start to end. Not only is the idea of a jacket being so fashionably mesmerizing that it leads to a life of crime hilarious even in the abstract, but the overqualified Dujardin’s straight-faced commitment to the bit sells each gag with full inane delight. Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Adèle Haenel is equally overqualified as the Oscar winner’s costar, aiding in his crimes as an amateur film nerd who edits his jacket-themed home movies into coherent Cinema. The pair’s unlikely chemistry as an amateur filmmaking duo is hilarious in its deadpan seriousness, a sincerity that nicely counters the ironic distancing of Rubber. Anytime you slip into not taking the titular jacket’s “killer style” seriously, a vicious flash of violence or selfish cruelty re-anchors the story in a real place. Its seriousness sneaks up on you.

In Rubber, the killer car tire’s crime spree is explained as a philosophical exercise in an Absence of Reason – absurdity for absurdity’s sake. Deerskin is just as silly on its face as that over-the-top splatter comedy, except that it has a clear, genuine satirical target: Masculine Vanity. The entire film plays as a hilarious joke at the expense of macho narcissism, especially of the Divorcee in Midlife Crisis variety. Not to miss an opportunity for meta-commentary, Dupieux uses this platform to satirize his own vanity for making an entire feature film about a killer jacket in the first place. Even if you’re not a fan of his work in general or if—for some reason—the premise of this macho mutation of In Fabric doesn’t entice you, maybe that willingness to self-eviscerate will be enough bridge the gap.

-Brandon Ledet

House of Cardin (2020)

I saw two fashion documentaries at this year’s New Orleans French Film Festival. The more artistically ambitious one—Celebration—was an eerily atmospheric, shot-on-16mm abstraction capturing the aging Yves Saint Laurent in the lead-up to his final show in 1998. It was an aesthetically pleasant bore. The more straight-forward, less stylistic film—House of Cardin—was a biographical fluff piece shamelessly promoting the legacy of its own aging subject, designer Pierre Cardin. It was a delight. House of Cardin is not at all interested in matching the avant-garde artistry of its subject in any formal way; it’s about as forward-thinking in its filmmaking style as an I Love the 60s special on VH1. However, the vibrant, playful art of Pierre Cardin more than speaks for itself, and stepping out of that portfolio’s way read to me like a great sign of respect. By contrast, the stylistic flourishes of Celebration constantly call attention to itself in a showy way that feels almost deliberately disrespectful to its own subject. Whether or not it’s the refined, Intellectual thing to say, the charming Fluff Piece was simply more enjoyable & more useful to me as an audience than the Art Film.

I fell in love with Pierre Cardin’s mod-defining, Pop Art fashion designs over the course of this movie. By recalling his career path from haute couturier to ready-to-wear name brand, the movie is able to touch on such cultural touchstones as Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, the mod style revolution of The Beatles, and the injections of Space Race futurism into women’s everyday fashion – all of which Cardin had a major hand in. More importantly, the film knows that its strongest asset is the bold graphic imagery of Cardin’s designs – relying heavily on archival footage of the designer’s life’s work as illustrated in its own time. It’s totally in love with Cardin, even taking amusement in his self-dilution by licensing his brand to products as wide-ranging as sunglasses, cars, perfumes, telephones, you name it. This is practically more of a narrated slideshow than it is a proper film, and it’s cheesily wonderful for it. The truth is that Cardin himself is charmingly tacky (especially the further away he gets from his 1960s heyday), so it’s appropriate that he’d have a flashy fluff-piece doc where a parade of celebrities stop by just to gush about how wonderful he is.  Cheesy or not, it’s near impossible to walk away from this film without falling a little further in love with Cardin; the adoration is infectious.

I could see how a much more learned fashionista who’s already scholarly informed on all the ins & outs of both Cardin’s & YSL’s careers could have the exact opposite reaction than me. Maybe the contextless atmospheric dread of Celebration would have registered with more heft if I knew more about YSL’s life & career going in. Likewise, maybe House of Cardin’s no-frills presentation of its own designer’s career highlights would have been a bore. As a fashion-curious newbie who needs a little informational handholding, though, I much preferred the puff piece.

-Brandon Ledet

Celebration (2019)

At the same New Orleans French Film Festival where I saw an aging auteur say goodbye to her audience in a direct, personable way in the wonderful Varda by Agnès, it was difficult to not feel let down by the insincere, unceremonious goodbye of Celebration. Whereas the Varda film invites the audience into the heart & mind of its director/subject before they disappear from the world forever, Celebration keeps the audience at a guarded, cold distance. Maybe that distanced approach is more appropriate for Celebration’s more curmudgeonly subject, but it makes for a much less engaging & coherent film as a result. What’s fascinating about that difference between these two works to me is that the superior Varda by Agnès was seemingly constructed & distributed with casual ease in its director’s dying days, whereas Celebration has been fighting for its right to exist for decades – finally arriving long after its subject’s death and, maybe, long after its own expired significance.

The occasion for Celebration is the final show for legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, filmed in 1998. The title is deliberately ironic, as the entirety of the preparation & execution of this event is thoroughly somber in tone. You could maybe blame that grim atmosphere on the significance of YSL’s retirement, as his was reportedly the last of the great haute couture houses still in operation under their original designer. In practice, it’s clear that the sour mood is more a result of YSL’s own everyday temperament. He skulks about with a constant, disapproving frown that only lights up when he pampers his pet bulldog or encounters the gorgeous, young supermodels who advertise his creations. He hardly speaks at all in the film, retreating mostly to black & white solitude while his hundreds of uncredited employees do most of the day-to-day work in grainy flurries of color. YSL gives his documentarians very little to work with, and even just that morsel was yanked away from them in post-production.

Initially shot in the late 90s on 16mm film, Celebration took nearly a decade to fully shape itself into a proper feature – an early draft of which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007. It has since been bullied out of existence by the closest business partners of YSL (who has since passed away). Their protectiveness is somewhat understandable, as the void created by YSL’s grumpy isolation is filled by his closest collaborators’ unseemly vanity & aggression while staging the show. In short, the movie is bad PR. It easily could have padded its thinly-provided raw material with a glowing career overview of YSL’s significance in Haute Couture. Instead, it allows a few glimpses at Art History-inspired gowns & women’s tuxedos to substitute that background info. Most of the runtime is dedicated to capturing the eerie, miserable atmosphere behind the scenes at YSL’s final show – accentuated by a creepy score from horror cinema composer François-Eudes Chanfrault (who has also passed away during the wait for this film’s release).

Without any contextual info about how this late-career misery differs from YSL’s earlier, more youthful fashion shows, this behind-the-scenes glimpse fails to communicate anything coherent or concrete. Like the worst of the “elevated horrors” of recent years that it stylistically emulates, it’s all atmosphere and no substance.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Smithereens (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee & Boomer watch Smithereens (1982).

