Monday, March 13, 2017

Puzzle of a Downfall Child


Director Jerry Schatzberg

PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD                     B                    
USA  (105 mi)  1970  d:  Jerry Schatzberg

Schatzberg’s greatest unseen film remains SCARECROW (1973), a brilliant character study that evolves into an endlessly free-wheeling road movie with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino that simply goes places most films don’t dare to go, with superb cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, featuring overpowering performances that are among the best in their respective careers, winner of the top prize at Cannes when the Grand Prix Award temporarily replaced the Palme d’Or from 1964 – 74.  His first film, on the other hand, is a bit of a train wreck, though perhaps intentionally so, where it is beloved by the French, where the only available DVD is a Region 2 European edition, but has never developed much of an audience in the United States, despite a dizzyingly charismatic performance by Faye Dunaway.  While this allowed Dunaway remarkable dramatic range, playing an haute couture fashion model that descends into the depths of madness, it in no way rivals her astonishing work three years earlier in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  Prior to being a filmmaker, Schatzberg, a native New Yorker, began his career as an assistant fashion photographer to Bill Helburn in the mid 50’s before branching out on his own, doing spreads in Vogue, Glamour, Esquire, and Elle magazines, where he eventually garnered fame by taking edgy portraits of 60’s icons like Bob Dylan (slightly blurred cover image of Blonde on Blonde,, Jimi Hendrix, Catherine Deneuve, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, and Frank Zappa, among others.  The film is inspired by the life of 1950’s fashion model Anne Saint-Marie, listed in the credits as a technical consultant, with Schatzberg taping a series of interviews with her on the downward slide of her career, by then addled by pills and alcohol, and then sent the tapes to Carole Eastman who wrote the screenplay, also the writer of Five Easy Pieces (1970), both released the same year, with the interviews forming the narrative for the film.  Coming at the end of a personal relationship with Dunaway, Schatzberg’s first film represents the director’s exit from his former profession, though it embodies the fashion industry, becoming a searingly intimate portrait of a model that suffers a nervous breakdown, told with a European sensibility that features minimalist story lines, lengthy monologues, fractured imagery, languid pacing, and often painterly-like vistas.  

Living as a recluse in a beach cottage on Long Island, Lou Andreas Sand (Dunaway) remains the central focus of the entire film, with the camera never taking its eye off her, all but ignoring the peripheral players, instead consumed by a psychological obsession with her character, freely intermingling Buñuelian flashbacks and fantasies with her tenuous hold on the present, where they are intermixed with her own delusions and lies, creating a shattering experience of disorientation.  This couldn’t have been an easy role to play, much like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence  (1974), where underneath the appearance of calm lies a restless anxiety that erupts in giant mood swings, where her insecurity is off the charts.  Even when working at the height of her career, she needs constant reinforcement, being told that she was good, where it’s an almost childlike need for approval, an obvious crying out for love and attention. Under the guise of making a film, she is visited in her home by a former friend and associate, Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus), who records interview sessions that allows her to revert into flashback mode and relive various episodes in her life.  But her reliability for accuracy falters, as she continuously gets memories mixed up, confusing them with other incidents in her life, where there is plenty of toxic residue from earlier incidents of sexual abuse.  Her stream-of-conscience recollection allows for a cinematic sleight of hand, replacing the present with traumatic incidents from her past, all seamlessly playing out where it’s difficult to tell fantasy from reality.  This jumbled method has a way of distancing viewers from what we see onscreen, where certainly part of the problem is there are no likeable characters in the film.  Sand herself is so far removed from reality that it’s nearly impossible to identify with her.  While Reinhardt may seem sympathetic, this never feels genuine, as he is simply using her to get what he wants out of her, which seems to be the plight of every model, as they are treated like valued commodities that need to be treated with care, but are exploited, where there is very little support or personal interaction.  Friendships are nearly non-existent as it’s such a cutthroat and competitive business. 

Few other characters stand out in this film, but one who does is Pauline (Swedish stage actress Viveca Lindfors), a very strong and aggressive (butch) female photographer who tries to protect Sand from the wolves, knowing the business, fully aware that models are easy prey for alluring men of all ages with money in their pocket, all promising to introduce them to a life of luxury and comfort.  While her intentions are good, Sand refuses her guidance and protection and instead goes out with one of the predators, Mark (Roy Scheider), a successful advertising executive who flirts with the models, appreciating a beautiful woman on his arm, and is even engaged to marry him but instead flees the scene on her wedding day.  Like a recurring nightmare from the men in her life, always choosing the wrong guys, Mark repays her with slaps and a black eye, which once again sends her over the edge.   As if to recover from an existing trauma, she recreates fictional scenarios in her mind where some other man adores her and would love to be with her, inventing a feeling of love in the air that doesn’t exist, but she uses this as leverage against men who are threatening or demeaning her.  This is all traced back to an early experience of sex abuse, where men’s faces at times are interchangeable, as they all end up abandoning her, where this feeling of being hurt follows her throughout her life and is something she can never escape.  Lost behind a paranoid world of fear and deception, she flounders in the dark, afraid to be alone, making late night telephone calls, inventing panic stricken suicide scenarios, and then if someone actually responds to help, she cozies up next to them in a seductive dance for sex, completely oblivious of what brought them there.  Descending into a world of drugs and suicidal inclinations, she is left to fend for herself, where at one point she is hospitalized, offering a fairly gruesome depiction of institutional care, which is viewed as a neverending sequence of trauma and pain, an explosion of raw emotion that can only be suppressed by recurring sedation, where there is never anyone who seems to have her best interests at heart.  One of the more telling scenes is when she arrives on a shoot, with hair and makeup in place before anyone else arrives, hoping to surprise the photographer, only to overhear she’s become yesterday’s news, already a has-been, washed up in an industry that constantly renews itself with newer and younger faces.  When a young fashion model (a gorgeous Barbara Carrera) struts into the changing room and confidently picks out what she intends to wear, Sand is completely ignored, like a ghost from the past whose reality has been sucked out of her.  The confounding structure of the film left American critics befuddled, unable to appreciate the puzzling aspects of the interior cinematic language, yet it made a name for Schatzberg in Paris, bringing a restored cut to Cannes in 2011 for a tribute screening.  Part of its mystique is that it has been out of circulation for so long that viewing the film is a real treat. 

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