UK / Ireland / Canada, 2007
Review by Jason Woloski
Posted on 01 October 2007
Source TVA films 35mm print
Categories The 27th Atlantic Film Festival
Puffball is Roeg Raw, the legendary director’s abilities atrophied and arthritisized away. Time has not been kind to Roeg’s skills, and with Puffball it’s particularly odd to see a filmmaker at work whose interest in symbolism and sex remain fully intact, but who just doesn’t have the snap he once did at wrangling signs and signifiers out of the air at will. Roeg in 2007 is a mathematician whose calculations no longer compute, a butterfly hunter swinging a net with a giant hole in it.
To mask the problems in Puffball, Roeg has created a film of casual symbolism – or lazy symbolism – in which he throws signifiers at the movie screen like wet spaghetti, hoping that a pattern will form if enough of it sticks, and maybe an accidental deeper meaning will emerge. Trouble is, Puffball’s narrative is dull, dull, dull, and without a spark of interaction between narrative and symbolism, the whole cake bakes flat. The plot is simplistic: an architect named Liffey works on restoring a cottage in a small Irish village, while her boyfriend travels back and forth from America to visit. The village Liffey lives in is alarmingly matriarchal and hates Liffey, supernatural forces abound, Liffey finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and horny, which quickly turns her personal life into a disaster. It’s Rosemary’s Baby meets Straw Dogs, with hints of The Wicker Man and Roeg’s own catalogue thrown in the mix, all wrapped up in a matrix of giant forest stones, Odin, and hex dolls.
The confrontations in Puffball don’t feel epic or remotely fantasy-like, they feel small and domestic and like something out of a Mike Leigh film. If Roeg was trying to make a neo-kitchen sink witchcraft movie, I admire the lunacy of such a hybrid, but it’s not a success, and it doesn’t make for a very good film. In fairness to Roeg, I may be watching the whole thing the wrong way. I went in wearing my Sexual Fantasy goggles rather my Mike Leigh Downer goggles, and while Puffball is a bit of both, who could be ready for such a mixture? Also, I wonder how characters in films dripping with obvious symbolism don’t recognize the symbols surrounding them, and wonder why their lives are patterned like a tapestry.
A “cervix cam” briefly gives the film a spark of innovative life, in which we see male orgasm from deep inside the protagonist’s womb. There is also a pleasant appearance from Don’t Look Now veteran Donald Sutherland to look forward to, now a silver Canadian tortoise in his 70s. Sutherland is soothing to watch, despite not really doing much except wearing a trench coat, appearing wise, and petting a stone alone in a forest. With age, Sutherland’s soft fangs and arched brows make him look like a slightly melted vampire, or a vampire who went human and now ages like the rest of us.
Of note, Puffball is based on a 1980 novel by British author Fay Weldon. Dan Weldon, the author’s son, adapted the novel for the screen, which leaves me wondering how awkward it would be to adapt your own mother’s story of sexual promiscuity, liberating fits of infidelity, a deep fear of pregnancy, and explicit sexual expression. I want to see an Adaptation-type film come out of Puffball’s production process, because there is an interesting story here beyond what ended up on screen.
I haven’t read Fay Weldon’s novel, but a case of artist interruptus is going on somewhere between Nicolas Roeg directing Dan Weldon’s screenplay of Fay Weldon’s novel, the result being a confused film which reminds us that Roeg’s best work will always remain his sexy masterpieces of the 1970s. Hints of Roeg’s brilliance are in short supply in Puffball, but it mostly feels like the kind of movie a studio refuses to release, then sits on a shelf for twenty years gathering dust only to be discovered and restored out of respect for the reputation of its maker. The irony is that this film is brand new, Roeg’s first theatrical movie in twelve years.
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