Brandon: After the first-wave NYC punk scene was broken up by calamities like heroin addiction, international fame, and the apathy of adulthood in the late 1970s, there was still a waning subculture of outcast artists who stayed behind in its wake to feed off the scraps. Energized by the D.I.Y. ethos of punk’s democratization of Art and enabled by a then-decrepit New York’s offerings of Cheap Living, the so-called No Wave scene of the early 80s produced a few acclaimed underground artists of its own: Sonic Youth, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, etc. With no technical skill required (or even desired, really), No Wave encouraged young artists to experiment in all mediums available to them (painting, writing, music, filmmaking, sculpture) in an aggressively unpolished manner that sneered at gatekeeping criteria like training & talent. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave but rejecting the plotless arthouse experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, the newfound filmmakers who borrowed 8mm cameras for the first time in the No Wave scene filtered straight-forward narrative filmmaking though the desperate, no-budget means of their post-punk environment. Against all odds, they often told traditionally coherent stories but in a way that made the audience feel like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Even more so than the sci-fi feminist call-to-arms Born in Flames or the horned-up nightmares of Richard Kern, the most exemplifying specimen of No Wave cinema I’ve seen to date is Susan Seidelman’s debut drama Smithereens. There’s a certain romanticism to the No Wave scene’s promise of free artistic rein over a crumbling city where rent, food, pornography, and (if you don’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. Smithereens reveals an honest, repugnant stench that hung over that scene, however, depicting a desperate group of nobodies stewing in the haggard leftovers of punk’s post-CBGB stagnation. In the film, a petty thief & shameless charlatan named Wren (Susan Berman) attempts to make a name for herself as a punk rock superstar by any means necessary. Lying, manipulating, exploiting, posing, and self-promoting her way across the city, Wren burns an endless number of bridges on her path to success in a World-Famous Punk paradigm that had already disappeared long before she arrived on the scene as snotty New Jersey teen. Her naked ambition and eagerness to throw “friends” under the bus for any old get-fame-quick opportunity leaves her increasingly isolated in a city that has little left to give. Outside a half-hearted love triangle Wren cultivates between a hopelessly normie boy from Montana who bores her (Paul) and her exploitative equal in a half-famous punk has-been (Eric, played by real-life punk burnout Richard Hell), the film is largely plotless. It isn’t until the climatic emotional crescendo when Wren revisits every bridge she’s burned in the preceding 90 minutes minutes (to an anxious, recursive soundtrack from The Feelies), searching the rubble for anything she can work with only to find soot, that it becomes clear what story the film is telling. It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.

Smithereens is brimming with the exact art-on-the-cheap spirit that I’m always searching for in my entertainment media. I’m endlessly excited by this anyone-can-do-it philosophy of D.I.Y. filmmaking. The soundtrack is bolstered by some of my favorite bands from the era: The Feelies, The Voidoids (fictionalized here as the titular Smithereens), and ESG. Seidelman’s origins as a fashion design scholar shine through with a trashy, pop art-inspired thrift store chic. The film is also just interesting as a no-budget precursor to her more well-known traipsing-across-NYC film Desperately Seeking Susan. Still, I debated with myself whether Smithereens would appeal to the rest of the Swampflix crew. To me, it’s a perfect selection for the summertime season, but only in a potentially alienating way that captures the Summer Bummer feeling of being lonely, bored, broke, and overheated in a grimy major city. This is a sad, sweaty, lethargic movie about a desperate bully who finds herself increasingly isolated as a result of her own actions & ambitious. I found the frustration in Wren’s lack of shame or emotional intelligence both uncomfortably relatable to my own youthful prickliness and fascinating as a self-portrait of No Wave’s dwindling D.I.Y. romanticism. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being turned off by her petty, plotless exploits, though, especially if they’re not already on the hook for the history & aesthetic of classic NYC punk.

Boomer, since your past Movie of the Month selections have included titles like Citizen Ruth & Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I assume it’s fair to say that you’re no stranger to loving movies about Difficult Women Who Make Frustrating Decisions. Yet, I know you often find yourself alienated by the performative #edginess of the punk scene that Wren typifies here (to her own demise). As such, I’m just going to open this up with the broadest question possible: What did you think of Smithereens? Was the story of one prickly punk’s mounting desperation in the dying days of No Wave at all compelling to you?

Boomer: This is a great question, and I appreciate it. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like it read like a greatest hits redux of past Movies of the Month, both of those that I liked and those that I, um, didn’t. The scene in which Wren visits her sister and her family to beg for money comes almost at the exact point in the film when Ruth does the same to her sibling in Citizen Ruth, and although it never made it to become MotM, I was shocked to see Brad Rijn (credited as “Rinn”) here, essentially presaging his similar role as a good looking bumpkin-come-to-New-York (and all for the love of a troublesome woman) in Special Effects. It’s true that I didn’t much care for Born in Flames, even a little bit, and that one of the things I cited in our discussion of that film was that “1980s New York was an ugly place,” but that ugliness is used wonderfully here in a way that Flames failed to capture. If there’s anything that I hate more than performative edginess, it’s a plotline about someone trying to make it in New York, especially in contemporary media when the New York that people dream about hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration; that horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bones have been ground to dust. But! In this film it works for me, not just because the New York That Was still existed in its time, albeit in a dwindling way.

There’s a realness and a viscerality to every location in the film, probably because they are real: A vacant lot near the highway where Paul parks his van for all intents and purposes resembles nothing so much as the post-war Vienna captured on film in The Third Man. The hallway outside of (Wren’s friend) Cecile’s apartment feels real; the stairwell in which Wren is belittled by her landlord and upstairs neighbor is likewise real. And the location with the greatest verisimilitude, of course, is Eric’s shithole apartment, which is so like so many of the shitty homes I’ve been in throughout my musician-adjacent life, in places where real art is still happening, right down to the creepy roommate. In virtually any other movie, I would probably despise a character like Wren: an over-30 loser with no real skills, trying to market herself as a potential band manager despite having no apparent connections or talent, unable to manage even the most basic of human interactions without blowing up like a rage filled pufferfish, useless and dangerous and annoying to all around her. And yet … I actually like Wren, and it’s not just because she ends up broken and homeless at the end. Although I’m not like her upstairs neighbor, who slut-shames Wren when she comes home to find that she’s been evicted, there is a part of me that finds it utterly justifiable that someone who uses everyone around her, pushes her way into bars and bar backrooms to ingratiate herself with strangers, and epitomizes all of the worst aspects of the anti-establishment ethos ends up with nothing. Even before she gets what’s (in a way) coming to her, I still found myself forgiving her, even though she’s The Worst. Maybe it’s just that I understand what it’s like to fall for a shitbag musician and end up losing because of it, or maybe it’s because the film is so firmly planted in an ethos that I’m willing to accept, for once, I don’t know. But I like Wren, and I liked Smithereens, all in spite of (or perhaps because of) myself.

Britnee, what did you think of the way that the characters are portrayed in the film? I particularly like both the prostitute who huddles with Paul in his van for warmth and Cecile, who seems like a genuinely nice person who cares about Wren but won’t let herself be walked over, even in Wren’s most desperate, screechy moments. Was there anyone in particular who stood out to you? How might these characters have been handled differently had this film been directed by a man?

Britnee: I had a difficult time finding any likeable characters in Smithereens. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the film, because I did enjoy it very much; I just didn’t care about how any of the characters ended up. Wren and Eric’s narcissism made me want to puke, and Paul’s inability to stand up for himself was more annoying than adorable. The only character that I really vibed with was Eric’s business partner that gets in a brawl with Wren in the cafe. She didn’t put up with Wren’s shit, and she served some of that classic sleazy New York showbiz sass that I just love so much. I wanted more of her!

Had Smithereens been directed by a man, I think Wren would’ve been more of a victim. A girl trying to make her dreams come true in the big city while juggling relationships between a small-town boy and a musician is usually going to be portrayed that way, not unlike another one of our fabulous Movie of the Month choices, Hearts of Fire. Instead, Wren’s character was so raw, so real. Yes, she is a terrible person, but that’s a good thing. Seidelman wasn’t concerned with making Wren an appealing female lead. She was more concerned with giving us a glimpse into the reality of a No Wave chick pissing around NYC. Speaking of pissing, I also don’t think a male director would’ve given us that moment of watching Wren pop a squat in that dark, dusty parking lot. It’s such a real moment that I have experienced way too many times. That may be the only time when I slightly connected with Wren.

