Nicolas Roeg is one of British cinema’s most influential post-war directors. His innovative use of non chronological story structure and editing was daring and experimental. Of course, what was once new is now commonplace and Roeg’s fragmented,elliptical style has clearly been appropriated by modern film stylists such as Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan, both of whom cite Roeg as an inspiration.
Trained as a cinematographer, Roeg worked his way up from director of photography on pictures such as Doctor Zhivago (1965) ( uncredited), Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) to his first directorial credit, in fact co-directing Performance with Donald Cammell in 1970. The film, a psychedelic, psycho sexual gangster film if you will has since become a landmark cult film and was the first time Roeg employed his cut-up technique. From there, Roeg went out on his own and established a singular body of work- Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)– that was strange, challenging, sensual, erotic, disturbing and visually stunning.
At the tail end of this run of remarkable films, he made what is probably his most under-rated and certainly at the time of it’s release in 1980 his most misunderstood film, Bad Timing. An unflinching, explosive yet formally elegant tale of sexual and emotional obsession, the film stars Theresa Russell as Milena,a young, free spirited American woman in her twenties and Art Garfunkel as Alex, the older man, a controlling, uptight psychiatrist who become entangled in a destructive Viennese love affair.
From the rueful,opening strains of Tom Waits Invitation to the Blues as he growls the foreboding line ‘She’s a moving violation, from her conk down to her shoes’ as two people, our protagonists unknowingly shadow each other in an art gallery- she eyeing Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, an ornate, rhapsodic vision of enraptured lovers while he examines a painting by Egon Schiele, a darker, more haunted vision of femininity.
Then Roeg, along with his editor Tony Lawson proceed to shatter time, what we thought was the present is gone, the song fades out replaced by wailing sirens and Milena lies unconscious in the back of an ambulance as Alex watches over her. She whispers, ‘Stefan, I’m sorry’ and this line triggers a shift again to another time and place, a gloomy border checkout between Austria and Czechoslovakia. The elegiac, stately strings of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major accompany Milena’s pained farewell to a sad eyed former lover, played by Denholm Elliott.
At this pint, where are we? The past, the present, the future? Maybe? Or is Roeg showing us the random nature of memory, how one can live in several states of mind at once, an object, a word, a feeling shuffling our memories like a pack of cards. Having the film presented this way, we are being asked to question, to figure out the emotional puzzle for ourselves.
Do we want to? That is up to ourselves of course. But there is little doubt that Roeg’s command of image and sound here is breathtaking, creating a mood of unease, tragedy and sadness that seems hyper-real. It is beautiful but at times almost too unbearable to watch.