New York director Jerry Schatzberg was recently in the limelight again as a member of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival jury. An unlikely but interesting choice, Filmbrain feels he is an under-appreciated director whose output (only thirteen features in thirty years) consists of many very-good films, and perhaps a few near-great ones. The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) is an excellent example of the kind of dramas that were rarely made after the 70's. What ruins it from being a great film is Alan Alda's screenplay -- it's written too much like an episode of M*A*S*H. Honeysuckle Rose (1980) and Street Smart (1987) are extremely good films that came out of what is easily Hollywood's worst decade. However, Schatzberg is best known for two early works - The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Scarecrow (1973). Needle Park, with its almost documentary-like feel is still one of the best junkie movies ever, while Scarecrow is a fine example of the two-strangers-meet-and-hit-the-road genre that was popular in the 70's. Yet before those two films, Schatzberg directed a 1970 feature called Puzzle of a Downfall Child, a film that, until now, had successfully eluded Filmbrain. (A planned screening last year at the Walter Reade was cancelled at the last moment -- to the dismay of many.) Well, Filmbrain has finally seen the film, and though it was sourced from a 25th generation French videotape, it was well worth it.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child's greatest strength is its star, Faye Dunaway. Though she was well established at the time (Bonnie and Clyde and The Thomas Crown Affair) this was her first truly challenging role, and she more than lives up to it. Dunaway (at her most beautiful) plays Lou Andreas Sand, a former model who, after a nervous breakdown, has moved to an isolated beach house. Aaron (Barry Primus), a photographer and former lover, visits her with the intention of getting her story on tape as inspiration for a film he wants to make. (Inspired, in part, by similar recordings Schatzberg made with model Anne Saint Marie, who also suffered a breakdown.) The film is told in non-linear flashbacks, and it's not always apparent whether her memories are real or delusions from her illness. What is clear is that even before her breakdown, her mental state was far from healthy, and Aaron was the only person in her life who ever showed concern. To everybody else she was simply a commodity or an object of desire. In one of the films most fascinating sequences, Aaron and Lou leave the city to spend a night together. Instead of a romantic evening, Lou insists they play a rather disturbing psychosexual game that has disastrous results.
Filmbrain finds Pauline Kael's less-than-glowing take on the film interesting:
"I have a constitutional aversion to movies about women whose souls have been lost, stolen or destroyed, especially when it isn't made clear -- and it never is -- whether the heroine had a soul in the first place."
Schatzberg has not fashioned this film as a "pity the poor model" story. We never really learn what it is from her past that has caused her to behave so (though there are hints). Filmbrain was reminded a bit of Bergman's Persona, though it lacks his Scandinavian "heaviness", and Schatzberg keeps a greater distance from his subject than Bergman does. Schatzberg does do a great job of showing how Lou is objectified in the eyes of every man in her life, and her resulting inability to interact successfully with any of them. Lou wants to be wanted, and even when she's mistreated by them (especially by sleazy ad executive Mark (Roy Scheider)) she still craves their attention and affection. By the time she suffers her breakdown, she's even throwing herself at her doctors. It's all quite chilling and more than a bit uncomfortable to watch. Dunaway is outstanding, and the lengthy sequence of her in the mental hospital might easily be her best work. As with many films of that era, it's difficult to imagine how this ever found funding from a major studio. It's a shame the film has never been officially released on VHS or DVD. Perhaps one day Schatzberg will be re-discovered, and we will be given the opportunity to reconsider all of his 70's output.