Brandon, I’m curious as to what you thought about Wren’s sister and brother-in-law. Do you think they represented the type of background that Wren came from (pure chaos and beefaroni dinners)? Would you have felt differently about Wren without having this insight into her family life?

Brandon: My only reaction to Wren’s familial background is recognizing it as true to life. Besides the clichés of suburban mall punks and the trust-fund kids who play dress-up as crusties, a lot of the punk community is a working-class resistance to the status quo that keeps them in place. Even the more priveleged kids who find themselves ascribing to punk ideology usually do so out of a guilt or disgust with the safe, affluent families they were born into, who’ve presumably achieved their wealth at the expense of people lower on the economic “ladder.” The difference is that those middle-class suburban & trust-fund kids often “mature out of” punk as their teenage rebellion cools, whereas working-class runts like Wren (and, more often, abused runaways) don’t have the same safety nets to fall back on. A lot of characters in Smithereens mourn that their scene is dwindling, but mostly because they have to give up on the romanticism of punk squalor to move back in with their boring parents, almost invariably somewhere in the Midwest. Wren doesn’t have that luxury. Her family is near-broke, verbally abusive, and (as the beefaroni dinner indicates) miserably resigned to a life without imagination or pleasure. These visits home offer insight into why Wren lies so flagrantly about how Awesome & Cool her life is. She doesn’t have a solid foundation to back up her dreams, so she invents one.

With wealthy parents bankrolling her or an actively interested educator mentoring her in the right direction, I think Wren could have a fairly good shot making something of herself in the fashion industry. The outfits she designs for herself without any formal education or spending cash are impressively vivid & distinct, doing just as much to craft her falsely confident persona as any of her verbal deceits. No one’s around to open her mind to the notion that pursuing fashion as an artform is even a possibility, though, so she cooks up a much narrower approach to expressing herself artistically: hitching her wagon to potential upstarts in punk’s rock ‘n roll boys’ club. As prickly & exploitative as Wren can be, I really do feel sorry for her. Her delusions of grandeur come across to me as expressions of her insecurity in coming from such a financially & artistically bankrupt background, and it’s tragic how that defensive sense of pride continually isolates her even within her own community of weirdos & misfits. This is a young, artistically inventive (at least in the arenas of fashion & graphic design) person who should have the entire world open to her, but by the end can see no other possibility on how to survive other than giving up her dreams to pursue low-level sex work. I’m still glad the movie didn’t soften her caustic persona to make her an easily sympathetic person, though. It would’ve been a much less rewarding story if she wasn’t at least partly at fault for her own undoing.

Boomer, did anything about the costuming in Smithereens stand out to you as especially significant, whether as a tool for characterization or as an artistic achievement in its own right? I feel like D.I.Y. fashion design is a major aspect of this & every punk story, yet characters rarely directly comment on its merits as a form of personal expression or political resistance.

Boomer: To be honest, I had to go back and look at some screencaps from the movie to remind myself about Wren’s wardrobe (other than the pink fur jacket that she wears at the end while talking to Eric’s wife, implying an offscreen adventure in which Wren stalks, slays, and skins one of the “Mah Na Mah Na” Muppets). Looking back, I’m surprised that they didn’t leave more of an impression, but I have a different interpretation of the text here, and I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t change your opinion of the film. The first thing that we see, from the film’s earliest frames, is Wren stealing another woman’s sunglasses. She literally steals another woman’s style. Although I can’t argue with your assessment that Wren has a keen eye for graphic design, my inference is that this opening is the film’s thesis statement, that Wren is a scavenger, and one who isn’t particularly foresighted or original. Her theft of the glasses, not even from a store (like a true punk) but from a random woman and in broad daylight, conceptually establishes that Wren is a woman without much in the way of forethought or skill. The only thing she manages to plan ahead for is her unrealistic dream of running away with Eric to L.A., which immediately falls apart following the only successful step, amounting to little more than a comedically inept mugging that succeeds more as a result of dumb luck rather than skill. It doesn’t go well for her. We see, over and over again, that she can barely plan ahead to where she’s going to sleep on any given night, echoing her establishing character moment as a woman with little more going on in her mind that the bad slayer (this Slayer, not this one, or maybe them, too; I don’t know) philosophy of “want, take, have.” We know Wren is a mooch, and I get the impression that her closet is made up entirely of things she picked up from (or off of) others. Her style may be singular, but I don’t think that it’s original, at least not to Wren. I did notice that Paul’s clothes tended to fall apart, and I felt like that served as a nice counterpart to Wren’s practiced state of dishevelment. Paul wore actual holes in his grungy white t-shirt while living in a van, pursuing genuine self-knowledge, and making art (of admittedly dubious artistic merit); Wren’s damaged clothing is torn in strategic places in an aesthetic tied closely to a punk scene that’s left her miles behind, pursuing nothing other than respect by proxy. She also makes her own graphic posters of admitted artistic merit, but they’re of dubious artistic integrity.

This actually demonstrates that Paul’s really the only character with an arc. Wren learns nothing and doesn’t grow at all, except to become more desperate and willing to make more extreme choices, rejecting a boring but safe life and instead gambling on the empathy of a man who is demonstrably and utterly a narcissist, as Britnee noted above (who dreams of having a life size poster of themselves in their home?). Eric comes a hair’s breadth of twirling a little mustache; that’s how much of a sociopath he is. The first thing he did when he got to L.A. was probably tie some woman to railroad tracks, and yet Wren falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Not only is she a user, she’s so bad at that too that her game doesn’t even recognize game. Paul, by contrast, manages to realize that he’s got to get out of the situation, and does something about it that doesn’t rely on theft or a critically flawed ability to read people.

Britnee, I hate to give you a second hypothetical question in a row instead of a more material one, but I’m curious what you think these three characters would be doing now, in 2019? Where are they, and what are their lives like? Assuming that Wren didn’t meet the same kind of untimely and tragic demise that Susan Berman did, that is.

Britnee: I actually love hypothetical questions in regards to movies! I always like to imagine how the characters were brought up prior to when the film started and where they ended up once the film is over with.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think our main girl Wren made out all that well. New York City would eventually kick her ass, forcing her to move back to her hometown in New Jersey where she gets involved with the wrong crowd. She doesn’t have the tendency to surround herself with those who would support her and guide her in the right direction, and she goes above and beyond to get acceptance from terrible people. Also, considering the meth epidemic that exists in so many small towns in 2019, I wouldn’t doubt that Wren would get stuck in that hole (assuming her hometown in NJ isn’t a major city).

As for Eric, he’s fathered hundreds of children with women that he has abandoned and has no relationship with any of them. Like one of those deadbeat turds on Maury. He remained a narcissist that will continue to mooch off women until the day he dies.

Paul is the only major character in the film that seemed to learn from his mistakes, so he chose an easier path in life. In 2019, Paul is ready to retire and get his plaque and company watch from a boring office job that he’s dedicated his life to for too many years.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It would be criminal to conclude this discussion without mentioning how delightful it is to see two John Waters alums in the same non-Waters film. Polyester‘s Joni Ruth White is featured as Wren’s crotchety landlord and Dreamlanders regular Cookie Mueller pops up in a single-scene cameo as a scream queen in a gory sci-fi creature feature Wren watches on a date with Paul. Spotting any of Waters’s players outside the context of the Pope of Trash’s hyper-specific artificial environments always feels like encountering a unicorn in the wild, so I was ecstatic to have that same experience twice in the span of a single picture.

