Lush but vapid late Bertolucci: “Stealing Beauty”

I tried to watch the later (monday) Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1996 “Stealing Beauty,” astounded that Rachel Weisz and Jean Marais were in the same movie (his last). Alas, it is mostly taken up with the 19-year-old Liv Tyler (who would go on to play Arwen in “Lord of the Rings” episodes) languishing (and finally being deflowered) in Tuscany.


It is astonishing that an Italian director made such a dull film about expatriates in Italy (Bertolucci’s fascination with the awkward confrontation by the young and innocents of the young and jaded worked far better in “The Dreamers” [2003]). I enjoyed Mick LaSalle’s suggestion that “Alex, played by Jeremy Irons, [is] a writer dying of an unspecified ailment — probably the dialogue.” It’s not that Bertolucci lacked for someone with an ear for American ways of speaking and being in the world (Susan Minot wrote the screenplay from his story; I was underwhelmed by the adaptation she and Michael Cunningham made of her novel Evening [2007], too).

I liked the closing credit aerial scenes of Florence better than Tyler & Company (including Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes). Even the dullest Bertolucci movie looks good, and he had the services of Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris) as cinematographer for “Stealing Beauty,” but I have no idea what he wanted to say or even about what topic with the movie.

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Bertolucci’s adaptation of The Sheltering Sky

Having read and reread a lot of Paul Bowles’s writings, I wanted again to watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 movie of The Sheltering Sky, in which Bowles appears in scenes near the beginning and the end as a laconic narrator. Despite his presence, the voice which is so important to the greatness of the novel is lost, and viewers of the movie see what Kit does, but the reasons for her increasingly odd behavior must be guessed at by viewers.


There’s a lot more movement than there is action in “The Sheltering Sky.” Some time shortly after the end of the Second World War, a pair of world-wandering Americans, Kit and Port Moresby (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) who very much resemble then-composer Paul Bowles and writer Jane Bowles, arrive in Tangier with a mountain of luggage and a handsome young male traveling companion, George Tunner (Campbell Scott, more handsome than I remember his being back then). Tangier is insufficiently exotic for them, and they set off for the desolate interior. Separately and together, they do some ill-advised things putting themselves into multiple kinds of danger. What is ailing their souls remains mysterious. Kit and Port do not sleep together, but stay together, puzzling Tunner.


As a travelogue, the movie has some very striking photography by Vittorio Storaro(who has photographed Bertolucci films going back to “The Conformist” in 1970, plus “Apocalypse Now,” and Warren Beatty films starting with “Reds”) of North African deserts and mountains (it was shot in Algeria and Mali, as well as Morocco) and the fabled interior city of Timbuktu (Timbuctoo in the old spelling) with its mud-brick city walls and edifices. The mounds of a Tuareg trader’s backside are as lovingly photographed when he mounts Kit as was the desert through which his camel moved en route to Timbuktu. There are sex scenes with a variety of black and white participants and titillating frontal nudity for both Winger and Malkovich.

“The Sheltering Sky” has the most realistically annoying flies I’ve ever seen on screen. The night bus ride with swarms of flies on the faces of the passengers is memorable. Between the flies, the typhoid, the predatory nomads, and the obvious discomfort of the accommodations, “The Sheltering Sky” is not likely to encourage viewers to rush to the North African interior. (Many of Iceland’s landscapes are as stark, but the natives are friendlier and the accommodations considerably more comfortable.)

The movie is scenic but also talky, though the talk is banal, boring the characters as well as the audience. The visual aspects are superb and the actors do the best they can with an opaque screenplay and unsympathetic characters to play (with the exception of Eric Vu-An, the veiled camel-jockey who rescues/ravages Kit after she has wandered off alone into the Sahara). The screenplay fails and the running time of two hours and eighteen minutes is not justified. (Bertolucci is not exactly notable for fast-paced action! “The Last Emperor” was quite long, though covering something like seven decades of tumultuous times. I found “1900” insufferable, and “Last Tango in Paris” considerably less daring and intriguing than Pauline Kael did… On the other hand, I liked “Little Buddha” more than most; again for Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography). Ryuchi Sakamoto’s music in it is appropriately haunting.


