Screened April 17-18 on Criterion DVD in Berlin, Germany
A fairly simple break-up story told through a dizzyingly baroque narrative flashing back and forth, Bad Timing is a buzzing paradox, revealing Nicolas Roeg at his most controlled and most unhinged; this study of a relationship on life support is both coldly clinical and emotionally raw, sometimes in the same scene. Roeg slices and shuffles his film like a puzzle, putting the viewer in an obsessive mystery-solving mode not unlike that of Art Garfunkel’s psychoanalyst researcher Alex as he tries to impose order on Milena, a wild-eyed, beautifully impulsive Theresa Russell. The two have next to no romantic chemistry, which is just as well since the film aims to be the ultimate depiction of breaking up in all its brutal truth. It’s obvious that the two have next to no business being together: Russell as a wolverine of an aimless twentysomething wishing for unbound adulthood but who falls apart without a steady paternal presence; Garfunkel (impressively understated) as a intellectual whose attempts to convey rational authority give way to smugness and acts of male insecurity. But the leads give in fully to the frustrations of their characters, making their frequent miscommunication painfully compelling, especially in the erotic charge to their desperate attempts to connect.
The eroticism of disconnection is also scored brilliantly through Roeg’s associative editing: Garfunkel’s raising of a cigarette in one shot recalls a similar moment in another (him catching Russell lighting up with another man) and whose emotional subtext (jealousy, insecurity) loops back to the first. The piece de resistance is one of the most unromantic yet cinematically sexy love scenes ever filmed, cutting between Alex and Milena’s emphatic fornicating and a comatose Milena undergoing a bloody tracheotomy on an operating table. She’s is a numb body being vivisected, not unlike like her dead-end relationship under the surgical scalpel of Roeg’s editing.
Bad Timing is as obsessed with sex as Don’t Look Now was with death, substituting the moody gothicism of Don’t Look Now‘s Venice with a Vienna that evokes a Freudian commingling of civilized living and ominous sensuality. In both cases, the strenuous leaping to and fro of the narrative leads to a stark naked moment of confrontation where one’s dark dreams erupt into full enactment: in the case of Bad Timing, a climactic rape scene of unapologetic frankness, ugly, brutal, and heartbreaking.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Bad Timing on They Shoot Pictures list of 1000 Greatest Films:
Dominik Graf, Steadycam (2007)
Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007)
Lee Hill, Miscellaneous (2004)
Simon Ward, Independent Cinema Office (2005)
David Thomson, Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Sight & Sound, Fistful of Five: Amour Fou (2006)
Wonderful Bad Timing photo essay from Rotating Corpse that showcases Theresa Russell’s many looks and the often exquisite compositions.
Nicolas Roeg’s Cuisinart cutting strains to create the impression of meaning in this rather dishonest 1980 thriller about a Freudian psychiatrist’s destructive involvement with a mystery woman. Apparently the decision to jumble the time scheme was made after shooting was completed, which may explain the mysteriously misplaced emphases in the playing, yet the film’s real problem is Roeg’s willingness to sacrifice the logic of situation and character to facile shock effects. In his way he isn’t much different from the director of Friday the 13th.
– Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
When a film is structured like a puzzle, qualities that are merely bewildering can be made to seem mysterious, if only for a while. Nicolas Roeg, who habitually structures his films this way, has again relied on jumbled time sequences, allusive cutting and a wealth of similar techniques to give ”Bad Timing/A Sensual Obsession” its suggestive, secretive air. But ”Bad Timing,” unlike Mr. Roeg’s ”Performance,” ”Walkabout,” ”Don’t Look Now” and ”The Man Who Fell to Earth,” has a ponderous, trumped-up feeling. It lacks the shimmer of Mr. Roeg’s best work. And it manages to seem both weighty and insubstantial.
The problems of ”Bad Timing” can be traced, in part, to a screenplay that ascribes equal importance to all the incidentals of the love affair; they also stem from Mr. Roeg’s confidence in the shaky proposition that these two characters hold a fascination for his audience. Dr. Alex Linden, played by Mr. Garfunkel, and Milena Flaherty, played by Miss Russell, are too often an unremarkable team. Alex, a celebrated professor of psychology, encounters Milena at a party, where she looks drunk and behaves brazenly; this is virtually her constant condition during the course of the film. ”If we’re going to meet, it might as well be now,” she says, blocking the doctor’s exit with her leg. ”Why spoil the mystery?” asks he. With that, they are off and running.
The struggle between Alex and Milena has to do with her desire for secrecy and his desire to know her, and with the contrast between her wantonness and his reserve. As the film begins, Milena has attempted suicide, which would suggest that their effort to bridge their differences has been unsuccessful. (If the suicide attempt doesn’t do that, it at least gives Mr. Roeg occasion to cut repeatedly to the operating table, where Milena undergoes a grisly tracheotomy, and to juxtapose her cries of ecstasy with gasps from the operating room.) However, the events that lead her to such a desperate measure have no discernible momentum. The film is so jumbled it lacks a steady rhythm, and the story offers few clear highs or lows.
