erry Schatzberg is well known today as the director of films like The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Scarecrow (1973), and Street Smart (1987). Before he got into the movie business, however, he worked as a fashion photographer. Given that background, it’s particularly fitting that his debut as a film director, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), has a story set in the world of high fashion. It’s an unusual film that was not a big hit during its initial release, but which deserves reconsideration today as an early example of the American New Wave.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child opens with several still shots of a small, isolated cabin on a windswept beach, and we hear the voices of Faye Dunaway and Barry Primus several minutes before we see them. When we finally see Dunaway, she’s looking decidedly non-glamorous, sitting on the floor while smoking and drinking wine. We gradually learn that Dunaway’s character is a formerly celebrated fashion model Lou Andreas Sand (her professional name echoing that of author Lou Andreas-Salomé) who has withdrawn from that life following a nervous breakdown and issues with substance abuse. Primus plays Aaron Reichardt, a former lover who is interested in making a movie about her life.
It soon becomes clear that Sand is performing as much as she is remembering, and the stories she tells are anything but straightforward. In addition, the film regularly interrupts her recollections by flashbacks which use techniques like odd framing, fake movie clips, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to further distance the viewer from Dunaway’s character. The screenplay by Adrian Joyce (a pseudonym for Carole Eastman) eschews straightforward narrative structure, throwing in abrupt cuts and unexplained leaps forward and backward in time, so that we don’t always know where we are Sand’s life. This structure mimics her mental disintegration, due to crippling insecurity and abusive experiences which lead to drug use and other self-destructive behaviors.
Adam Holender’s location shooting in New York makes the city look great, and the recreations of Sand’s fashion shoots are both splendid and horrifying (it’s an exploitative business). Dunaway has never looked better than she does when she’s playing her formerly glamorous self, and she delivers an expert dramatic performance as well, while enjoying the support of an able cast including Viveca Lindfors, Barry Morse, and Roy Scheider.
According to Larry Karaszewski (heard on an extra on this release), Puzzle of a Downfall Child was an attempt to mimic the success of Darling, a 1965 British film directed by John Schlesinger and starring Julie Christie as a fashion model. If audiences and critics were expecting an American version of Darling, however, it’s easy to see why they would be disappointed with this film, which is decidedly New Hollywood and whose tone is anything but light. Today, we can appreciate this film for what it is, rather than expecting it to be something else. But you don’t have to take my word for it—it’s also a favorite of Bruce LaBruce.| Sarah Boslaugh
Puzzle of a Downfall Child is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary track by film historian and filmmaker Daniel Kremer and film historian and podcaster Bill Ackerman, an interview with director Jerry Schatzberg (15 min.), an alternative opening (2 min.), a “Trailers from Hell” episode with Larry Karaszewski (2 min.), and trailers for this and two other films.