Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sensual Obsession


Never confuse BAD TIMING as a date movie; Nicolas Roeg's extraordinary picture showcases a love affair long after the hearts stop beating, a piece that rivals Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION as the most toxic and intense break-up film of all time.

NICOLAS Roeg's motion pictures are time machines that test the cinematic medium as much as their character's journeys. Like Ken Russell, Roeg is a genre by himself, riding against the British norm of dour realism to create art-house visions for the masses. BAD TIMING is Roeg at his most vicious, where scenes of sexual perversion upset backers Rank so much ("a sick film made by sick people for sick people") they removed their gong logo and refused to screen it in their own Odeon chain. In fact, Psychiatrist Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell)'s destructive relationship was almost brought to the point of both stars walking off the film. Set in Cold War Vienna, the opening has a catatonic Milena rushed to hospital after taking an overdose, accompanied by her former lover Linden. Police Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel, in a strangely forced performance) suspects foul play and questions Linden; through flashbacks we see the events leading up to the suicide attempt, documenting Milena's experiences with Alex, her heavy drinking, and estrangement from much-older Czech husband Stefan (Denholm Elliott).

Abandoning any chronology or clarity, scenes take cues from objects, music and art, with the controversial sex scenes un-erotic and un-sexy. BAD TIMING is impossible to classify; is it a love story, psychological thriller, or even a horror movie? If it is a detective mystery it certainly isn't a good one, as Netusil is no Sherlock Holmes (promotion dubbed the film "a terrifying love story" and carried the subtitle A SENSUAL OBSESSION in American theatres). Linden's methodical mind control clashes with the free-spirited and impulsive Flaherty through jealousy, bitterness, disenchantment and permanent lack of commitment. Russell shines in her first lead role, and Garfunkel is believable as his misinformation and misconceptions unravel; what is most extraordinary is how two mainstream actors could elude to the final revelation (erroneously dubbed necrophilia by many sources) and that Roeg and Russell fell in love during the production and married soon after.

86-year-old Nicolas Roeg, photographed in his study, to promote David Thompson's  entrancing ARENA documentary.

As Nathaniel Thompson notes in Video Watchdog (#103, January 2004), "[BAD TIMING] could be considered the first sexual warfare film to explore the concept of two people literally exhausting themselves to death (or at least coming perilously close)." Roeg's film would make an unbearable double bill with Andrej Zulawski's POSSESSION - released a year later - where the Polish director draws heavily on the breakdown of his marriage to create a work lead actress Isabelle Adjani described as "emotional pornography." POSSESSION is a discordant piece that is filled with excesses borne out of sheer desperation, as it veers towards its phallus-headed amphibian monster. A less bludgeoning companion piece would be Jean-Luc Godard's PIERROT LE FOU, where its hero must balance his pursuit of aesthetic perfection and yearning for stability against the shallow desires of his lover.

ARENA's heralded first in-depth documentary on Roeg's career ultimately leaves much of the meat to a series of talking heads, while Roeg himself acts as a puppet master, often with a whimsical grin while reading poetry ("There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye" from Auden's At Last the Secret is Out). Taking its title from his obsession with scrambling and reassembling frames, NICOLAS ROEG - IT'S ABOUT TIME... is an array of entertaining and insightful comments, from Danny Boyle's wonderment of Roeg's treatment of sex in his films, to Ben Wheatley's point of how his casting of music stars (Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Art Garfunkel) somehow provide tendrils within the movies that reach out and co-exist with the moving image. Theresa Russell champions the use of dislocation in BAD TIMING as particularly apt when considering relationships ("people do not think linearly") and Roeg is quite pleased that his birth year was 1928, when sight and sound were first merged.