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

The Eyes of Virginia Ducci: The Psychic (1977) and Laura Mars (1978)

When The Psychic was released in the U.S. in 1979, there were immediate accusations of plagiarism, citing elements that the film supposedly stole from 1978’s Eyes of Laura Mars, directed by Irvin Kershner and based on the first mainstream Hollywood screenplay by up-and-comer John Carpenter, whose Halloween debuted later that year. What most audiences didn’t realize was that The Psychic actually came first, having been released in Italy in 1977. One can hardly blame them for this mistake, however, given the notable plot points that both films share.

Faye Dunaway stars as the title character, a controversial fashion photographer whose violent, erotic, and violently eroticized work over the past two years has caught the attention of Lieutenant John Neville, a detective in pursuit of a serial killer; some of Laura’s tableaux are virtually identical to unpublished crime scene photos, which raises suspicions. Further heightening the issue at hand is that the night before the release of a book of her photos, Laura experiences a psychic vision of the murder of one of her friends from the point of view of the killer; at the launch, she learns from Neville that said friend has really been killed.

Laura, like Virginia in The Psychic, is aided in her endeavors by a chaste male companion, her friend and agent Donald Phelps (a pre-Deep Space Nine Rene Auberjonois); unlike Luca, however, Donald is explicitly coded gay both in his profession and his affinity for effeminate bathrobes. But who could be the killer? Is it Donald, or perhaps Tommy Ludlow (Brad Dourif), Laura’s driver with a criminal past? Could it be Laura’s ex-husband Michael (Raúl Juliá), an unrepentant drunk and serial abuser, who does nothing to hide his jealousy over Laura’s successful artistic career in comparison to his failures as a writer? Or someone else altogether?

Above and beyond the nominal connections that arise from having a woman experience psychic visions of death, Eyes of Laura Mars is also notable in that it is often considered to be the first (and perhaps only) successful attempt at making a giallo film in the U.S. All the trappings are there: the bleakness of the city, the untrustworthy associates of the lead, the brutality of the violence and the P.O.V. shots of the killer. Like many Dario Argento protagonists, Laura is an artist who happens to get caught up in a killing spree outside of her control, and like many of his antagonists, the killer (once unmasked) has a tragic and traumatic backstory that is used as self-justification for homicidal violence. There are even elements of Argento’s work that are pre-saged here; the sudden reappearance of Laura’s ex-husband as a mysterious figure and suspect is like the reappearance of the lead’s wife in Tenebrae, which came out four years later; Brad Dourif appears as a red herring, just as he did in 1993’s Trauma; even the overt campiness of Auberjonois’s character recalls the appearance of Carlo’s lover in Profondo rosso (although that film appeared a few years before Laura Mars or The Psychic).

All in all, however, The Psychic is by far the better film. Although Faye Dunaway’s magnetic performance outpaces Jennifer O’Neill’s, and there’s a vitality to other performances, like Dourif’s and Auberjonois’s, that Fulci’s film lacks, Eyes of Laura Mars simply fails to hold interest all the way to the end. On a sequence-by-sequence basis, Mars is simply too uneven, varying broadly from the impressive and delightful scene of Laura’s Times Square photo shoot to the banal, vaseline-lensed blossoming love story between Dunaway and Jones. It has a strong start, what with Laura attending her book party and being harassed by a reporter about whether she feels her work is exploitative and damaging to women, and there are more scenes that stand out for their cinematic eloquence than in The Psychic, but I rarely felt like Laura was in any real danger. Both she and Virginia are forced into an observational role relative to their psychic visions, but Virginia never stops seeking the truth, while Laura drags her feet. She’s simply not the psychic detective we deserve.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond