Based on its pedigree alone, the obscure drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child merits investigation by any fan of serious-minded ’70s cinema. The picture stars Faye Dunaway, it was directed by photographer-turned-filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg (whose other films include 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park and 1973’s Scarecrow), and Schatzberg co-wrote the script with Carole Eastman, whose other release in 1970 was the iconic Jack Nicholson drama Five Easy Pieces. (Eastman wrote Puzzle under the pseudonym “Adrien Joyce.”) Beyond the big names involved in the project, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is noteworthy because of its heavy themes—abusive relationships, fame, drug addiction, mental illness. For those who like their ’70s movies anguished and artistic, this is quintessential stuff on many levels.
Unfortunately, the storytelling of Puzzle of a Downfall Child is pretentious and vague. The narrative is presented in dreamlike fragments, often with psychobabble voiceover played over dissociated imagery, and the heart of the picture—as the overly precious title suggests—is a slow revelation of one disturbed woman’s psyche. Only the most masterful actors and filmmakers can make this sort of thing work, and neither Dunaway nor Schatzberg demonstrates that level of supreme artistic control. So, while Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a noble effort, it fails to generate much in the way of real emotion. Plus, quite frankly, at times it barely sustains interest.
The film begins at an isolated beach house, where Lou (Dunaway) is sequestered while recovering from some mysterious personal crisis. Her only companion is a longtime friend, fashion photographer Aaron (Barry Primus), who interviews her because he’s planning to make a movie about Lou’s life. In flashbacks, we see Lou’s ascendance from the lowest ranks of modeling to the upper echelon; along the way, she gets involved with a series of inappropriate men, including the abusive Mark (Roy Scheider). Dunaway is in nearly every frame of this film, so there was an opportunity for her to give a tour-de-force performance. Alas, she plays the exterior of her role well, but that’s about it. In her defense, she’s burdened with an insufferably narcissistic characterization—Lou is one of those navel-gazing ’70s-cinema egotists whose every utterance explains why she’s dissatisfied with this or unhappy about that. Yet it’s clear why many people suffer her whining, because she’s an exquisite beauty who photographs extraordinarily well.
In fact, one can’t help but get the impression Schatzberg fell under Dunaway’s spell the same way the film’s characters are bewitched by Lou. Schatzberg photographs Dunaway with delicate artistry, which hurts her performance by making the actress seem like she’s preening even when she’s supposed to be unglamorous. (Dunaway and Schatzberg were engaged around the time they made this picture, though they never married.)
Puzzle of a Downfall Child also suffers for a lack of closure, since the “puzzle” of the title is never solved in a satisfactory way—viewers eventually learn that Lou fell into narcotics and suffered a nervous breakdown, but even after listening to the character prattle on about herself for 105 minutes, she remains an enigma. Nonetheless, Schatzberg’s pictorial style is elegant, and supporting actors lend varied colors. Viveca Lindfords flounces through the film as a grandiose photographer, while Primus channels the anguish of unrequited love and Scheider provides the movie’s irredeemable-asshole quotient.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child: FUNKY