PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD — with its purposely enigmatic, arch title standing as a slight warning to all those about to enter — is a brilliantly edited, handsomely shot and designed film with an entrancing central performance and strong support (including the wonderful Viveca Lindfors and a pre-leathery Roy Scheider). I don’t know that I’d call it a masterpiece or a major work, but I might. It’s going to take a little more digesting, a couple more viewings.
Faye Dunaway is one of the few stars who could convincingly play a fashion model, since she has not only the beauty and thinness and height but the right KIND of beauty. Hollywood movies tended to cast preposterously unsuitable types as models, so you’d get the likes of Susan Hayward on the runway. Almost uniquely, this movie has convincing models and convincing and attractive clothes for them to wear.
Dunaway’s gift for neurosis is what makes her doubly suitable for her role, as the character falls apart in a blur of self-obsession, lies, loneliness and (totally offscreen) drug abuse. The film is typically vague about the medical specifics of her mental breakdown (see also PLAY IT AS IT LAYS) — is she depressed, anxious, schizophrenic? The latter seems hinted at, with paranoid delusions creeping in. Then we see her condemned to the high fashion wing of a stark-white limbo asylum and it’s all maybe a little too chic (but visually stunning, and they’re consciously pushing it into fantasy).
But the colour-supplement grain of Adam Holender and Michael Small’s score exemplify the film’s virtues — they are highly aesthetic, and very much of their time, but applied intelligently so they’re not merely fashionable. The same goes for all of Jerry Schatzberg’s directorial choices, which exploit the broad stylistic and technical palette of 70s American film without ever treading outside the bounds of visual good taste — no wanking the zoom bar, no excessive filters, “psychedelic” camera flare, no freeze-frames or split-screens (all of which can be justifiable, but which tend to be more abused than used). It’s a beautiful object, animated by Dunaway’s exposed nerve of a performance.