Mr. Garfunkel does a very creditable job of conveying Alex’s reserve, but there is little in his performance to suggest a man in the grip of an obsession. And Miss Russell, who has also made memorable appearances in ”Straight Time” and ”The Last Tycoon,” brings to her role a reckless physicality that is both overwhelming and overused. Miss Russell makes gestures that involve her whole body, gestures that are almost frighteningly carefree; she is also capable of making almost any kind of behavior seem lewd. Her performance is hugely effective for a while, but Mr. Roeg allows her to repeat herself, and eventually monotony sets in. She and Mr. Garfunkel are given ample opportunity to connect, but they never manage this. Even in its moments of greatest urgency, their affair remains lukewarm.
Mr. Roeg goes to great lengths to make ”Bad Timing” as exotic as he can. In a typically strained flourish, Alex and Milena are transported to Morocco, a transition Mr. Roeg accomplishes by letting sand pour out of a hollowed-out stone in Vienna, then cutting to the desert. And Alex is driven to commit a crime of passion, which is meant to be shocking, but hardly seems disturbing at all. The crime is uncovered by a detective, played by Harvey Keitel, whose movements are carefully integrated with Alex’s, as if to establish a parallel, a duet, a duel. Like too many aspects of ”Bad Timing,” this point is elaborately detailed, repeated frequently, and barely of any interest at all.
– Janet Maslin, The New York Times, September 21, 1980
Bad Timing (1980) is one of Nicolas Roeg’s least seen films. The studio, Rank, hated it, publicly disowned it and briefly banned it from its own cinemas. This is particularly unfortunate, since it is a pivotal film in Roeg’s career. The experiments in non-chronological storytelling that stretch back to Performance (co-d. Donald Cammell, 1970) blossom here in a film which is, on first viewing, difficult to follow, but is ultimately extraordinarily insightful and moving in its painfully close examination of a destructive love affair.
Abandoning chronology, Roeg jumps around, taking cues from objects, pieces of music, habitual gestures and various artworks, all of which link one moment in time to another. This makes the film a little disjointed at first, but also gives the relationship more of a sensory impact, as we go from highs to lows with little warning. The explicit sex, a Roeg commonplace since Performance, is interesting here for how un-erotic it is. There is a disgust throughout, about sex and about the human body, frequently distorted in mirrors, glass and paintings – the key moment being the intercutting of a bloody operation on Milena’s throat with a particularly passionate sexual encounter.
The film marks the third collaboration between Roeg and Anthony Richmond, and the cinematography of Vienna is suitably cold and oppressive, which contrasts well with the brief excursion to Morocco. Tony Lawson’s editing is exemplary, fracturing the narrative without rendering the film incoherent. Also noteworthy is the soundtrack, which mixes Pachelbel, The Who, Billie Holiday and, most memorably, Tom Waits, whose poignant ‘Invitation To The Blues’ sets the perfect tone.
– Mike Sutton, BFI Screen Online
Bad Timing is a clear example of a film way ahead of its time. What seemed obscure in 1980 is now crystal clear, and we follow Roeg’s non-linear cutting patterns without the slightest confusion… The boundaries of normal flashbacks are clearly marked, allowing no confusion between the past and present. Roeg doesn’t use flashbacks in the normal sense, but adapts film grammar to express a flowing state of consciousness. Past events become alive as we recall them. Colors, actions and dialogues trigger specific memories. Through the clarity and richness of Roeg’s vision, they take on patterns that encourage meaningful interpretation. Artworks, music and objects are woven into the memory-fabric. Roeg ‘encourages’ some of these patterns to comment on the neurotic love relationship of Alex and Milena – the Kilmt paintings, for example, that center on brooding, intertwined lovers. At other times our attention is drawn to details given compositional stress, such as the pattern in a bed spread next to Linden’s conflicted face. How many of our memories of important places and events are inexplicably dominated by images of unimportant details like wallpaper patterns, or cracks in a tile floor?
The density of Roeg’s visuals enables reality to be eclipsed by an ever-changing set of visual interpretations. Alex Linden looks at a room, which pops back in forth between tidy and messy states, with and without Milena’s drugged body as part of the decor. In his jealous delirium, a glimpse of her face will trigger memories of earlier moments – enigmatic smiles, provocative pouting. Netusil finds some photographs lying on a table, and comes up with another incorrect interpretation to add to Linden’s own. Also, entire scenes are warped by a character’s subjectivity. Linden confronts Milena in a college corridor, and her close-ups alter radically to match his inner turmoil – the focus becomes shallow, the background diffused.
Roeg also elects to change subjective viewpoints when he shows Milena’s back story with her sad Czechoslovakian husband Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott). Lest we think her a helpless victim in this psychosexual drama, we see Milena toying with Stefan’s affections. She pretends to be concerned, when she’s actually amused by her ability to walk away from a man so hopelessly in love with her. Milena cherishes her sexual freedom, whereas Alex is rooted in the need to possess her, to make her exclusively his. Alex doesn’t realize that he already ‘has’ Milena as much as she can be ‘had’, and it’s his damning flaw (shared by most men) that he wants excusive rights. The conventional Alex is obsessed with Milena and can’t stand the thought of her being with someone else, an attitude that naturally drives her into the arms of others. The movie is less about bad timing then it is about bad sexual chemistry. During a trip to French Morocco the lovers are in total harmony. She’s ready to see their relationship go on forever, just as it is. But he wants to hurry to a position of control – a bill of sale in the form of marriage. Milena accuses Alex of being greedy in love, of demanding too much. Her continual question is, “What do you want?”