I can understand why many viewers would not have the patience to stay with Kit, though the cinematography (and basic familiarity with the worldview of Paul Bowles) got me through. Four stars for those who want to see Bowles and/or North African cities and desert vistas, two stars for those wanting plot-driven movies, and three for those wanting character-driven ones. The visual transfer is superb, though, like other sweeping desert vista pictures (Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient, the middle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). A huge screen enhances the impact.

©2003, Stephen O. Murray

The late Bernardo Bertolucci’s best film: “The Conformist”

“Everybody wants to be different, and you want to be the same as everybody” — Italo

I think that “Il Conformista” (The Conformist, 1970) is Bernardo Bertolucci’s (1941-2018) masterpiece—not his multi-Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor” or his once-sensational “The Last Tango in Paris” or even his early and brilliant modern-dress version of The Charterhouse of Parma, “Before the Revolution.” “The Conformist,” Bertolucci’s fourth feature film,” is one of the most visually designed films every made—to the extent that the compositions, sets, and color schemes tend to overwhelm Alberto Moravia’s story of an authority-seeking personality, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant (Red, Z, Amour) in a clenched/repressed portrayal that seems to have come out of the etiological model of Wilhelm Reich).


Those not knowing the story from Moravia’s once famous (and recently reprinted novel) may lose their bearings in the unmarked flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Bertolucci (et al.) obey the admonition to show, not tell, though there is some exposition in several scenes (which lead to some of the flashbacks). The primary adolescent trauma/guilt is made visible, and the adult crime is made way too visible IMO. And there are two bravura portrayals of Clerici trapped in crowds whose emotions he does not share but whose density makes getting out impossible.

I could go on for pages just listing the eye-popping visual compositions, but will confine myself to mentioning two: the Paris-bound train with reflections and totally saturated colors (shifting from orange to blue) outside the window and the apartment of Clerici’s fiancee, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli [Divorce Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned, and Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty]), She is wearing a white dress with thick black v-lines and the room is illuminated by horizontal lights from the Venetian blinds.

Bertolucci’s usual cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who also shot “Apocalypse Now” and “Reds”) is a genius uninhibited by realisms (neo- or any other kind), Ditto for set designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Was either of them even nominated for an Oscar for their astounding accomplishments? No. The art direction Oscar went to the unmemorable “Nicholas and Alexander,” the cinematography one went to a talented cinematography, Oswald Morris, for the inferior (to “The Conformist”) “Fiddler on the Roof.” The only Oscar nomination “The Conformist” garnishes was one to Bertolucci for adapted screenplay. The Italian entry for Best Foreign-Language Film that year was “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (which shared Dominque Sanda with “The Conformist” and also had very striking set designs and looked back at the dark days of fascism in Italy…and won the award).


Oh, yes, the plot. Putting it into chronological order, the 13-year-old Clerici felt great guilt (partly blaming himself for attempted abuse) and sought to be normal. Given what we see of his parents (twenty or so years later, in 1938) this was quite a challenge: the father was certified crazy and the mother became a morphine addict, supplied and otherwise serviced by her Japanese chauffeur. Clerici’s conformism included supporting the regime in power (Mussolini’s). We don’t know/see what the basis of Clerici’s friendship with a blind fascist (José Quaglio) is, but the friend recommends Clerici for a job with the secret police. Clerici is issued a pistol, with which he plays as he had when he was 13. He is sent off to Paris to assassinate a dissident, whose student Clerici had been before Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) exiled himself to Paris.

Plot spoiler alert

Clerici combines his assassination mission with his honeymoon. Before the church wedding, he has to go to confession—for the first time since his first communion, and makes explicit that he is marrying the lively, conventional bourgeois Giulia to appear “normal.”

When he gets to Paris (after a very color-saturated train trip that I’ve already mentioned) he goes to meet Quadri and is besotted by Quadri’s wife, the stunning and more-than-a-little perverse Anna (Dominique Sanda [who also starred in Bertolucci’s “1900”]) who toys with seducing Giulia and (very rightly!) mistrusts Clerici.