Boomer: Speaking of cameos, Law & Order alum Chris Noth is one of the prostitutes now living (or at least working out of) Paul’s old van at the end of the movie.

Britnee: I had no idea that Susan Berman was THE Susan Berman, a victim of murderer Robert Durst. The film All Good Things is based on Durst, and this movie was a Friday night fave of mine a few years ago. In fact, the character of Deborah Lehrman in that film (played by Lily Rabe) was based on Susan Berman.

Next month: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

When Faye Dunaway Fought Couture

If there’s anything in particular that the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child excels at, it’s in offering Oscar Winner & all-around Hollywood legged Faye Dunaway a free-range actor’s showcase. Resembling neither the restrained thrill-seeking-beauty of Bonnie & Clyde nor the detached-from-good-taste camp of Mommie Dearest, Dunaway’s lead role in Puzzle of a Downfall Child reaches for a more disorienting, heart-breaking knockout of performance. Much like Gena Rowland’s similar onscreen breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence, Dunaway’s mental unraveling in our Movie of the Month is purely a one-woman-show, fully immersing the audience in the heightened emotions & distorted perceptions of her character’s troubled psyche. One of the major factors in her mental decline are the Patriarchal pressures & abuses that arise naturally in the industry of high fashion, where she works as a model. Inspired by recorded oral history interviews with the mentally unwell fashion model Anne St. Marie (after she was used up & discarded by the fashion industry in real life), Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a scathing view of couture’s effect on the women who model its wares – especially once they need personal help or simply age out of their perceived usefulness. Dunaway’s heartbreaking performance at the center of the film would be a damning portrait of what the Patriarchy does to women’s psyches in any context, but the fashion industry setting in particular has a way of amplifying that effect to thunderous proportions.

When Dunaway returned to portraying a fashion industry artist later in the decade, her role was seemingly poised to exude more professional power & control over their own well-being. That sense of agency & solid mental health does not last long. In 1978’s The Eyes of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway jumps the chain of command in the world of haute couture from fashion model to fashion photographer. There’s much more creative control & professional clout to be enjoyed on that side of the camera, especially in the fictional Laura Mars’s case, since she happens to be a very famous celebrity photographer at the start of promoting her first book of collected stills. In that position of power, it’s arguable that Dunaway’s protagonist even perpetuates some of the social ills that torment her character in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Laura Mars is famous in her fictional art world for portraying misogynistic violence & extreme sexual kink in her photographs. Worse yet, a deranged serial killer has started to recreate the sordid displays in her work when killing her own fashion models, putting people like Dunaway’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child character in direct physical danger. Whereas the abuse & mania at the center of that earlier work was anchored to the recollections of a real-life artist & public figure, however, the crisis in The Eyes of Laura Mars is more of a supernatural fantasy. Dunaway’s tormented fashion photographer sees through the eyes of the killer during their slayings in uncontrollable psychic visions, directly linking the eyes of her camera to visions of real-life violence. This unreal occurrence shakes her belief that her photographs are enacting the social good of showing the world as it truly is for women by having her work directly inspire violence against women while she helplessly observes from the killer’s POV.

When initially discussing 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.” The Eyes of Laura Mars follows through on that train of thought, almost explicitly functioning as an American studio attempt at producing a Hollywood giallo picture. Boomer has even written about the film for this site before in reference to former Movie of the Month The Psychic, a Fulci-directed giallo thriller it shares so much DNA with they’re often accused of ripping each other off (depending on which one the audience happens to catch first). Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. What’s interesting here is the way these stylistic & hyperviolent giallo indulgences even the playing field between Dunaway’s two fashion-world archetypes. In The Eyes of Laura Mars she starts from a position of creative power far above her less protected status in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, but the violent & carelessly sexualized way women are framed (if not outright abused) in the industry eventually makes her just as vulnerable. Her own mental breakdown is more of the calm-surface panic of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom than it is akin to Dunaway’s genuine soul-crushing illness in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (or her screeching madness in Mommie Dearest), but the misogynist ills of the couture industry had a way of breaking her protagonist down into a powerless distress in either case.

Almost inconceivably, The Eyes of Laura Mars was originally pitched as a starring vehicle for Barbara Streisand, who reportedly turned it down for the concept being “too kinky.” Having seen Babs pose in leather fetish gear for a Euro biker mag in her younger days, I’m a little baffled by that claim, but it’s probably for the best that she turned it down all the same. We still have evidence of Streisand’s involvement through the torch ballad “Prisoner” on the Laura Mars soundtrack, while also enjoying the fascinating double bill of these two Faye-Dunaway-loses-her-mind-in-giallo-adjacent-fashion-industry-narratives. Of the two pictures that cast her as a victim of fashion-industry misogyny’s strain on women’s mental health, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is both the better film and the better performance. Both titles are worthy of Dunaway’s time and energy, though, and together they conjure an imaginary crossover sequel where she plays both mad model & unhinged photographer – taking pictures of herself in an eternal loop of giallo-flavored mania.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics, and last week’s look at director Jerry Schatzberg’s relationship with reality in his early work.

-Brandon Ledet

In Fabric (2019)

There’s no better way to convey how divisive of a film In Fabric is than to recount an utterly mortifying social confrontation I had while watching it. Sometime during the first act of our Overlook Film Fest screening of the picture, a woman leaned over to scold me for laughing at its absurdity. She explained that what we were watching was “not a comedy” and that my amusement was ruining her own experience of the film. The general subjectivity of humor aside, I was a little shocked that someone could be taking this giallo pastiche about a killer dress 100% seriously. Even with time, as the humor of the picture became more blatant & undeniable, my finger-wagging nemesis ended up laughing through much of the absurdity on display. I do somewhat understand where she was coming from in her initial annoyance with my laughter, though. In Fabric is a gorgeous, pristinely crafted object on a pure sensory level. Set in a high-end department store (of the damned) in 1980s London, the film’s prêt-à-porter fashion and sexually arranged mannequins cheekily poke fun at the pretentions of European arthouse horrors of yesteryear, while also genuinely indulging in the sensory pleasures therein. It may be a high-fashion variation on killer-object horrors like Velvet Buzzsaw, Maximum Overdrive, and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, but it presents its murderous dress and the department store weirdos who worship it in a genuinely chilling arthouse horror context. A lot of my personal amusement with In Fabric derived from that tension between form and content; it’s a beautiful arthouse horror film about a demonically possessed dress that flies through the air to kill its cursed victims. I do contend that the film is openly joking throughout in its absurdism, though; it just apparently takes a particular comedic temperament to immediately lock into its humor.