Art Garfunkel’s poised inexpressiveness is perfectly suited to an intellectual accustomed to hiding his feelings to the point where he’s not sure he still has any. Theresa Russell’s performance is outstanding and as brave as can be imagined – one can picture a thousand actresses terrified by her ability to be truly uninhibited. Harvey Keitel would seem to be a terrible choice for an Austrian policeman. He underplays the role so thoroughly, we accept him without question.
Bad Timing is perhaps the culmination of the 70s idea of a director’s picture. Ex-cameraman Roeg expresses more with his camera and cutting than any dialogue script could – the characters’ attempts to use words to psychoanalyze each another repeatedly fail. Inspector Netusil bears down with a rational approach to the truth, like a Monk who has never seen a manifestation of God but knows his lot in life is to keep searching. Roeg and his cameraman Anthony Richmond get the maximum from their images. The visually precise Bad Timing outpaces even Roeg’s earlier ‘masterpieces’ The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don’t Look Now and Walkabout.
– Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing is one of the most harrowing looks at human relationships ever told as a movie. In terms of sheer emotion and fortitude it ranks with Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage as a marvelous portrait of male-female relations, but it is far more cinematic than Bergman’s film. The claustrophobic, hermetically sealed cinematography and performances are so strong, and the subject matter so compelling that the film will remain with you long after it finishes.
Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell are stunning in the lead roles. Garfunkel is utterly convincing as Alex. He captures well the intellectual prowess of a psychologist and the primitive desire of men; the controlled aggression of Alex towards Milena is quietly portrayed in Garfunkel’s performance. Russell is even more impressive, however, being utterly captivating every moment she’s on screen. Her performance is filled with remarkable courage, but not merely because Russell is willing to display her body with tremendous candor. The strength in her portrayal of Milena comes from her willingness to play the emotional dichotomy of the character. Denholm Elliott and Harvey Keitel are also effective in their roles, though they receive little room to develop their characters. In terms of the narrative’s focus on the disastrous relationship, the underdevelopment of the supporting characters is understandable. However, part of me wishes that Keitel’s Inspector Netusil received more attention in order to make the final scenes stronger.
Bad Timing is another excellent study in human nature from Roeg. His unique visuals and storytelling style never feel forced, but aid the themes of the film. Indeed, the cinematography and production design are uncomfortable, but they reflect the events on the screen. This is not a picture interested in utilizing Vienna’s beautiful scenery to achieve visceral effects; rather, Roeg and his crew prefer to externalize their characters through the film’s look and sound. The music is an eclectic mix of classical music and pop songs of the 1970s, but it almost always strikes the underlying purpose of a scene.
Some viewers may be turned off by the emotionally exhausting experience of viewing this movie, while others will see it as a rewarding experience chronicling human flaws. I belong to the latter group, having been stirred by Roeg’s film in a manner similar to Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. If you are willing to commit yourself to these characters, you’ll find they provide a fountain if insight.
– Nate Meyers, Digitally Obsessed
For me, Bad Timing, Roeg’s tale of erotic obsession starring Art Garfunkel and his wife, the actress Theresa Russell, has always been less of an unqualified success… Screenwriter Yale Udoff said that he wanted the film to be “Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s finished piece is not funny at all. It’s queasily disorienting, a film that feels like a hangover in which the good times are only hazily remembered.
Seen, however, 25 years after its release and in comparison to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which also invoked the Vienna of Sigmund Freud (that movie was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Vienna-set novel Traumnovelle), Bad Timing seems the more truthful take on sexual obsession and the question of how much we can ever really know about a partner in a relationship.
– Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker
To hide the fact that this is all much ado about nothing (well, very little), Roeg cuts the film together so it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on until midway through the film. (Once you get there, you shrug — “That’s it?” — and most viewers will tune out.) He also saddles the movie with subplots and side stories that never pay off: Milena is still married and her estranged husband (Denholm Elliott, the classiest thing in this movie) pops up from time to time. Milena is also under investigation by the American military, and Alex is called in to evaluate her file. Neither of these plots amount to anything. In fact, the whole government investigation thing is all but dropped midway through the movie.
Roeg was probably right to try to salvage the film this way, attempting to create a mystery with few other options left to him. But given his two leads, there’s really nowhere special he could have gone. Russell is indistinguishable here than in nearly any other movie she’s made, and Garfunkel, a bad actor of epic proportions, is impossible to believe as the lover of such a brazen hussy. Even Keitel overdoes it: It’s impossible to believe he’d spend so much time trying to reconstruct this case (which ultimately turns out to be a question of rape), when the victim will be up and around in a few days to simply tell him what happened. Do cops in Austria have this much free time?
Roeg gives the film a unique look, and the snappy cutting at least gives it some energy. Less can be said for his penchant to suddenly zoom in on random objects in the frame (an out of focus lamp?), but as an example of what was both good and bad in 1980s filmmaking, Bad Timing is at least instructive.
– Christopher Null, Filmcritic.com
I didn’t enjoy watching Bad Timing. It is, indeed, a sick film, sick to the core (though made by nonsick people for nonsick people, despite the famous quote). Its sickness will invade you as you watch it. If you’ve had a bad breakup, been a bad man or woman, or ever been with one, this film will open up old wounds and pour cheap liquor into them. It is voyeuristic, yet seems so personal that it makes you feel narcissistic. Even if you personally would never throw a mentally ill woman down onto the stairs and ravish her in front of her neighbors, Bad Timing makes you feel like you might. Top that uncomfortable dose of perceptive insight with an overly convoluted narrative and visual style, mix in a healthy dose of padding—Bad Timing becomes one bitter pill.
With that nastiness out of the way, let’s step back a second and evaluate this thing clinically. Bad Timing is exceptionally multilayered; you could literally write volumes on the themes within its deeply nested plot. It is helmed by a great, if unfairly marginalized, director. Bad Timing is honest, gritty, and dense, with intense visual imagery. If you can get past the unwholesome core and irritating trappings, Bad Timing offers a challenging artistic experience.
In Bad Timing, Roeg elevates Walkabout’s creepy Agutter riff into an in-your-face refrain. It is intentionally voyeuristic, intensely intimate, and highly creepy. Perhaps films should be judged solely on their own merit and not in comparison to similar works. Nonetheless, the temptation to compare Bad Timing to Walkabout is hard to ignore. Both films had intense sexual politics set within forbidding social environments. Both films highlighted voyeurism and victims. But Walkabout featured innocent victims who did not choose their circumstances. Bad Timing has the same undercurrents, but with consenting adults who are free to take different paths. If you took Kramer vs. Kramer’s sunny interpersonal banter, then mixed in some psychological rape and the bunny from Fatal Attraction, you’d be close to the feeling you’ll get from Bad Timing.
Despite Roeg’s best attempts to keep us off guard, Bad Timing wears itself out by the middle act, which seems to go on forever. We’re long past the point where we “get” Alex and Milena’s interpersonal dynamic. Nonetheless, we must suffer through Alex’s tedious path of clinical discovery, a side trip to Africa, several breakups and get-back-togethers, and exhaustive police questioning before the twist-riddled denouement arrives. It all piles on top of itself to make Bad Timing a draining journey..
Roeg graces these scenes with powerful visual style. Bad Timing is carefully rendered throughout, telling us what undercurrents are present simply through lighting and set decor. The interplay between characters and environment is nuanced and complex. It should come as no surprise that Criterion’s transfer flawlessly captures this style. The famous 1970s film stock degradation, if it even exists in this 1980 print, has been erased. Colors are muted but saturated well, with deeper black levels than I expected. The detail is passed through without molestation. There are some strange blurred effects in the last few reels, and I cannot tell if these are intentional or not.
– Rob Lineberger, DVD Verdict
If something in the scheme of things has put them down for each other, then something else might equally have kept them apart—something called chance. As Roeg has said of their initial encounter at the party: “If he had left a little earlier or a little later—it’s just bad timing.” There are so many ambivalences in the scheme of things—so much shifting between the operations of hazard, choice, and predestination—and the dazzling, fragmented style of the film is designed to catch this play.
There’s play as well around the concept of “bad timing,” when it ceases to signal a romantic collision and becomes a matter of police investigation. A problem emerges—it becomes the framing drama for the story of the love affair itself—about Alex’s own timing, what he did and when, on the night that marked the convulsive end of their affair, when Milena was rushed to the hospital in a coma, from a drug overdose. This triggers the intervention of police inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel), who is the third point in what becomes an unusual triangular relationship, as well as the man who owns a ball-in-a-maze puzzle to match Alex’s. There is a case to be solved here, but like the impasse that confounds Alex and Milena, Netusil also has his own identity puzzle to solve. In part, this is a doppelgänger story, but an incomplete one. The detective sees himself in the psychiatrist, but imperfectly reflected: the two men dress alike, but Netusil’s suit is, as Roeg puts it, “off the peg”; the policeman has a diploma from Harvard, but it’s for athletics. Netusil’s struggle—to better, to transform himself—seems almost to be a physical one, whereas Alex works only through mind games.
Roeg plays on the similarities between the two men in dress and mannerism, and in their disdain for the messiness of Milena’s life. But they have arrived at different points in life; at that moment they are, as Roeg puts it, “on opposite sides of the mirror.” For Netusil, “his demon was leading him somewhere else. I don’t know where he’d go, but I know he was in a lot of pain in the end, Inspector Netusil.” The name itself is a key. Roeg tells how it came from a visit to a painter friend, in the Ariadne Gallery, in Vienna. The owner of the gallery was Frederick Netusil, a Czech name. “He said, ‘Do you know what it means? It means “the man who didn’t know something.”’ And he laughed—that’s why he’s a gallery owner, because he doesn’t know about painting. I said, My inspector must be Inspector Netusil.”
Roeg’s achievement, through the seventies and eighties, was to construct a form that might not have approached Greed in physical length but whose glittering piecemeal construction was another way to create this density of suggestion. Many critics who only noticed the glitter accused Roeg of being merely a glorified cameraman, dressing up the job he had previously carried out for other directors. But photography is no more important in this scheme than editing and production design. The turn-of-the-century Viennese art world is part of the emotional texture of Bad Timing, the contrast between the romantic shimmer of Gustav Klimt and the psychological darkness of Egon Schiele.
