What sort of mental picture have you formed from the title?
Are you picturing a cute girly cartoon? Wrong. It's a dark, twisted, sexually charged pseudo-supernatural
"thriller" from Nic Roeg, the 79-year-old auteur who previously
created Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don't Look Now, Castaway and Bad
Timing, all in the period 1971-1986.
So what's the deal with the title? The Puffball is a type of wild mushroom
which resembles a woman's swollen belly, and this is a film about pregnancy.
I'm not really sure what it's about, to tell you the truth. I'm not even
positive that the writer and director knew, because it is supposed to be
adapted from a book by Fay Weldon, and from what I have been able to determine
(I haven't read it), that book is brimming with wit and clever dialogue.
Although the script for this film was written by the son of the late Weldon, I
see no sign of wit, and gathered not the vaguest inkling that the writer or Roeg tried to put any ironic distance between themselves and this preposterous
story about Norse mythology, Celtic voodoo, aphrodisiacs, rabid stable
couplings, stolen spirit-children, sperm, and rocks with holes in them. I
suppose the self-important humorlessness should come as no surprise. Roeg has
been in the film business for fifty years and has continually demonstrated
that he lacks even the slightest sense of humor.
Of all Roeg's earlier films,
Puffball is most similar to Don't Look Now. It takes the earlier film's
premise of a normal young couple trapped in a menacing, ominous Venice and
transports the couple to the menacing, ominous Irish countryside, where
they unexpectedly create a pregnancy and stir up deep feelings of envy in the
local harridans, especially a woman who is trying futilely to become pregnant
and feels that the outsider has stolen her child.
There were exceptions among the critics, but most of the scribes who
profess to like Roeg's earlier films found this one to be like an
unintentional parody of them, with all of the director's familiar devices
exaggerated to ridiculous extremes. There is, for example, obvious
sexual symbolism, some of it not so symbolic. Come to think of it, it's not
really symbolism when you can see sperm squirting into a womb from the inside,
is it? Let's just call it sexual imagery. There are several seconds of what
appears to me to be an actual penis violating an actual vulva, as shot in
extreme close-up, porn style, but disguised by fancy colored lenses and an
absence of hair. Or maybe it is symbolism and it's actually something
extremely similar to a penis penetrating something extremely similar to a
vagina, in which case it takes the award for the most heavy-handed symbolism
of all time, since it looks exactly like real coitus. This is far beyond the ol' "train entering a tunnel" device.
And the symbolism is actually subtle compared to the stereotypical Irish
rurals and the oppressive Celtic musical cues!
If Roeg fans found this movie difficult to watch, you can imagine how
I felt, because I don't even like his "classics." I always find his narratives
jumbled, his themes too-too serious and self-important, his execution very
close to high camp, and the overall effect inevitably soporific. I mean,
c'mon. I sat through two hours of Don't Look Now to find out that Sutherland's
vision of his dead child was actually an evil dwarf. As I pointed out in my review of Don't Look Now:
"You know what the explanation really was? There was a
serial killer wondering around Venice, skulking in and out of the shadows,
and that is whom Sutherland mistook for the ghost of his daughter. So what's
so odd about that? I'll tell you. The serial killer was an evil dwarf who
looked exactly like a ten year old girl. So what's so unlikely about that?
Well, I might have bought into it partially, except that the serial killer
skulked around Venice in a shiny red overcoat. I know that I'm neither short
enough nor evil enough to think like an evil dwarf, but if I were an evil
serial-killing dwarf, I'd try to dress a little bit less conspicuously."
Since the people who like Roeg's best movies
generally found Puffball unbearable, and I find many of Roeg's best movies to be
laughably awful, you can probably figure out how I felt about this one.