On a practical level, In Fabric essentially functions as a horror anthology. We watch in abject terror (or delirious amusement) as a cursed red cocktail dress drifts through the lives of several unwitting, unlucky victims. Like the magical Traveling Pants of the early aughts, this dress mysteriously conforms to the size & body type of each poor soul who dares wear it. It also marks each victim with an identical rash on their chests, then systematically ruins their work & homelives until the dress is all they have left. The dress doesn’t only cause damage through curses & misfortunes. It mangles washing machines, causes car accidents, and flies through the night like a vampiric ghoul – all with sentient intent. The only constant in these crimes of fashion is a network of Nosferatu-type department store employees who seemingly worship the murderous dress as their Dark Lord. These saleswomen and their ghoulish manager also worship the smooth plastic crotches of their store mannequins, which they pay tribute to in appreciative cunnilingual rituals. Customers are lured to the store with Tim & Eric-style television ads for a seemingly never-ending sale. Once inside, they are seduced in absurdly purple dialogue from the demonic saleswomen, who coax them into purchasing their doom. Everything in In Fabric is deliriously overwritten. Saleswomen pontificate on the philosophy of dress sizes as if they were discussing Sartre. The department store doesn’t have a dressing room; it has a Transformation Sphere (which looks & functions exactly like a dressing room). The soundtrack is provided by a maybe-fictional band called Cavern of Anti-Matter. The film is wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.

Director Peter Strickland has pulled off this same balancing act between sensual art & sly humor before in Berberian Sound Studio & The Duke of Burgundy, but I personally believe In Fabric to be his most outright silly film to date. If you want to take the film 100% seriously, it leaves you a lot of room to do so, especially in the way it peeks in on fetishistic sex through bedroom keyholes and the way it uses its genre film premise to extensively discuss the politics of labor & corporate management. I don’t believe you’re fully appreciating what the film has to offer, though, if you don’t allow to yourself to be chilled by its arthouse scares and tickled by its over-the-top camp. I wonder if the woman who sternly shushed me for laughing in the first act enjoyed the picture as much as I did, or if its ultimate veer into full-blown silliness was a disappointment for her. Personally, I don’t think its giallo-flavored sexuality or labor-relations philosophy would’ve shined quite as vividly if the camp & excess weren’t there to provide contrast. I loved In Fabric for all its lush sensory pleasures, old-school horror creep-outs, and delirious indulgences in campy absurdism – while I can also see any one of those elements detracting from someone else’s enjoyment, depending on their own expectations & default sensibilities.

-Brandon Ledet

Jerry Schatzberg’s Early Career in Fashion, Heroin, and Telling the Truth

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, has a very curious relationship with reality. Its entire narrative about a young fashion model (Faye Dunaway) who’s chewed up & spit out by her industry is filtered through its protagonist’s distorted perception of real-life events. There’s a dissociative effect between the audio of Dunaway’s narration and the logic of the events depicted onscreen, to the point where she becomes entirely unreliable for parsing out what’s “true” and what’s fantasy. This is largely because the Patriarchal pressures from her personal & professional life drive her to a complete psychological break, so that she can’t even trust her own recollection of her life’s events. As subjective as her memories are and as experimental as the film can be on a sensory level while expressing that unease with Truth, however, Puzzle of a Downfall Child still somewhat traffics in verisimilitude. The original inspiration for the film was a series of interviews director Jerry Schatzberg recorded on reel to reel tapes with fashion model Anne St. Marie, who he had formerly collaborated with as a photographer. Screenwriter Carol Eastman then reinterpreted those interviews into the semi-fictionalized narrative seen in the film, so it’s difficult to determine how much of the final product is true to St. Marie’s version of the real-life events without studying her recorded interviews for comparison. So, then, we’re left with a film that’s both true & untrue, fact & fiction, with an undeterminable balance between reality & madness.

Although Schatzberg’s follow-up feature, The Panic in Needle Park, didn’t derive from a real-life oral history like his debut, it seemed much more invested in conveying unmitigated Truth in its own narrative. The Panic in Needle Park steps back from the subjective relationship with reality Puzzle of Downfall Child explores by filtering the real world through the distorted perceptions of Anne St. Marie. Featuring a cowriting credit from journalist Joan Didion, The Panic in Needle Park is more of an intellectually-distanced docudrama than its predecessor, an experiment in the cinema verité style of its 1970s era. Its central tragic romance (performed by Kitty Winn & first-time lead Al Pacino with great dramatic weight) is entirely a work of fiction, but the film strives to remain honest to the real-world subculture & locales it depicts in all other ways. The ”Needle Park” of the film’s title is an actual location in NYC, known officially as Sherman Square at Broadway & 72nd street. In the film’s era, that small park had become a notorious haven for heroin addicts, and Schatzberg make a point to stage large portions of its action on-location there, including many real-life junkies & hangabouts among its extras. Released the same year as The French Connection, The Panic in Needle Park is cited as the first mainstream film to document the real-life preparation & injection of heroin on the big screen – trivia that hints to how honest & raw Schatzberg was hoping the film would come across, depicting real-life junkies as they lived. Whereas Puzzle of a Downfall Child experiments in replicating the dreamlike state of a psychological break, The Panic in Needle Park took pride in supposedly presenting the tragedy & grime of the real word as it truly was. Its own narrative was entirely a fictional creation (based mostly on a novel by James Mills), but it somehow seems less affected by subjective interpretation of the truth.

For all practical purposes, The Panic in Needle Park feels less like a shift away from the subjectivity of Puzzle of a Downfall Child for Schatzberg than it does a direct response to the melodramatic youth-culture romance of Love Story, released just a year prior. Love Story’s own depiction of a doomed young couple’s tragic downfall maintains a certain romantic detachment in the way of teen-marketed melodrama. The Panic in Needle Park, by contrast, feels entirely disinterested in appealing to anyone. Its story of a young small-time heroin dealer who falls in love with a homeless woman and ruins her life with addiction and subsequent survival-based sex work is devoid of romantic escapism. It’s brutally honest & relentlessly grim, only truly worth its discomfort if you’re already on the hook for its era of cinema verité morbidness. The attention to detail it pursues in recreating authentic-looking track marks via Flexible Collodian effects and then covering them up with long-sleeve shirts at the height of summer is almost perversely fixated on “reality.” Its title even refers to a real-life phenomenon that occurs within junkie communities: a “panic” of users turning on each other when supply is low. The theft, prostitution, ratting to cops, jailtime, and overdoses that define a junkie scene in the middle of a panic guide the ups & downs of this film’s tragic couple, leaving very little room for joys or victories, no matter how brief. Even the film’s casting of then-unknown Al Pacino in the central role can be read as an attempt at conveying realism in all things, as the much more famous Jim Morrison was initially considered for the role. Even as a fictional romance, The Panic in Needle Park is absolutely fixated on staying true to reality, and its interpretation of reality is that it is nothing but death & misery.

Because Schatzberg seems to equate reality to relentless misery, I can at least report that Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s looser relationship with verisimilitude is somewhat easier to digest than The Panic in Needle Park’s cinema verité morbidness. However, the Faye Dunaway fashion industry drama does often hit equally grim notes in its own tragic downfall story, especially when you keep in mind that it was inspired by a real-life fashion model’s severe struggles with mental illness. I’d also argue that it probably gets to a larger truth about the inner life of woman in that model’s position than The Panic in Needle Park does about the inner lives of heroin addicts, since its immersion in her subjective interpretation of reality is much more personal & distinct that the journalistic distance of that latter work. In either case, Schatzberg’s earliest films both experiment with an interesting balance between truth & fiction, and both likely deserve to be represented more often in critical discussion of the auteur boom of the early 1970s.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last weeks look at The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics.

-Brandon Ledet

Puzzle of a Downfall Demon

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.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970).

Boomer: Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a complex movie. I saw it as part of the same “Women on the Verge” film programming block at the Alamo Drafthouse last summer that also showcased An Unmarried Woman, on back to back weekends, no less. The film is largely based on the real recollections of notable 1950s model Anne St. Marie from recordings made by director Jerry Schatzberg; this was his film directing debut after having largely worked as a fashion photographer, and he made tape recordings of his conversations with St. Marie in her declining years. These tapes form the backbone of the narrative of Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway, in what I think is the finest performance of her career), with Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus) standing in as a fictional version of Schatzberg himself. This structure, even if unknown to the audience, lends the film a sense of verisimilitude, even in the moments in which Lou’s recollections are self-contradictory or self-aggrandizing and lacking in any kind of internal inspection.

