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

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