I have no idea what the title Puzzle of a Downfall Child means, aside from signaling an impossibly literary ambition. The story of super-model Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway), it is a swank tale of mental disintegration that is effectively a latter-day “Woman’s Film,” i.e., a domestic melodrama about and for women. In the classical Hollywood days, the formula usually involved a love triangle or other emotional dilemma. In the early ’70s, instead of choosing between lovers, the protagonist has to struggle with different neuroses before falling apart.
Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus), one of Lou’s former lovers and her occasional photographer, is recording her recollections, which are shown in flashbacks and if Ingmar Bergman had directed a script by Michelangelo Antonioni, the results might look like Puzzle. The film’s actual director, former photographer Jerry Schatzberg, displays an insider’s experience of how the high fashion world operates. (He apparently co-wrote the story with scenarist Carole Eastman of Five Easy Pieces fame.) The result is a handsomely shot, tautly edited film that evokes the environment with considerable panache, helped by the fact that Dunaway has the looks of a successful model.
As accurate as it may look, however, Puzzle seems as posed as its subject, more like an American facsimile of the kind of European art film the people in Puzzle would watch and admire than something grown from native soil. That foreign feel is unsurprising given that even today fashion is more Eurocentric than just about any other industry. Thus, the more successfully Schatzberg evokes the mores and rhythms of New York’s haute couture scene, the more it seems to take place in another country. Americans do not collapse like Liv Ullmann or Monica Vitti, no matter how much cultured New Yorkers would like that to be the case. A breakdown set amidst bank clerks in Omaha, say, might be less svelte, but it would not look as if it were trying to be something else.
The impulse to imitate may result from when Puzzle was produced (1970), on the cusp between the height of European art cinema and the period when a new generation of American filmmakers became the center of international critical attention. Which is not to deny that much of Schatzberg’s work in Puzzle is accomplished. What it lacks is the conviction that Lou’s story had to be told, that we are watching more than familiar melodramatic tropes dressed up in 1970s fashion, or that the subject was chosen for reasons more fundamental than the desire to appear as smart and neurotic as the big boys. Puzzle is hardly the only film to expect praise for mimicry, but precisely because it is superficially successful, we are more aware of its debts. It is a compliment to say Puzzle strives for the sophistication of a European art film, but it would be a bigger one to say that it stands on its own two feet.