Udoff has talked about how his and Roeg’s conceptions of the project did differ slightly in one respect. According to Udoff, some humor was lost. “I wanted to be the Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s drive was to make it more intense. “There was always a push to make Garfunkel really a heavy, to make him unbearable. As the script evolved, I got the feeling that Nic thought of himself as the Theresa Russell character, and I was, in his eyes, the Garfunkel character. Nic is always being pursued by the studios, by people with scripts, just as, in Garfunkel’s mind, Theresa is being pursued by all these people. And I think he felt, in a way, in his own career as a director, a fear of being devoured by people who want him to do their work rather than his work. That was, in a sense, what he saw in the Theresa Russell character. It’s in how he directed her.”
– Richard Combs, The Criterion Collection
The tragic reality of Alex and Milena’s affair is beautifully hinted at in the opening scene. As Tom Waits sings ‘An Invitation to the Blues’ (’She’s a moving violation from her conk down to her toes…’) on the soundtrack, Milena stands in a gallery, studying Klimt’s painting, The Kiss. At first, the artwork appears to be a study of an amorous clinch. But closer inspection reveals a chilling undercurrent: the man in the painting is passionately kissing the woman but his lover’s cheek is slightly turned, a disengaged gaze in her eyes. Klimt captures this fleeting moment forever. And in that suspended beat, the couple have never been further apart.
Like Klimt, Roeg is fascinated by these momentary incidentals. In his films, the edge of the frame, the split second is where the truth is hidden, or briefly held. This can be nothing more than a humorous aside: as in the scene where Alex meets with a tea-drinking diplomat to discuss the legalities of divorce in a foreign land. Roeg’s camera glimpses a bowl of heart-shaped sugar cubes: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cry for sweet love perhaps. But Roeg also uses these flashes for unsettling purposes. And he does so with devastating effect early on in Bad Timing.
Alex is stood talking to a nurse in the hospital corridor, while a team of surgeons try to revive Milena. Netusil is led by the night duty officer past Alex. The two characters have not yet been introduced: they are strangers. Alex briefly looks up at Netusil and in that fraction, Netusil winks directly at him. It is nothing but, at the same time, everything. A link is made between the two: they are now somehow complicit in the events about to unfold. It is random, dazzling and confrontational. Just like the film.
– Ben Cobb, Electric Sheep
A corresponding sense of pressure-leading-to-fracture informs Roeg’s visuals. At first it looks in Bad Timing as if Roeg has gone for baroque, or, more accurately, for art nouveau. A Gustav Klimt portrait of a woman, her softly outlined head emerging from a razzle – dazzle mosaic representing the sitter’s dress, looms over the art gallery interior where Garfunkel and Russell meet. And it’s not the film’s last nod to that fin de siècle Austrian artist. Klimt was a painter who broke up the classical contours of oil painting into rainbow – hued fragments. In much the same way, Roeg has splintered and rearranged the linearity of orthodox movie storytelling.
If Klimt is a taking – off point for the film’s style, the paintings of his pupil Egon Schiele add force and meaning to its content. Schiele’s swirling expressionist couples, bound in a morbid frenzy of lovemaking, were an offspring of art nouveau, and it is no accident that Schiele’s work is constantly glimpsed in the background of Roeg’s Vienna-set meditation on love and death.
The film’s eye-blink editing and sudden juxtapositions create a running concatenation between Eros and Thanatos: Scenes of lovemaking between Garfunkel and Russell cut (in flash-forward) to scenes of Russell lying on the hospital operating table after her suicide attempt. And throughout the movie, structure is dictated less by the demands of linear chronology than by the polar attraction of opposite themes.
Furthermore, where Garfunkel and Russell are set against each other in the film, Garfunkel and Keitel – two observer-investigators – grow mysteriously together during the film as hero and doppelgänger, ghostly comrades. “One of the basic ideas of the film,” says Roeg, “is observing, spying. In the scene where he lectures a university class, Garfunkel talks about the voyeur impulse. And he himself, an analyst, is a spy of sorts. Everybody watches everybody. That’s what we all do – not least film audiences. There’s a voyeuristic appetite for detachment, for the vicarious, that’s a key part of people’s personalities. ”
Roeg adds, “Keitel and Garfunkel in the film are really aspects of the same character. Keitel’s a kind of alter ego. They’re both watchers and analysts – men who want everything to be tidy, obedient, pliant to their wills.”
This theme of moral manipulation runs right through Bad Timing. Allied to the film’s recurring voyeur motif and to Roeg’s use of erotic angles in the love scenes – the camera shooting over thighs or between legs – it virtually invites us to see an analogy with cinema itself, and perhaps with Roeg’s own cinema in particular. More than any living director, Roeg makes an audience feel that his film is not so much taking place on a flat screen, in finite space and time, as exploding multidimensionally around them.
Roeg pursues this multidimensionalism right from the beginning of his planning on a film. I asked him if he story-boarded or meticulously prepared his films. He replied, “No, no, no, no. Not meticulously in that way. I like to get who the people are safely in my head, what their problems or their happiness or their sadness is from. After that, I like to keep a certain plasticity about them. Otherwise, they’re no longer living. I like to keep them living right up to the time the print comes out of the lab.”
– Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980
To conclusively detail all this film’s stylistic quirks would be impossible in anything less than novella form. As previously stated, flashbacks are integral to the film’s construction, and come in many forms: as quick two-or-three frame intercuts, as flashbacks within flashbacks and even flashforwards within flashbacks. At one point Alex brutally reprimands Milena and then his mood abruptly changes…and we realize we’re watching the moments preceding the outburst we’ve just witnessed. Disorientation seems to be Roeg’s overriding goal. Note his preference for jarring music cues, in particular the song that plays over the opening shot: a view of a museum painting whose serene mood is broken by Tom Waits at most gravelly. Waits’ voice is in turn cut off by the even more discordant tones of a siren…a perfect lead-in, it turns out, to a singularly bleak story.
– Adam Groves, Fright Site
“The ground that makes me nervous in Bad Timing,” says Roeg, “the thought that makes me tremble, is that I don’t want to see in this love affair that sentimental middle area that I think we all know. It’s a real, very painful love affair. When one’s in love, the moments of lyrical love are to me implicit in people’s behavior. It’s actually something in that other, public manner that makes you understand that they have those moments of lyrical love.
“I remember when I’d finished Don’t Look Now, I was cutting it and looking at it. There’s a love scene between Julie and Donald – it’s only an interlude – and I wanted to see what I was doing with that scene, whether the intention was right. So I tried taking it out. Now, in that film the emphasis is on a state of mind; things aren’t necessarily what they seem in life. Without that love scene, you never see them get happy together; they’re always rowing, Julie’s always grumbling and running beside this tall chap saying, ‘You don’t understand.’ They seem so miserable all the time! But most people do seem miserable: Love is a very miserable affair. And when I put that scene back in, suddenly you can’t get confused about them. They’re like a married couple. They are a proper married couple. They don’t get up and open doors, they don’t have candlelight dinners, but – in that scene after they’ve made love – he washes his toothbrush in her bathwater, she brushes up against him, he touches her. It makes you safe that they’re happy, or, anyway, that they’re real.”
– Nicolas Roeg, interviewed by Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Four days into the shoot his two tyro stars begged Roeg to let them leave, and he knew he was on the right track. “Theresa came first. She said, ‘I don’t think I’m up to this. I’m terribly nervous. Please let me leave.’ I said, ‘No. I won’t let you. I’m glad you feel that way.’ Then I asked Art in. I told them, ‘This isn’t like another movie. We’re shooting fragments of scenes; there’s nothing to rehearse. We’re in a city none of us knows, an empty landscape. I must ask you to trust that I know where I’m going. It’s a maze, but there is an end to it.’ We had some Martinis, and they agreed. Somehow, it was a release. I felt all right about pushing them further and further.”
One of the many emotional scatterbombs stumbled over was that Roeg and Russell fell in love (they later married). I wonder if the fearless chaos of her performance is what he fell for. “When you admire someone’s work, you are amazed by who you think they are,” he says. “But their real secret is masonic: they keep it right to the end. Very few people are prepared to let you all the way in – to Kafka’s ‘point of no return’. We went very far. As it turned out, not all the way. Theresa knew it was too dangerous. That’s all in the movie.”
It was worse for Garfunkel. Like his repressed character, he had little idea what was in store. “As we worked, I think he recognised a truth in his character’s obsession in himself,” says Roeg. “Then he had to decide whether to play it so people he knew would recognise it. It was like coming out. The actors were all nervous and guilty.”
The actors’ immersion into their parts became painful. At the film’s half-way point, when Russell vengefully demands sex with Garfunkel on the stairs, and he looks up at what’s on offer like a naughty schoolboy, fearfully grabbing her, her skin mottling and flushing, the old claims that there was real penetration on the set of Performance seem small beer: here, psyches are stripped. And soon the fever spread through the crew.
“Everybody was peeling themselves open,” Roeg remembers. “It was a wild time, there was a great feeling of release – sexually, emotionally. It was exhilarating. I remember one day we shot for 24 hours. I think I was the one who said, ‘I can’t take it any more. I’ve had enough.’ We were shooting six or seven days a week. It was claustrophobic – play the part, go to sleep, go back. I abandoned control, and something magical came in. Bad Timing began to live itself. I kept out of the way of its forcefield. It was a bit of suspended time. A parallel universe.”
Everyone caught their breath when Garfunkel and Russell’s characters took a break in Morocco. Shooting on the edge of the Sahara, they felt free, adventurous. But it was the calm before the storm – the long day, back in Vienna, spent filming the rape. It looks deeply uncomfortable – Russell’s head hanging back from her bed, while Garfunkel tears her clothes with a penknife, and enters her over and over. Shooting it was “shocking”, Roeg remembers. ‘The actors were frightened when they realised the disgust you feel when you can’t control yourself. It’s an extraordinary, horrible crime, rape. And you don’t often see the rape of the unconscious. Usually it’s someone dragged screaming into the bushes. There’s a lot of acting going on. There wasn’t a lot of acting in that scene.”
After a break, some of the crew reassembled for a final scene in New York. But Garfunkel’s performance was distant. They’d left their parallel universe and couldn’t go back. Roeg scrapped the scene. But he began post-production thrilled at the work they’d done, sure audiences would recognise the characters’ emotions.