It seems to me that Clerici is following orders which were replaced, but this provides the ultra-bleu Paris sequences. It also seems to me that the assassination could have been accomplished much more easily. I don’t remember if Moravia made it so gruesome, but strongly suspect that the sadism is as much Bertolucci’s as the assassins’.

Even within a plot-spoiler alert, I won’t reveal the compounding ironies of the conclusion. Of course, they are visually striking, including a bust of Mussolini that has been pulled down and almost hits Clerici. There are subtle aspects of the film, but also some symbolism that makes me laugh at its uninhibited outrageousness. (There are also compositions so stylized that they make me laugh—in appreciation rather than in mockery, I want to stress: if you’re going to stylize, you might as well go all out, and Bertolucci et al. do!)

After hearing broadcast of Mussolini’s resignation, Clerici goes out into the street to “see how a dictatorship falls.” The mob differs little from the one(s) worshipped Il Duce. This is the second time Clerici is trapped (the first on the dancefloor in Paris). After the shock of finding out that he had not killed Lino (a now peroxided ruin of his former glamorous self, but still speaking of a kimono in luring sexual prey), it seems that Clerici is ready to walk on the homosexual side (on a night of carnivalesque celebration for the end of the fascist dictatorship Clerici has served). This final shot is ambiguous.

End plot-spoiler alert

I have no doubt that “The Conformist” is a great film, though not always a good movie. And I think that Bertolucci indulged in some sadism of his own, as well as encouraging and using the astonish art direction and bravura cinematography. From my vague memories of reading Moravia’s novel that is the film’s source decades ago, I think that Bertolucci had considerably less interest in showing the psychology of mass fascism than Moravia, too. (This makes its ongoing relevance to donning “the breastplate of righteousness” and reactionary politics to compensate for secret deviance—as in the recently publicized case of Idaho Senator Larry Craig—less imediately obvious.)

Any temptation to deduct a star from my rating is blocked by appreciation for the superb visual transfer of this incredibly visual a film. I’d have liked the original Italian trailer to have been included, but have to laud the three-part “making of” feature in which Bertolucci and Storaro are very articulate in English. Bertolucci talks a lot about himself and his career. Storaro talks as much about the storyline(s) as about the cinematography, which demonstrates that his brilliant work was in service for a vision of the story, not just showing off.

On the DVD, the film may be viewed in Italian, English, Spanish and Portuguese with the option for subtitles in the last three. I saw the dubbed-into-English version decades ago, and opted for subtitled Italian, fully aware that like all Italian films of the era, the Italian dialogue was dubbed in after shooting—and that Trintignant probably delivered his lines in French. (His lips are indeed out of synch with the Italian, except in saying the “Hail Mary” with his young son, and whoever did his character’s Italian also did the character’s French, rather than Trintignant, a native speaker of French).

I am confused about what was restored to the film. Bertolucci says that he cut it down to two hours at the behest of the distributor in 1970, but the “director’s recut” here still runs only 115 minutes. It is also unclear whether some of the wedding material was cut (if so, it should never have been) or the party of the blind people (which is quite perplexing where it is in the film; it is another dazzling piece of sincematography and direction, but there is no shortage of such pieces in the film and the characters who are squabbling don’t reappear (I’m pretty sure)).


©2007, Stephen O. Murray


Bertolucci’s first film

The primary interest for “La commare secca” (1961) is that it was Bernardo Bertolucci’s first movie, made when he was a second-year university student. In a 17-minute 2004 interview for the Criterion DVD, he explains that he had been an assistant on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first movie, “Accatone.” Cinecittà backed Pasolini to make a follow-up film. Pasolini had written the story about lies and murder that was to be “La commare secca.” Pasolini had Bertolucci and Sergio Citti (who worked on many Pasolini movies, sometimes credited as a writer, sometimes as an assistant director) write a screenplay based on his story. By the time they were done, Pasolini was preoccupied with making “Mamma Roma” (and managing its volcanic star, Anna Magnani) and Pasolini’s suggestion that Bertolucci direct the movie was accepted, despite Bertolucci’s youthfulness. He recalls that everyone except some of the actors was older than he was.

