These are rough times for Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway), and she is reduced to spending her days in her beach house waiting to recover from a nervous breakdown brought on by her high pressure lifestyle. She is a top fashion model, which has all her working life been detrimental to her sanity; she wonders if her memories are accurate or not, so has agreed to set them down with the help of a photographer friend of hers, Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus), so he can produce a project on her life. He sets up the tape recorder and allows Lou to talk, exploring her psyche...
And oh how she explores it, at great length, for an hour and a quarter after which your patience with this self-absorbed character may well have worn thin. And yet, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (dig that ker-ayzee seventies title!) does have its fans, with many citing it as the Faye Duanway performance that they judge to be her best. It's true that the actress offers a committed creation (literally at one stage), and goes some way to carrying what begins early on to be fairly tedious, but is it enough to stave off boredom and really make you care about this unfortunate woman?
That's the character who is unfortunate, not the actress. The central gimmick is that Lou cannot trust her memories, and even by the ending she is still not sure what she recalls is real or otherwise a product of her fevered imagination. So if she doesn't know what is actually going on, how are we supposed to? The script was by Carole Eastman under her Adrien Joyce pseudonym, and as she was an ex-model herself you expect her to know of which she wrote; not only that but director Jerry Schatzberg was a one time photographer, so the same applies to him.
Yet the insights into the fashion world are far from illuminating, and amount to telling us that it is dehumanising and soul-destroying, leaving us with the impression that Eastman didn't have the best time when she was going through a similar period in her life. Lou goes back to the start of her career in her reminiscences to allow us to see how she became the woman she is today, but if it's a chic Citizen Kane you're after, then you may well leave disappointed by this series of unhealthy relationships and unrewarding experiences.
Not that we can trust what she says, for example she claims that she hates flying on aeroplanes because her older lover from when she was sixteen was killed in a plane crash, then later on she tells Aaron that she didn't start dating anyone until after she left school. What Schatzberg and company don't seem to latch onto is that it's hard to sympathise with someone when you cannot believe what they are telling you: did Lou have those affairs? Was she raped? Did one of her lovers strike her or did she walk into a door? The icy Dunaway is capable enough to keep you watching simply to see her tackle another difficult scene, but the presentation is so chilly and cold-blooded that you're not even sure that Aaron deserves to hear all this, and presumably he knows the truth of it even if he's not sharing it with us. Music by Michael Small.