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

Shock Corridor (1963)

It’s rare to find films of a certain age that take an honest look at mental illness, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric issues with sympathy, and fewer still that take a deft approach to the subject. Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.

Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has spent the past year training with Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) in order to accurately portray an incestuous fetishist and be committed to a local mental hospital. His goal: to earn a Pulitzer by solving the murder of a patient who was killed by meeting the three witnesses, also patients there. His editor Swanson (Bill Zuckert) is behind this plan, but his exotic dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) objects, worried that Barrett’s time among the madmen will break him psychologically as well. She eventually relents and poses as Barrett’s sister in order to have him “involuntarily” committed. Once inside, Barrett must maintain his cover under the observation of Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and kindly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson). He is placed in a room with a patient known only as Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), whose operatic exultations occur day and night, and he sets to work making contact with the three witnesses: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans).

Each man has been institutionalized after their psyches were fractured by manifestations of America’s social and political failings, representing the dark underside of the American dream. Stuart was the son of a poor, abusive, racist father. When Stuart was captured while serving in Korea, he came around to their way of thinking easily, as they showed him the first kindness he had ever experienced in his life. When he was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchanged, he was denounced as a traitor and treated as a pariah; despite being brainwashed, his countrymen had no sympathy for him and instead debased and abused him. As a result, he has retreated into a delusion wherein he is Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, still fighting the war.

Trent was the first black student in a segregated university in the American South, who suffered such harassment and hatred at the hands of his classmates that his mind has broken. He is introduced as a thief of pillowcases, and we quickly learn what that means: he steals these from other patients and cuts holes in them to create a makeshift Klan hood. Trent no longer sees himself as he is but as white, and he stirs up the other patients in the ward by shouting racist, white nationalist invective, including inciting violence against other black patients. Finally, Boden was an atomic scientist who, upon realizing the earth-shattering power of the atom bomb and that he had contributed to the scientific “progress” that gave mankind the ability to wipe itself from the face of the earth, broke down and regressed to the mentality of a child. Once a talented artist, he now spends his days wandering the titular corridor, where patients are allowed to congregate and socialize, drawing crude renderings of his peers.

Barrett’s time on the inside begins to have a profound effect on him. As his own mental state begins to deteriorate, the film becomes a race against time to get to the truth before Barrett’s faculties diminish beyond the breaking point.

When looking at the release date and the subject matter, one couldn’t be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the film would be heavy-handed or unsympathetic, but not so. And even if one knew the film was sympathetic, it would likewise be easy to assume that it would be have the moralistic and paternalistic “eye” prevalent in propaganda of the time, but that is not the case here either. Instead, the tone is like the film overall: a mixture of documentarian distance and character study, which echoes the (color video, in contrast to the B&W film that makes up the plot of the movie) documentary inserts of Japan in Stuart’s psychic break and the indigenous dances and rituals that constitute Trent’s breakdown. Although there are some dated moments, most notably the attack on Barrett by a ward full of glassy-eyed women identified only as “nymphos,” they are few and far between, and do not detract from the film’s overall thesis: mental illness may be “invisible” in ways that physical illness isn’t, but it can be no less debilitating or life-altering, and the key to healing is sympathy, not criticism. Sadly, over half a century later, this is a lesson that still needs to be reiterated, but it renders the film no less potent now than it was in its day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Unsane (2018)

I never particularly understood what makes Steven Soderbergh unique as an auteur until we covered his cerebral, low-fi prank Schizopolis for a Movie of the Month conversation last year. Filmed cheaply on Super 8 cameras while dicking around in the hellish mediocrity of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Schizopolis is alone justification for Soderbergh’s reputation as a scrappy experimenter in content & form. If I hadn’t already gotten on his wavelength by catching up with that experiment in low-fi irreverence last year, 2018’s Unsane would have been just as viable of an entry point. Here, Soderbergh bridges the gap by getting on my wavelength, delivering the exact heightened horror schlock I cherish the most at the movies. Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in the modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Much like how Schizopolis mixed heady existential crises with the lower irreverence of Kids in the Hall sketch comedy, Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container, but find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.