In additional to great performances from Primus and Dunaway, Roy Scheider also gives a stunningly brutal edge to Mark, playing against type (like me, you probably grew up with Scheider as tough-but-fair Chief Brody in Jaws or as the paternal lead Captain Bridger on seaQuest DSV) as an abusive, hypocritical asshole. Or is he? Lou’s memories are so riddled with inconsistencies that it’s impossible to know for sure what he really did or didn’t do (although, yeah, he probably was a jerk, because everyone is in this movie, to some extent).

Britnee, what did you think of this approach to storytelling? It’s not exactly Rashomon, since we’re not seeing the same events from multiple characters’ points of view; it’s one truly unwell woman’s conflicting recollections about her life as she tries to make sense out of all the misfortunes that have befallen her, both her fault and her own, and her conscious and unconscious attempts to make her own mistakes fit a framework of existence in which everything bad happened to her and outside of her power, and all the good things in her life were the result of her actions. To me, it’s mesmerizing in its lack of self awareness while still making me very sympathetic toward Lou. How do you feel?

Britnee: At first, I was really confused as to what the film was trying to do. Was Lou lying purposefully? Were any of her recollections real? It wasn’t until I was a good half hour or so into the film that I realized the confusion I was feeling was exactly what Lou was feeling. Dunaway does such a wonderful job of making Lou’s character likable, so that her potentially false memories come off as being innocent rather than malicious. The back and forth between Lou’s flashbacks and reality made me feel like I was a peeping tom in the window of her mind. Often, spending time in Lou’s mind became super uncomfortable (especially in her memories of abuse), but those moments really helped me understand her character and sympathize with her. Her not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality is truly terrifying, and I couldn’t help but feel for her.

Films about the fashion industry always tear at my heart. Watching women being objectified and tossed out like trash once they’re of a certain age (usually 30 years old) is difficult. On a lighter note, watching films like Puzzle and comparing it to today shows how much the world of fashion and modeling has progressed. Models of all ages and sizes are gracing the covers of major fashion magazines and runway shows now. The industry still promotes some ridiculous standards for women to live up to, but it does seem to be getting better. One of the saddest scenes in Puzzle was when Lou’s was hired for a shoot as her modeling career was coming to a close. She puts on a red Lucille Ball wig and is glowing with excitement to show off her new look when a younger model arrives, completely ignoring her. To make things worse, one of the women working on the shoot makes a rather patronizing statement about her new look at the same time. She was getting kicked while she was down, and you could see it all over her face.

The fashion world was so cruel to Lou, and the saddest part is that she had no true friends or family to fall back on for support. At first, it seems like Aaron is the only one in the world that is concerned about Lou, but in the end, he uses her just like everyone else. She has so much faith and admiration for him, so watching him exploit her mental illness during the interview made me so angry. Brandon, did you feel the same way about Aaron?

Brandon: It’s important to note that Lou interacts with two entirely different versions of Aaron, reflected in two entirely different timelines. I do believe that Aaron exploited Lou and worsened her mental condition through his own greedy actions, but I’m not so sure that his taped interviews with her were the worst of that exploitation. Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced that any interview was recorded in the first place. Boomer mentioned that the film was based off a real-life set of interviews the director recorded with a fashion model he once collaborated with, but that information is extratextual. Within the reality of the film, confidently saying that anything that materializes onscreen actually “happened” is a bold claim. Lou might be, through no fault of her own, the least reliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. It’s not that she’s actively lying to make herself appear more important or morally superior through historical revision, either; it’s that she’s so mentally fraught that her memories and real-time perception cannot be trusted – least of all by herself. It’s difficult to say whether the older, contemporary Aaron is actually visiting her in the recorded interviews framing device. Not only is Aaron much gentler & kinder in those exchanges than he is in earlier memories, but Lou also interrupts one of her exchanges with him to mentally project herself on the beach outside the window, interacting with an entirely different character in lipsync. We see the world through her shattered-glass eyes, so I don’t know that we can even trust that she’s talking to Aaron in those exchanges at all. She could as easily be just talking to a wall and playing her arrhythmic castanets to no one.

If he does exist as represented onscreen, I suppose Aaron exploiting his former crush and collaborator’s mental breakdown for filmmaking fodder is a little cruel, but his intentions mostly appear to be noble. He’s at least recording her story in her words, offering a creative platform for an artist whose industry has abandoned her as she’s gotten too old and too “difficult” to turn them a profit. It’s the younger Aaron, the one who more likely exists, who really came across as a villain to me. I think of Puzzle of a Downfall Child as one of the Driven Mad By The Patriarchy mental-breakdown dramas (which are generally excellent as one-woman acting showcases, proven true by Dunaway here). As with the protagonists of films like A Woman Under the Influence, Persona, safe., The Nun, The Love Witch, and countless others, Lou is a broken person who’s lost her sense of reality and sense of self trying to live up to patriarchal standards by becoming The Ideal Woman. Whether or not she was biologically predisposed to having dysfunctional mental health, the cruelty & exploitation that defines her life as a woman in the modern world is what sends her over the edge. Even when she’s still a young schoolgirl, all anyone wants from her is sex & profit, a systemic objectification that continues throughout her adult life. As her only close friend, Aaron was in a unique position to be the one person in her life who could help her, to be the one person concerned for her well-being instead of pushing her to satisfy his own desires. Instead, he pressures her into (ultimately nonconsensual) sex through the guise of artistically collaborating as photographer & model. It’s the most devastating betrayal of a film that’s overflowing with selfish cruelty in nearly every scene.

What I’m having a difficult time reconciling here is how those two versions of Aaron (the framing-device interviewer & the in-memories photographer) overlap, and what Schatzberg is saying about himself in the process. CC, do you read a lot of guilt & remorse in the director’s depictions of his own real-life relationship with Anne St. Marie here or do you think the project was more driven by his pity for her, blind to how he came across onscreen through the avatar of Aaron?

CC: I honestly feel uncomfortable trying to parse out the director’s intent here. This is a film that directly grapples with how people present their own image, clearly establishing that we cannot be trusted to present ourselves truthfully. If nothing else, that alone makes any attempt to guess Schaztberg’s intent a maddening puzzle with no possible satisfying answer. We can all at least agree that Aaron does bad things and it’s not flattering; supposing anything more than that would be pure speculation.

No matter what he intended with his minor self-portrait or his more elaborate depiction of a woman in crisis, Schatzberg is at least in good company. I find it fascinating that so many male directors of the 1970s were fixated on this topic. Much like Cassavetes in A Woman Under the Influence, Altman in 3 Women, Scorsese in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Polansky in Repulsion, Schatzberg toes a thin line between empathy and exploitation in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. These are all sympathetic portraits with a shared critical eye for how women are ritually broken down by their place in society. As Ebert described when he called movies “a machine that generates empathy,” they put you in the mind of a type of woman who rarely gets to center her own story. They’re also excellent actors’ showcases for women who are unlikely to find such substantial roles elsewhere, most significantly Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. That’s why it’s disappointing that they’re so often filtered through the directorial male ego. It also may be part of the reason I consistently find this genre deeply upsetting and unenjoyable, even if the films are well made.

To his credit, Schatzberg did collaborate with a female writing partner, Carol Eastman, who earned sole credit for the movie’s completed screenplay. It was Eastman who chose to base the final product off interviews Schatzberg conducted with friend & model Anne St. Marie, who he claims he never had a sexual affair with in real life. As such, the depictions of Lou, Aaron, and every other character onscreen is just as much a creation of her voice as anyone else’s. Boomer, how do you think this collaboration with Eastman distinguishes Puzzle of a Downfall Child from other examples of its genre where the male director wrote the screenplay on their own? Is it important at all that a woman co-write this film? What might have been lost if it were written entirely by a man?

Boomer: That’s a great question. I mentioned before that this film and An Unmarried Woman were part of the same Alamo Drafthouse specialty series, which took its name, “Women Under the Influence: Life, Love, and Madness in the ’70s,” from the aforementioned A Woman Under the Influence, the first film in the showcase. The fourth and final film was the seldom-seen Play it as it Lays, based on Joan Didion’s novel and directed by her husband; they, too, shared writing credit. Jazmyne Moreno, whom I mentioned before as the host of Austin Film Society Cinema’s screening of On the Silver Globe and who is the current host and programmer of AFS’s Lates Series, was the (co-)programmer for these, and I respect her judgment a lot; she’s an amazing person and I’ve never been let down by any of her programs (her introduction for Sun-Ra’s Space is the Place and a screening of Friday Foster way back in March 2017 are particular highlights of my Austin filmgoing experiences). We’re coming to these films with nearly 50 years of cultural criticism in the interim, and all of the touchstones of women-driven empathy machines of the era that you noted are well chosen, because you’re right: there is an issue of cultural distance via time that separates us from what were groundbreaking films at the time but which are not entirely without an element of exploitation with regards to the women at the core of the film. But just because Hans Robert Jauss is dead doesn’t mean he was wrong: every text has a different face for each reader, and can be interpreted in myriad ways.

I share your discomfort with trying to parse Schatzberg’s authorial intent, but I have to admit that I’m equally vexed by trying to suss out what Eastman’s intention was, not least of all because I would be projecting my male reading onto her female authorship, which this discussion has made me acutely aware of. I can’t make claims about her intentions with any authority, so I hope it will suffice it to say that my personal head canon is that she either (a) liked Schatzberg and wanted to lovingly take the piss a little by making his author avatar a bit of a dirtbag, or (b) she was subversively using the medium of the screenplay to take potshots at him behind his back. I hope it’s the former, but the latter is also of interest. Either way, even though Schatzberg was close to the film’s original inspirational personality, I still find it doubtful that the film would have been as sensitive to Lou had Eastman and her pen not been there to ensure that there was a woman’s voice in the creative room. Brandon mentioned the way that Lou was the victim of systemic objectification from a young age; it’s easy to imagine a film without Eastman’s influence playing Lou’s pubescent “seduction” only as it was first shown, a kind of mutual attraction, affection, and teasing, and not as it really was upon later revisitation, a clear-cut case of a man taking advantage of a much younger woman. We can never be sure, but I’m glad we don’t have to know.

We’ve talked a lot about issues related to the fashion industry and systemic sexism and all of its accompanying moral evils. What I remembered most about this movie after spending a year apart from it before this rewatch was Dunaway’s performance, which may be the highlight of her career. Contemporary reviews were mixed; the New York Times cited ” a character of such lovely, tentative lucidity that to be with her is, as it should be, worth a whole movie,” while Variety stated she “first garners wholesome pity, but the plot development soon banishes her to bathos and finally boredom.” Britnee, what did you think? Were there any other performances in the film that stood out to you?

Britnee: Dunaway’s performance in Puzzle was definitely one of her best. Her best performance to me will always be her portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, which is a film I quote at least once a week. Puzzle is a close second though. Dunaway really has a way of having characters take over her completely, just like when a ghost uses a human body as a vessel. Interestingly enough, her role in both films is based on an actual person, as is her star-making role in Bonnie & Clyde. Maybe biopics are her jam?

I really enjoyed the scenes of the film that were set at Lou’s beach cottage. I would have loved to hangout with her there, sipping coffee or tea while listening to her stories that intertwine fantasy and reality. Her character reminds me of some of my favorite family members and friends whom I visit to get a good story, be it a delusion of grandeur or a memory from many years ago. I just love to listen, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Lou’s character so much.

The only other performance that stood out to me (other than Aaron, which I mentioned earlier) is Mark. As Boomer mentioned, his character in Puzzle is so different from Jaws’s Chief Brody. Years ago, I watched All That Jazz, where Schneider portrays a character loosely based on Bob Fosse, who is a womanizing douchebag. I remember being slightly heartbroken seeing Chief Brody play a “bad” guy, and that feeling resurfaced while watching Mark in Puzzle. If I had not been so familiar with his Jaws character, I don’t think his performance would have been as stand out as it was. Either way, he still wasn’t nearly as interesting as Lou.

I had no idea who Anne St. Marie was prior to watching Puzzle, but I have found myself searching for her modeling photographs and articles about her career since watching the film. Brandon, did Puzzle spark an interest in Anne St. Marie’s career for you?

Brandon: Not really. I don’t mean to sound too dismissive of Anne St. Marie as a historical figure & an artist, but there’s nothing especially unique to her story (as presented in the film) that doesn’t apply to all fashion models everywhere. A straight-forward birth-to-death biopic or even a feature length documentary on her life would most likely struggle to fill the time with something to say, besides just packing the screen with her more notable photographs. Puzzle of a Downfall Child doesn’t have many major events in Anne St. Marie’s life to build a traditional narrative around, which is partly what affords it so much room to explore the more intangible aspects of her life’s story: the ways her mental illness distort her understanding of the world and the ways the fashion industry compounds the mental & emotional toll of The Patriarchy. How much of those themes & tones are specifically true to Anne St. Marie and how much was an artistic fabrication of Schatzberg & Eastman’s is up for debate, but I feel like I’ve already learned more about the type of person Anne St. Marie was through this movie than I could ever gather by reading a factual biography on her life & career.

If I were going to investigate Anne St. Marie’s career any further, I’d most want to see a slideshow or a lookbook of her best outfits & photographs. Fashion is an artform I know embarrassingly little about, but I do find its visual pleasures to be magnificent. Like the opera or the ballet, it’s an artform that I always love to see interpreted through cinema for the inherent visual splendor of its setting, especially when paired with a genre conceit or avant-garde filmmaking techniques: Blood and Black Lace, Phantom Thread, The Neon Demon, etc. Puzzle of a Downfall Child does a great job of utilizing a fashion industry aesthetic for cinematic visual indulgences and thematic explorations of systemic misogyny & mental health crises. 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. I’d love to see some of Anne St. Marie’s work just to appreciate the visual pleasures of her artform, but I feel like abandoning the birth-to-death biopic template that sticks to factual bullet points about the subject made for a better story & a better film.

CC, can you think of any notable fashion industry artists—whether model, designer, or photographer—where that would not be true? Is there anyone who has worked in fashion who you’d rather see a factual biopic about their life than a poetic cinematic interpretation like Puzzle of a Downfall Child, or would that loose interpretation always be the preferable approach?

CC: I also tend to prefer this interpretive, expressive style of filmmaking over the traditional biopic. If I wanted to dig into a straightforward biography on a historical figure’s life, I’d just read their Wikipedia page. Even the most factually accurate biopics never really get to the core essence of their subjects the way these more artistic interpretations do. You can never truly capture a person’s inner life on film, but movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child at least edgecloser to that ideal than a straightforward biopic ever could. Besides, just providing the facts of their life isn’t really all that interesting, so this way is much more entertaining.