201511041611la commare secca.jpg

In the interview, he also explains that he sought to give the movie his own look with continuous camera movement (in contrast to the static setups of “Accatone”), but that the milieu and characters were so much those associated with Pasolini (as a writer before becoming a film-maker) that no one at the time noticed (and saw Pasolini as the auteur of “La commare secca”). Bertolucci also says that he had not seen “Rashomon” at the time (which is somewhat hard to believe, since he had hung out at the Cinématheque, as he relates in the commentary track to “The Dreamers,” but not all that relevant, as I’ll discuss below).

To watch the movie as Bertolucci’s start is aided by watching the interview first. (He is fluent in English and not at all bombastic in talking about his past work.) As a whodunit, the movie is not particularly good. The answer to the whodunit question is obvious by the midpoint. Moreover, the suspects are not all particularly interesting. The most repellant one—a very lazy, henpecked pimp called Pipito—is the most interesting, the adolescent would-be lotharios the least.

The movie begins with some artsy shots of litter blowing along the banks of the Tiber. The camera discovers a corpse that is trapping some newspaper pages. The rest of the movie consists of police interrogations of males who had been in the (part of) Parco Paolino where the dead prostitute was loitering with intent the night on which she was killed. Each suspect tells what he had been doing that day and night. Unlike Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Rashomon” the flashbacks are not the divergent versions of the same event told by multiple narrators. Instead, the flashbacks show what really happened (mostly before the teller went to near to where the prostitue was).

Rather than differing from the accounts of the others, the flashbacks differ from what the stories the suspects tell. The movie is not about the difficulty of sorting out what really happened. The flashbacks show that, even while undermining what the boys and men tell the police. Believe what you see, not what you hear is the recommended (especially in Italy) practice implicitly endorsed by the objective camera—even if it glides artistically around and sometimes looks at events from arty angles.


I don’t see any need to catalog the lies and spoil the pleasures of contrasting the particulars of what the males say they were doing with what they had been doing (thieving and pimping and hitting on women in the street rather than looking for work, etc.). In the flashbacks, it is the females who know what they want and effectively go about getting what they want as the males posture and flounder. I see this as an early instance of something of a leitmotif in Bertolucci films.

The milieu of lowlifes is one about which Pasolini knew more and cared for more than Bertolucci. Bertolucci used nonactors (a common but far from universal neorealist practice) and “La commare seca” has a documentary look/feel that is very much in the neorealist tradition (except for the camera moving as much as in a Max Ophuls movie). The pacing is slow, like later Bertolucci movies rather than like most police procedural ones. It’s definitely not a “thriller.” And, unlike most police dramas (movie and tv), it does not show the policemen at all. It shows the suspects squirming and lying and contrasts their accounts with the reality of what they did. (I think that most of them are lying to themselves to some degree, not just presenting more respectable images of their behavior and character to the police.)


The title puzzled me. Literally, it means “the dry godmother.” That made no sense to me, but I had houseguests from Rome to ask about it. I thereby learned that “La commare secca” is a Roman metaphor for death, so that “grim reaper” is a good English metaphoric equivalent.

The Criterion DVD is another marvel of sending old pictures and sound into the new technology looking and sounding their best. The Bertolucci interview is very good at establishing the context and style in which the film was made.

©2005, Stephen O. Murray

Bertolucci dies on 26 Nov.

Daphne du Maurier’s original novella “Don’t Look Now”

Dame Daphne du Maurier, Lady Browning (1907-89), was an immensely popular Cornish author of Gothic historical novel, many of whose works were filmed, including three by Alfred Hitchcock (the Oscar-winning “Rebecca,” “Jamaica Inn,” and “The Birds”), plus “My Cousin Rachel,” “The Scapegoat,” and the 1973 movie directed by Nicolas Roeg from a screenplay by Alan Scott) and Chris Bryant of her novella “Don’t Look Now.” Reputedly, the screen version of “Don’t Look Now,” directed by Nicolas Roeg,  is closer to the source material than “The Birds,” the relocation of which from Cornwall to Bodega Bay (northern California) much distressed du Maurier.