Claire Foy stars as a cutthroat corporate stooge who works in one of those sickly, florescent-lit cubicle hells from past Soderbergh joints like Schizopolois & Full Frontal. She comes across as aggressively uptight & snooty, but not without reason to be on-edge. Her mother constantly infantilizes & undermines her. Her boss leverages his position to hit on her without consequence. Potential Tinder hookups pose a threat of physical harm to her as a single woman who lives alone. Her steeled exterior is a performative defense, mostly because of a violent stalker from her past that has driven her into a constant state of fear & paranoia. As she relapses into seeing this stalker’s face in spaces he logically cannot occupy, she seeks psychiatric help from a mental health facility that tricks her into “voluntarily” committing herself for suicide watch. Once she’s locked into that system, the hospital uses every small infraction possible to extend her stay, heartlessly milking her for insurance money. The scam is described (mostly by a fellow level-headed patient, SNL vet Jay Pharaoh) in terms of a prison sentence: “They’re locking up sane people for profit,” “Do your time. Keep your head down,” “Learn how to live the routine,” etc. Remaining cool, calm, and collected proves to be impossible, though, as the stalker she fears so much surfaces as an employee of the hospital’s, an authority figure she cannot escape. Worse yet, nobody believes her, perhaps not even the audience. The rest of the film from there is a cheap slasher masquerading as a giallo mystery & a wryly funny descent into the bowels of Kafkaesque capitalist bureaucracy.

Besides my more general appreciation for morally tacky horror, I have a very specific love for affordable fad technology being documented in microbudget (and often technophobic) genre pieces. In the past, I’ve praised at length the laptop POV of Unfriended, the gaming app aesthetic of Nerve & #horror, the ringtone eeriness of Suicide Club, the GoPro energy of Afflicted, the Snapchat pop grime of Sickhouse, and so on. On the surface, Unsane’s iPhone cinematography appears to be closer tied to the classy transcendence of the medium in works like Tangerine & Damascene, but the film is too deliberately, persistently ugly to make that leap. Soderbergh intentionally chooses outright hideous angles & vantage points that recall daily digital footage we’re used to seeing outside of cinematic contexts: security camera pans, low-angle YouTube uploads, uncomfortably close webcam conversations, voyeuristic distance in clips of celebrities’ or strangers’ public behavior covertly captured on smartphones. However, outside a brief sequence where social media is explained to be a security liability to stalkers’ victims, there isn’t much outright paranoia about the evils of modern technology reflected in this approach. Instead, the film uses pedestrian modes of everyday, we-all-do-it filmmaking to approximate the feel of an investigative journalist sneaking a hidden camera into a crooked mental institution that holds patients against their will, like the horror film equivalent of an episode of Dateline NBC. An occasional experiment in double-exposure digi-photography pushes the aesthetic beyond that approach to match the protagonist’s manic (or too-heavily medicated) psyche, but Unsane mostly dwells in the drab digital hell we’re immersed in online daily. It’s something I always appreciate from my trashy horror movies, if not only as an honest document of our current culture as it truly looks to the unfortunate souls who live it.

Almost anything I could praise about Unsane would potentially be a turn-off to other viewers. Like with last year’s Split, I love the films schlocky premise as is, but wouldn’t hold it against anyone who finds its treatment of mental illness as morally repugnant. As I’ve learned from recommending small budget technophobic horrors in the past, not everyone shares my voracious appetite for pedestrian digital photography in their proper cinema. Claire Foy’s central performance (as the wonderfully named Sawyer Valentini) might be universally recognizable as a knockout punch of paranoid tension, but it’s in service of a dark, dry, often cruel sense of humor with punchlines like “Hail, Satan!” & offhanded blowjob references that might derail her presence’s wider appeal. I’m saying this to note that, like Schizopolis & Full Frontal, Unsane is firmly rooted in the required taste end of Soderbergh’s career, far from the bombastic crowd-pleaser territory of an Oceans 11 or a Magic Mike. Respecting its themes of abuse within the bureaucratic capitalist paradigm or of men in power dismissing the claims of women in crisis is not enough in itself. You must also be down with its indulgence in the moral & visual grime of microbudget exploitation horror. That dual set of interests might be a slim column on the Venn Diagram of Unsane‘s genre film experimentation, but I totally felt at home in that position. With Schizoplolis, I ventured out into the wilderness of Soderbergh’s psyche to understand him on his own terms. With Unsane, he returned the favor by stooping down to my lowly genre film trash pile to offer me a leg up.

-Brandon Ledet