But, Roeg recalls, “it was received for the most part very poorly.” At the first test screening in America, I was going to meet a friend, a quite well-known actor. Afterwards, he got into his car, drove it at me, and swerved off. He wouldn’t speak to me for three years. I didn’t realise till then how seriously people resent you holding a mirror to their face.”
Keitel and Garfunkel became firm friends from the experience. Roeg and Russell returned to Bad Timing’s themes in other undervalued work such as Cold Heaven (1993), in which Russell’s half-dead, cuckolded husband recovers from the surgeon’s scalpel to test their love.
– Nick Hasted, The Guardian
ABOUT THE CRITERION DVD
One of the most film-like transfers I have seen from Criterion. I don’t even think the screen captures give it true justice in this case. Everything seems perfectly balanced and exacting in the color dept. with a clean anamorphic, progressive transfer that produces a sharpness that appears acute. Extras speak for themselves – and I was most keen on the enigmatic Roeg being interviewed and discussing the film (I do suggest watching it after the film itself as it does give away a lot of the film’s plot details). Theresa Russell comes across is a far better light as a serious actress than a lot of the T&A fluff that has become associated to her through her career. Strongly recommended DVD package from Criterion.
– Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
The deleted scenes are interesting for historical context, but it is obvious why they were cut. The photo gallery and liner notes booklet seem to have taken uppers and turned into mega-gallery and super-booklet. The liner notes are particularly impressive, with an informative essay and a telling interview with Art Garfunkel from Rolling Stone, and more.
The interviews are the real heart of the extras. Theresa Russell is luminous and salty while discussing this soul-rending film. She seems refreshingly normal in comparison to the intensity she shows in her scenes. This is one of the most peppy, informative, and involving actor interviews I’ve seen. It goes on forever, and gets more interesting as the interview goes on. Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas somehow manage to seem stuffy and maverick at the same time, which goes along with their jocular dismissal of the intense pain and frustration involved with Bad Timing’s distribution. Their interview also goes on forever, and is as informative as Russell’s but not as engaging. Maybe it has to do with Theresa’s considerable screen presence, so the comparison is hardly fair. The point to take home is that this pair of interviews is as detailed as a full-length commentary, but even richer for the face time and stills from the production mixed in.
Roeg appreciators will be in heaven with this DVD package. This is one of his most hotly contested films, and it was a turning point for him artistically and commercially. For these reasons, Criterion’s interest in the film is understandable. Nonetheless, some of the stylistic decisions are best left in the seventies—and it is a psychologically brutal film that will terrorize you if you’ve ever been in a bad relationship, or been the bad one yourself.
– Rob Lineberger, DVD Verdict
ABOUT NICOLAS ROEG
Magician with a Movie Camera: Nicolas Roeg tribute at the 2009 British Academy of Film and Television Awards, with video clips of Roeg’s acceptance speech, on-camera tributes by numerous directors and a tribute video by Steven Soderbergh
The following quotes are found on They Shoot PIctures’ profile page for Nicolas Roeg:
“A former clapper boy, lighting cameraman and cinematographer who belatedly moved into directing, Roeg never seemed totally at ease in front of the camera (or, perhaps more accurately, beside it). His visuals are often wonderful, but his later scripts can be woeful, particularly in the case of Eureka (1983)…If this all sounds unduly critical, it shouldn’t be taken as such, for Roeg’s standards and his expectations of himself are high, and his is a genuinely eclectic talent which can provoke, puzzle and satisfy in roughly equal measures.” – Mario Reading (The Movie Companion, 2006)
“Nicolas Roeg is a visual trickster who plays havoc with conventional screen narratives. Choosing an oblique storytelling formula, he riddles his plots with ambiguous characters, blurred genres, distorted chronologies, and open-ended themes to invite warring interpretations.” – Joseph Lanza & Rob Edelman (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
“From his directing debut Performance (made with Donald Cammell) onwards, Roeg deployed a fragmented, associative editing style to shift between reality and fantasy, fear and desire, past, present, and future in diverse genres…Excepting Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, the results, while intriguing, have often lacked coherence; the narrative complexity and bold, baroque images can seem a gloss imposed on conventional stories.” – Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“When I was 12 years old, my father said the most extraordinary thing to me. ‘The day you’re born is your only chance to really have tomorrow, because by the day after you’ve got yesterday.'”
– Roeg, interviewed by Richard T. Kelly for Film In Focus
“I don’t like the film business. I don’t like the British film business. I don’t like the American film business, I don’t like the French, German … I don’t like the film business. I like filming. I’m a filmmaker.”
“I’ve always wanted to get my thoughts over in film visually, without the intermediary of literature. I actively prefer to be in the cinema, but not the cinema of literature, which is like Victorian picture books. Faced with that, I’d rather stay at home and read.”
“Before the whole Gutenberg galaxy thing, storytelling was more intimate, more immediate – like film. Printing confined a story within a binding and imposed artificial limits. It made stories into lengths. But before that, in the oral tradition, stories could continue forever. It’s one of the basic concepts of living that stories are one great story of which all stories partake.”
