Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Jerry Schatzberg's PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD
Puzzle of a Downfall Child tells the story of Lou Andreas Sand. Not quite the name one would think of immediately for a fashion model, certainly not one as conventionally (but still ravishingly) beautiful Faye Dunaway in the role. She tells her own particular story, or how it's fragmented like a puzzle, to her former best-photographer and once-almost-love Aaron Reinhardt. This is when she has gone through it all, and looks a little more than weathered and tired, and perhaps doesn't have all of her marbles together in the same bag.
She started at the bottom, being given the photo-job of, say, holding an eagle on her arm and posing nervously only for the eagle to make the front cover of the magazine. She started to gain attention for just being... well, a model, with her own set taste for make-up and hair, and for being the 'it' girl of the moment. She also was emotionally either a little too cold or distant, or a basket case. There's a moment between herself and Aaron when they're younger and in the midst of their collaboration that he asks here point blank if she finds him attractive. "Why do you ask me if I love you?" "No, I said if you find me attractive." This leads to some tears, on her end, but then in another moment later she's just fine.
Oh, the mind-set of a model, always on the edge of "must be BEAUTIFUL" and yet without any real friends, or at least those she can really hang on to. Lou finally has an affair with her long-adoring photographer, and Schatzberg and writer Carole Eastman make it into a kind of theatrical production that Lou stages; she instructs him in a car that she must approach her in a bar, not use his name, then to go to a motel, and do it all just right. The story jumps usually back and forth in time, but here the cuts and the time fragmentation gets more condensed than in any other point in the film (according to Schatzberg this was his doing as it wasn't quite written that way in the script). In her own sometimes quiet way, Lou is a heavy-duty seductress...
That is when her past demons don't come to light. Schatzberg means to give us, in the style of Ingmar Bergman, a full character portrait of this person, a woman who may not really even know herself very well. When we see Lou as a 15 year-old - her memory of her first "time" with an older man, as he pulls over the side in his car driving along as she walks until she gets in - she is played by Faye Dunaway. I don't think she was used in this scene because she looks 15, since she doesn't. It's apart of the projection, her way of putting herself back in time, and then when it comes time to be intimate or have something emotional, that sliver of a strange and harsh memory comes rushing back. And then later, when what every model fears, getting a little too old or just not quite the "new thing" like the newer models coming in, the real madness- the crying phone calls, the "trips" to the insane asylum- come right back.
This was Jerry Schatzberg's first film, an underrated director who would go on to make the desolate character studies Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow, both with Al Pacino. He said at a Q&A for the film that I went to that he wasn't so much worried about the cinematographic aspect of the picture- he'd been a photographer for 20 some-odd years- but that he had never directed actors, the kind of movement they required. Having Bergman as an inspiration helps, but having good actors is all the better. Somehow Schatzberg, perhaps through the nature of the scripts he works with having emotionally raw characters who have inner-lives that have some really dark contours that just have to be explored (it is the 70's after all), can get actors to bring out the best in them.
Certainly for Faye Dunaway it's a career highpoint. For Lou, this is a person who should be hard to peg down: she's not a total nutcase, just enough to be a New York neurotic; I could see her being a supporting character in a Woody Allen movie. Her problems are half self-created and half from this world she's in. Why do it to herself, this modeling world? Being someone else, perhaps, or the nature of performance and escaping in a role in front of the camera.
But what makes Dunaway's performance so important and special is to get past some of the potentially hazardous conventions and get to the heart of the matter: what makes her tick, why does she harp on the past, why, when she's older and giving her quasi-interview with Aaron is she so tangential in conversation (this aspect takes on a thing in the film, by the way, with an audio recording of her playing maracas over walking around a destroyed church building as a kid)? But most harrowing is that she can make Lou so captivating when she's just trying to find words, or having an over-long/pleasant conversation with an attractive male model in the dressing room. If she can make the small moments matter, then the big power-house scenes when she's in the mental hospital are just easy as pie.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child is one of those "I kinda feel sorry for this movie" kind of movies due to its lackluster availability. This is a film that one can only see in special screenings- at least until next year when its purportedly to be released on DVD... in France only - and usually with the director present. But if you can find it it's a minor gem of psychological depth and creativity with non-linear storytelling. Schatzberg doesn't want to make it too easy of a portrait, even if we think we might have seen this in more recent years (Gia anyone?) Because it's not so straightforward a story, we have to pick up some of the pieces of the story for ourselves, about her relationships (an underused but fun to watch Roy Scheider as her boyfriend Mark), about her up-and-down career, and her own self-made mania. I could almost imagine Lou having a moment like Derek Zoolander does when he's having an existential crisis and looking at a puddle. "Who am I?" he asks. His reflection: "I don't know."