Monday, September 26, 2005

Bad Timing

With a new Criterion DVD hitting shelves this Tuesday, Bad Timing will be readily available in the United States for the first time since it was produced in 1980. It was intially shut out of most commercial theaters on its release because of its overt sexuality, and though there was an off-brand British Video and then DVD available, no company bothered to bring the film to America.

Watching it now, it's clearly one of director Nicholas Roeg's best movies, but also among his more difficult. He really goes all-out this time with the non-linear storytelling, and he asks a great deal of his actors, requiring a wide range of emotional terrain and also frequent scenes of the two leads writhing around naked together in extraordinarily compromising positions. I can understand why an audience would find the film provocative and challenging, but not why so little apparent interest has existed for the film among American audiences for the past 15 years.

Hello? Roeg is a brilliant, visionary and important contemporary director. Criterion, why did this take so long?

Yes, okay, fine, the movie stars Art Garfunkel, of the cleverly named all-star rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, which he started along with some dude named Simon. It was Roeg's third movie starring a rock musician - Performance featured Mick Jagger and The Man Who Fell to Earth featured David Bowie. Linklater had been in a few movies before, most memorably Mike Nichols terrific Carnal Knowledge with Jack Nicholson, but he had never been given a role like this. Psychology professor Alex Linden would be a tough part for any number of actors, but for a relative amateur like Garfunkel, it's a near-impossible task.

He's good in the film, particularly during the first half, but it's clear he's a bit out of his depth as the film progresses and the relationships get more complicated. Theresa Russell, who plays the woman in Alex's life, Milena, kind of blows him out of the water in terms of depth and nuance.

Russell and Roeg fell in love while filming this movie in Vienna, Austria, and married after it was completed. That's pretty odd when you consider the actual content of the film, which dissects a failing romantic relationship that shifts into a deviant sexual obsession. At the film's outset, Milena is comatose, having overdosed on pills. Her lover, Alex, gets her to a hospital and files a police report with Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel).

As Alex relates his story to the police and considers the possibility that Milena may die, we see their relationship unfold, jumping around through time from when they first meet at a cocktail party to the immediate events that led to her suicide attempt. The story is not a happy one - at first, Alex is drawn to the wild and overtly sexual Milena, and she in turn is attracted by the intensity of his attraction. She's already married, to a much-older man living in Czechoslovakia (Denholm Elliott, best known in this country as Marcus Brody from the Indiana Jones movies), and Alex definitely seems an odd man with whom to be unfaithful - he's very prissy and also really emotionally needy.

As their relationship grows more serious, Alex starts to become unhinged. He obsesses about the idea that Milena may be with another man (and she very well may...) He starts spying on her frequently. Whenever they are together, he belittles her and insults her. Sometimes, he begs for sex and becomes hostile when refused.

And then, there is Natusil, the cagey detective who has a problem with Alex's version of events. Between the time of Milena's overdose and the time of Alex's phone call to the police, there is time for which Alex can't account. Why would he wait to inform the police of his girlfriend's suicide? Why, when pressed, does Alex refuse to admit Milena even was his girlfriend, calling them "just friends"? And why doesn't he seem more agitated or surprised?

The genius of Roeg's use of jumbled-up chronology isn't just that he turns a story that's already occured into a mystery. He delays the single most important, telling event of the entire film (which I won't reveal here) until the very end, giving the movie a satisfying, emotional arc even though the plot mechanics are all mixed-up and out of order.

Looking at the entire span of a relationship in flashback, focusing on the most salient details for one party while the other lies in a coma, gives everything a desperate kind of immediacy. We, like Alex, scan these reminiscences for "clues," indicators as to what went wrong for who, as to when the love between these people died and their co-existance became impossible. It's made clear during the film that his is an intellectual love. Milena is passionate, but Alex experiences everything cerebrally; he enjoys knowing he is in love far more than actually being in love.

Perhaps that's why he likes to stare out windows at Milena, spying as she flirts with other men. In those moments, his passion is palpably real, more so than when the two of them are actually together.

In one of the most famous moments in Roeg's entire filmography, in his brilliant 1973 thriller Don't Look Now, Roeg cuts between a couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) making love and then the same couple, later on, getting dressed to go out for the evening. The combination makes the sex appear mundane - it's just another activity for a married couple, just like putting on nice clothes and going out to get something to eat.

Steven Soderbergh in Out of Sight reverses the effect. He cuts away from a couple (George Clooney and J. Lo) flirting in a bar to that same couple, later on that night, having sex in a hotel room. The effect makes the flirtation seem less casual and everyday. These two people are really making a connection in this moment, so we pay more attention to the details of their facial expressions and their mutual chemistry.

In Bad Timing, Roeg repeatedly uses these sorts of juxtapositions to infer things about male-female relationships. (In one sequence, while Alex and Malina fight in flashback about her possible infidelities, in the present doctors insert a swab inside Malina's vagina to test for trauma while she in unconscious.)

The message is clear: Alex's questions and insinuations are a violation, which might be why he asks them in the first place. Not everything in the film is so striking (or obvious, for that matter), but it's an example of how much depth, insight and meaning Roeg has invested into this film. It's a difficult and challenging movie, particularly in the troubling final 30 or so minutes, but it's also a movie of tact, grace and fierce intelligence with fantastic performances from Theresa Russell and the always-reliable Harvey Keitel.

Keitel's character kind of reminds me of Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity. He's a relentless snoop who relies on his gut instincts to get the truth out of people who don't want anyone to know the truth. It might be one of his best 80's performances.

This is pretty much the last GREAT Nicolas Roeg movie, though Track 29 is admirably fucking weird and The Witches is a far above-average kids movie and Roald Dahl adaptation. Between this one, Don't Look Now, Walkabout and Performance, he's cemented his place in the cinematic pantheon...But is it enough to make my Top 101 Directors List? Only time will tell, dear readers...

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