There are a few fashion figures I’d like to see receive this treatment. The first that comes to mind is the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Not only does Schiaparelli have an interesting biographical background as someone who fled her childhood as the daughter of nobility and academics (and the tedious suitors therein) to marry a fortune teller in London and start her own career as an designer (and eventually a single mother); she also just had an approach to fashion that might make for a great movie artistically. Interpreting fashion as a graphic artform and not just a utilitarian necessity of life, Schiaparelli worked closely with Surrealists like Salvador Dali & Man Ray. I’m no filmmaker so I can’t speculate exactly how one would interpret her life & work for the screen, but I imagine the clash of couture fashion & Surrealism alone would give you a lot to work with.

I could also imagine an interesting movie based on Schiaparelli’s mentor Paul Poiret. In fact, most of the names that immediately come to mind for movie treatments are designers, not models. That’s likely because designers are already afforded their own voice creatively in a way models aren’t, so I already somewhat know what they have to offer. One of Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s more striking choices is in offering a voice to a type of fashion industry figure who’s usually denied that outlet, apparently repressing it to the point of inflicting insanity.

Lagniappe

CC: For a film about fashion I found most of the clothing to be pretty lackluster in this. The make-up was on-point, though.

Britnee: One very minor scene in Puzzle that stuck with me was when Lou and Aaron were eating hot dogs in Central Park. Watching Faye Dunaway eating sloppy street hot dog made me laugh for a good bit.

Boomer: It wasn’t until Brandon pointed it out that I realized that yes, this is very much like a giallo film. No wonder I loved it so much.

Brandon: It’s appalling how little effort has gone into properly distributing this film on physical media. You can catch restored 35mm screenings at film festivals or scattered repertory venues, but it’s never seen official VHS or DVD distribution in the US (oddly, it has been afforded that respect in France). Luckily, that lack of proper stewardship does leave the movie open to more . . . questionable modes of distribution, which is why you can watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child in shockingly high quality on YouTube right now. A proper Criterion Blu-ray release for the film feels both necessary and inevitable, but for now take what you can get:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Yellow is Forbidden (2019)

I’ve been making an attempt in the last few years to learn more about fashion as an artform – something I have a lot of ground to catch up on after decades of being a snotty brat who didn’t appreciate its full value. Unlike other niche artforms I’ve recently taken a better-late-than-never interest in – pro wrestling, drag, comic books, etc. – fashion doesn’t have an easy crash course introduction to its history or artistry. You can pick up practically any comic book issue, tune into any wrasslin’ bout, or drop by any dive bar drag show and get a basic feel for the merits of their respective media. To fully get fashion, by contrast, there’s centuries of factual history, evolution in craft, cultural context, and seasonal fads to catch up on to even approach a basic appreciation of what you’re looking at. I’ve found a couple decent quick-fix workarounds to this daunting gap in my art history education: The podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion is an excellent resource, although an auditory account of a visual medium. Reality competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model drop fashion history context in small morsels while showing off the basic building blocks of workroom craft (when not distracted with the typical beats of reality TV drama). Documentaries, then, would seem like the perfect middle ground between the fashion history podcast & the reality completion show – offering an explicitly visual format that can discuss historical context and fully display the artistry of the medium. That’s why it’s so frustrating that so many fashion documentaries fail their subjects by only profiling personalities & historical movements – literally losing sight of the artform being discussed, zapping it of its visual majesty.

Although its own subject is extremely niche, Yellow is Forbidden is a cut above the average fashion documentary in this way. A feature-length profile of Chinese couture designer Guo Pei, the film largely traffics in the well-established grooves of the fashion doc as a medium. Its fascination with Guo Pei’s larger-than-life ambition & peculiar persona, and its tangential interest in the history of Chinese fashion & the current state of Chinese textile production, are well in tune with the concerns of the typical fashion documentary. It even works those contextual details into a clear narrative structure, following Guo Pei as she prepares for a career-high runway collection meant to earn her recognition among the Parisian haute couture elite. Where Yellow is Forbidden overachieves within its own medium, however, is in the cinematic eye of its director (and fine art journalist) Pietra Brettkelly. Within just a few minutes of the film I was crying at the beauty & extravagance of Guo Pei’s work. That’s not something that can be achieved with a photograph or a podcast recap or even television news coverage of a runway show. Guo Pei’s extravagant, hand-beaded art gowns speak loudly for themselves as grand, inspired works of genius design, ambitious collaborations that take years to stitch into place. I’m sure seeing them in person, whether in motion on the runway or propped up on art museum display, could easily trigger an emotional response in an observer. That’s not an easy experience to reproduce in the document of a show, however, and I’ve seen few fashion films even attempt to do so as actively as Yellow is Forbidden. Brettkelly shoots Guo Pei’s designs with the careful, eerie beauty of an arthouse nature documentary, matching the avant-garde designs on display with its own heightened cinematic language. It’s an impulse I wish were more prevalent in the fashion doc as a medium.

Guo Pei is most widely recognized for having designed a bright yellow dress modeled by Rihanna at the Met Gala in 2015. The story of how she & that gown got to that world stage and how much of a struggle it has been to be recognized by the infamously snobbish Parisian couture elite in the years since is perfectly suited for the documentary feature treatment. Themes of class disparity, political tyranny, racial & gendered glass ceilings, and the abuses of auteurist ambition arise naturally in Guo Pei’s quest to impress The Haute Couture Commission with her climactic runway show. Brettkelly could have very easily rested on the virtues of telling that story in plain documentarian language. Instead, Guo Pei’s intensely dyed fabrics, wedding gowns made of pearls, and glow-in-the-dark contraptions are treated as part of a larger, ethereal cinematic language that includes goldfish fins waving in slow-motion, kaleidoscopes turning in impossible configurations, and the cold digital exterior views of cityscapes being harshly interrupted by intensely colorful art shows of the museums they contain. Composer Tom Third matches this eerie beauty with an appropriately atmospheric, delicately sinister score. Brettkelly excels at the fashion documentary by keeping in mind that she’s not only documenting history; she’s also cataloging fine art – an achievement in craft & a sensory experience that’s difficult, but necessary to recreate in your documentation to do couture creations justice. The ambition of Guo Pei’s work and the importance of her outsider status in the fashion industry are enough to trigger an emotional response on their own merits, but what makes Yellow is Forbidden a great film is the way it attempts to match that significance in its own mood & artistry. It feels less like an academic document of a culturally significant artist than it does like a swooning, dizzying trip to a fine art museum where the designer’s work is on magnificent display.

If you’re as ignorant to the history & cultural context of the fashion industry as I am, I’m not sure that Yellow is Forbidden will do much to fill in those gaps of personal knowledge. There’s some insight here into textile production & the political limitations of the industry’s gatekeepers. Yet, this story of one artist’s struggle for recognition & legitimacy within that paradigm is a little too specific to be all that illuminating in a big picture sense. Guo Pei’s work in particular is very much worthy of study for anyone with an interest in fashion as an artform, though, no matter how well versed you are in the subject. Yellow is Forbidden does justice to her artistry by at least attempting to match her ambition in its own craft, no matter the impossibility of that task. That’s an ethos that the fashion documentary template in general could benefit from repeating, as too many middling docs chase down the medium’s history at the expense of its visual art.

-Brandon Ledet