Of the many career paths a woman can lose her mind on (see also: piano teacher, ballerina, nun), none is quite as cliche as the “crazy fashion model.” Thankfully, so much more is going on in photographer-director Jerry Schatzberg’s outstanding Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which plays today at Metrograph and is based on Schatzberg’s real life interviews with model Anne Sainte-Marie.
A magnetic Faye Dunaway stars as Lou Andreas Sand, a high-fashion model recovering from a breakdown at her Long Island beach house. She is joined there by her best friend, photographer Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus), who claims to be interested in making a documentary about Lou’s life. Increasingly, though, it is clear that Lou is an unreliable narrator of her own story—and Schatzberg, too, sneakily recontextualizes the events in her life with his untraditional edits, as conversations that should have ended with a cut instead bleed over into the next scene. In one particularly clever moment, Lou asks Aaron to rewind his tape so she can hear herself play the castanets. After the whir of the tape rewinding, their conversation begins all over again, even as the flashback story being shown on screen moves on unsettlingly. The disjointed storytelling both serves to frustrate an audience and approach Lou’s subjective truth.
In fact, despite this intentional misdirection, Schatzberg's frame device allows Lou to tell her own story and in doing so, it elevates Downfall Child beyond the spectacle of beautiful woman losing her mind and into a story that deeply interrogates how Lou's sorry end was inevitable. No oppressor of women escapes without blame: religion, capitalism, sex, the fashion industry, and above all others, men get no mercy from Schatzberg.
Criminally, Puzzle of a Downfall Child never received any kind of home video release outside of France, so the Metrograph's screening (on 35mm no less!) marks a fantastic opportunity for fashion lovers and anyone interested in complicated explorations of feminism on film. Jerry Schatzberg will be there in-person.