“When I was in India,” Roeg continues, “I watched storytellers on the street corner. They used a very different form from that postulated by the printed page. Although I couldn’t understand a word, I was fascinated! The storyteller would entice his audience, first putting a hand in his pocket and then gradually taking out a packet of matches, then a candle, then a knife, and an old flower. And he talked, gradually telling a story of death – some old extraordinary raja, you know. And then the story would develop in his, and out of his, own personality – and that was the storyteller’s life and world.”
– Roeg, quoted in interview with Harlan Kennedy, American Cinema 1980
Another 1980 interview, from the Toronto Film Festival (where Bad Timing won the Audience Award) by Gerald Peary
Your work also has a marked juxtaposition of fantastic and realistic scenes. Is this unusual mixing of styles conscious or once again an intuitive thing?
Well, more a mixture of the two. At times I’ve consciously wanted to get within the ‘mind’ of the story, which has meant getting away from realism. In other times it has happened unconsciously, evolving from the situation, location or the direction of the performances, all of which have taken on an unreal state.
Do you bring any influences to bear when creating these juxtapositions?
I really liked the work of Michael Powell, and in particular films such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Peeping Tom (1960). When you think of his work, it was also a mixture of realism and extravagance. I thought he was an extraordinary figure and a very daring director.
When you began experimenting with this gap between fantasy and reality, was ‘realism’ still deemed to be the ‘accepted’ form of British filmmaking?
Well, there was this idea of ‘naturalistic’ cinema, but it was very falsely realistic. It wasn’t that true to the outside world because it was very controlled. You must remember that a film production is a living thing, as it is being shot it begins to have a life of its own. The director’s role then is more like a jockey who is impatient to start the race; he just wants to go. But a film can never fully be controlled in any sense. Too much control kills anything!
– Interview with Roeg by Xavier Mendik for kamera.co.uk
“Everything has a price,” reflects Roeg. “Is it the right price? I don’t know. It depends what you want in life. I’ve never been rich and I’ve always done okay. The price I’ve paid is that I haven’t been able to do all the pictures I’d have liked to do. That’s the price. Maybe I’ve stuck with things too long that haven’t been made, and the thing has exhausted itself or the idea has been done by somebody else. Sometimes people say to me, ‘oh whatever happened to that old thing you were working on?’ and I’ve dug it out, and found that its time has gone.”
– interviewed by Matthew Sweet for The Independent
On the surface it would appear that Roeg has fallen distinctly out of fashion, but one only has to list the four films he made in the ’70s to be reminded how important Roeg was and still is. In Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980), Roeg rendered the very real and specific locales of the Australian outback, the canals of Venice, the American Southwest, and Vienna with both an appreciation for their exotic appeal and a dread of their terrifying unknowability. Behind all of these films is a question about landscape: how can we even think we can understand the ones we love, when we can’t even feel at ease in the places we live in? To the chagrin of many critics, Roeg did not delineate this existential paradox with the austere moralism of Bergman or the godlike minimalism of Bresson, but instead seemed to revel in the beauty of this horrifying enigma. In Roeg’s films, characters don’t realise they are in hell because they have been having too much fun for the most part. And by the time they do realise what is happening, they have resigned themselves to the fact that they are past the point of no return. When I first became enamoured of Roeg’s work as an overenthusiastic teen cinephile in the ’70s, I called him a “romantic nihilist.” I think the label still applies and I think this combination of overreaching expressionism and elegant despair is what makes him such a fascinating director.
– Lee Hill, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Dissolves were a technique used during the early days of cinema that lead viewers from one image to another without losing the audience’s train of thought. The logic, thus, was to ease the viewers into scenes without startling them by a cut. However, if executed properly, viewers can certainly follow a story that is cut and mangled. On example is in Bad Timing, where a young woman and a doctor have a relationship that goes terribly wrong. The film opens with the young woman is in the hospital, and we watch as a doctor dances around the questions posed by the police. During this sequence, the doctor remembers aspects of his relationship with the young woman; a fight, a look, them having sex, etc. By the end of the film, we can piece together what happened to this young woman; although it feels disjointed and erratic, it’s actually quite logical. Roeg pointed out that the film is constructed according to the shape of human memory and, thus, doesn’t develop as one complete story but, rather, in pieces.
Order is something that Roeg likes to play with frequently, especially the flash-forward. In Performance, Mr. Turner is shown early in the film, long before he’s introduced. We don’t hear any dialogue, nor do we encounter any other significant information about him. But a connection is being created here between Turned and Chaz. Roeg uses the flash-forward in a way to temporarily disrupt continuity, or to give the illusion that things are out of sync when, in actuality, they aren’t.
There’s a particular scene in Don’t Look Now where John and Luara are having sex, but while they having sex the continuity is intercut with them dressing right after and it goes from them having sex to each of them dressing and back and forth until both acts are completed. Here, the illusion of time is suspended between the couple having sex and then re-dressing, but the cutting blends together the time of the couple having sex and of them dressing into one time frame, comparing the routine of their having sex with getting dressed.
There’s a definite arc to Roeg’s early films – from a visual director who captured counter-culture and beatniks in Performance, to a director who blended images and content to convey story and emotion in Walkabout, and to a complete dismantling of how continuity works in relation to what we are seeing. Roeg’s early work is a testament to a strong visual story and the progression of someone who wants to astound the audience by making them not want to look away from what they are seeing.
– Meseret Haddis, Tisch Film Review