I didn’t see PUFFBALL when it came out, put off by my lack of enthusiasm for the writer, and the reviews, which seemed to be straining not to be mean: the veteran director deserves some respect, even though the only obvious way to fashion a readable review out of such an unpromising movie would be to trash it… Then one evening, after an Edinburgh Film Festival whisky-tasting event, I put the DVD in, and was promptly seized by motion sickness — it was like my vertical hold had gone, the picture seemed to keep scrolling up before my eyeballs, unfixed in space. When I finally succeeded in watching the movie the next day, some of that residual nausea may have remained. Use that as an alibi for my underwhelmed response, if you like.
“A mistake,” is how a friend bluntly summed up Nic Roeg’s PUFFBALL, his latest and possibly last feature. And this friend was in general very sympathetic to Roeg’s vision and had been hoping he’d make another personal film (Roeg freely admits to spending years trading on his reputation, which at least explains monstrosities like his TV movie of SAMSON AND DELILAH with Liz Hurley). Apparently Roeg would have liked to spend twice as long in the cutting room on this one as he was allowed — naturally enough, he being Nic Roeg — and I do find it deplorable that none of the nine credited producers could find the money to pay for an Avid suite and an editor for a few more weeks. Or months. It’s Nic Roeg, FFS!
But very possibly the producers were not sufficiently impressed with the material they saw, and wanted to cut their losses. I can understand their attitude, looking at the “finished” movie, but still deplore their lack of faith — maybe there’s a better movie struggling to get out. Certainly ferocious pruning and intensification of the first act, of the kind Donald Cammell applied to PERFORMANCE, against Roeg’s wishes — inventing, in the process, the Nic Roeg signature style — might have helped. As it is, the movie lurches from plodding, on-the-nose dialogue scenes devoid of reaction shots or overlaps — Dragnet-style but without the verve, which lack even the rigour I’d expect from a rough-cut. Editor Tony Palmer has an association with Roeg dating back to 1970, but there’s no brilliant solo jobs on his CV — perhaps Roeg needed somebody to challenge and provoke him rather than make him comfortable?
Asides from the editing — Roeg’s old touch shows itself in flashes of inside-the-body images, floating fetuses and sperm nebulae, night-vision penetrations — but a freeze-frame dissolve from the heroine’s bloody crotch to a monolithic stone donut should’ve been squashed at birth — the movie’s big problem is its script. Like DON’T LOOK NOW (Donald Sutherland pops his head in for old time’s sake) this is a tale involving the supernatural, but it refuses to play by genre rules. But while DLN nevertheless ended up being scary and atmospheric as hell, even though the source of tension was often hard to pin down, this movie never lands anywhere so interesting — it’s not spooky, nor dramatically credible, nor tense.
I’m inclined to blame, unfairly, original author Fay Weldon, although her son Dan’s screenplay certainly compounds the problems. I haven’t read a single Weldon novel, but have always found her TV adaptations irksome, with improbable lectures shoehorned into the mouths of reluctant and threadbare characters. And I read her intro to a paperback of Dracula, where she got characters’ names wrong, which seems less than ideal. By chance, here she is in today’s (Saturday 3rd, as I type) Guardian, reviewing somebody else’s novel: “Writing a second novel is a nervy business for a writer,” — which seems to imply that the task would entail no trepidation for an orthodontist or longshoreman. So here’s my belief, for which I welcome rebuttals: Fay Weldon is quite a poor writer.
The first “act” of PUFFBALL is an interminable and passionless affair, dealing with architect Kelly Reilly’s attempts to restore a house in Ireland, while her strange neighbours, who include Miranda Richardson and Rita Tushingham, spy from the sidelines. A plot to reincarnate a dead child in a new baby is underway, and Reilly’s presence is thought to interfere with this, leading to a complicated pseudo-ROSEMARY’S BABY rigmarole of conspiracy and sorcery. But for the first half of the film (the first act seems to last this long), all we have happening is a bunch of stuff, some of it weird, none of it particularly dramatic. In the second half, the wavering plot threads attempt to weave together into a climax of some kind, but each potentially tense moment is frittered away to nought.
This does illustrate an interesting (to me, anyway) point about the spook story, which this movie structurally resembles, at least somewhat: the first act of a ghost story is frequently without dramatic tension. THE INNOCENTS begins with pure exposition, coupled with a little character self-portrait, from Michael Redgrave. Only the credits sequence’s promise of chills and drama to come keep us engaged as the plot premise is laid out in the most flat and undecorated terms. Similarly THE SHINING, where the eeriness of Kubrick’s style, coupled with our familiarity with the genre, allow us to anticipate more excitement, even as we’re spoon-fed backstory and a boring job description. The actual events — a job interview — are potentially suspenseful, as we all know if we’ve ever applied for a job, but Kubrick seems intent on burying the potential drama of the scenes in front of us, the better to raise our expectations of what’s to come.
So PUFFBALL’s flat, draggy opening might have worked if it had gotten done with it faster, and if the pay-off had been any good.
Amid all the shagging and subterfuge, there are a number of bad sex moments, such as the green-tinged genital closeup (I presume either hardcore stand-ins or prosthetics were used: can’t see Miranda Richardson volunteering for movie coitus, although apparently Roeg has privately claimed that the celebrated DON’T LOOK NOW copulation IS real), a condom fitting in which the actor has to reach so far into his jeans that one assumes he’s either not “ready” or else must be hung like a cashew, and then the condom-cam money shot (see top) where a milky load splashes the lens like a Jackson Pollock tantrum in yogurt — ”It just made me think of Woody Allen,” complained my friend — but there’s one rough sex scene that’s actually pretty intense and “interesting,” made so by Kelly Reilly’s mean, sloe-eyed performance, rather than by any dubious directorial flourishes.
As William Wyler once told John Huston, “It’s the kind of movie that, when you make one, you ought to make another movie right away.” The sad thing is Roeg isn’t in a position to do so.
(Still: last movies and late movies have a way of rising in reputation: maybe the hidden merits of PUFFBALL will assert themselves at a later time. Stay tuned.)