du_Maurier 1930.jpg

(author in 1930)

Having recently re-viewed and reviewed the movie, I’d acknowledge that almost everything that is in the novella is in the movie, though every thing if much clearer in the novella (or, alternately put, much obscured in the movie). There is, alas, much that defeated my ability to suspend disbelief in the movie that has no basis in du Maurier, including the accidental death of the daughter of the parents who visit Venice (the girl in Maurier’s story died a slower death of meningitis), the return of the wife (Laura, played in the movie by Julie Christie) to Venice, her restaurant fainting, the husband John having work (restoring a church) in Venice, the closing of the hotel in which John and Laura had been staying.

The novella opens not with the death of the child, but with a couple speculating that the twins intently looking at them in a restaurant and Laura laughingly suggesting that the older women are actually males in drag. In both book and movie, Laura who has been stricken with grief, is cheered by the message from beyond the grave from the blind clairvoyant that the dead daughter (Christine) is happy. (Having her faint in the restaurant in the movie is scenic but false to the mood du Maurier created).

In both media, Christine warns that her father is in danger. It seems the warning was off when the couple hears that their son back at boarding school in England seems to be having appendicitis. Laura books a morning flight to London and in the book John is going to drive to Milan and return by train with their car loaded onto the train. In the movie, he stays and almost dies in an accident on scaffolding in the church.

John imagines he sees the sisters (not twins in the movie) on a boat with Laura and involves the police in finding the sisters. One of the absurdities of the movie is that the blind one is left alone in the police station. Another is that Laura goes to the sister’s hotel (they have, incidentally, changed hotels from the one where she went to a séance added in the movie version) and John, knowing that she is going there, rushes off in pursuit of a young girl dressed (in the movie) like Christine when she drowned (in a red plastic raincoat). Du Maurier provided none of that absurdity, and has the clairvoyant warn that the hallucination of Laura with them is a premonition.

The original also provides some reason for the pell-mell chase John makes.

Though lacking the atmospheric shots of wintery, non-touristy Venice, I find the original text preferable to the overload of murk and portents of the movie (even though the accident in the church that is not in the novella is my favorite scene in the movie). And the protracted sex scene is entirely missing from the novella. The novella is, btw, primarily told from John’s perspective, but I won’t get into the masculine self-identification of the author.

Also btw, in the 1971 story collection in which it is the title story, “Don’t Look Now” occupies all of 54 pages and about the same in the current NYRB Classics edition that also includes “The Birds” and seven more stories.

©2012, Stephen O. Murray

Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”

My mini-retrospective of films directed by former cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018) has reached back to the one I remembered liking best, the 1973 adaptation of a story by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), “Don’t Look Now.” I’ll immediately stipulate that it looks good, mostly set with a backdrop of incipient winter in Venice.



It opens in a cozy Hertfordshire house where Laura (Julie Christie is looking at reference books and her husband John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is looking at a slide of a church. He has a feeling that something is wrong and rushes out to find his daughter Christine in her red plastic raincoat has drowned trying to retrieve a ball from the pond. This is far more dramatic than Du Maurier’s original, in which the daughter dies of meningitis, but the result in both cases is grief-stricken parents.

Leaving their son Johnny in boarding school, the Baxters go to Venice, where John is supervising the restoration of a church, San Nicolò dei Mendicoli. (His Italian fluency comes and goes.) In the hotel in which they are the only guests, the Baxters have a lengthy sex scene that eventually is intercut with the two of them dressing to go out to dinner. (I’ll return to the gratuitous Sutherland nudity and the sex scene below!)

In a restaurant a pair of elderly British sisters (no longer twins) focus on the Baxters, sensing their pain. The blind, clairvoyant one, Heather (Hilary Mason), assures Laura that Christine is happy. Back at their table, Laura faints and is hospitalized.

The news from beyond the grave has broken through her depression, which is a relief to her husband, but he is dismayed at her involvement with psychic mumbo jumbo, though he has “the gift” himself (as we’ve already seen from his rushing out when his daughter is drowning…).

Plot spoiler alert

He disregards a warning that he is in danger, and Roeg shows that he can do action scenes in an accident. What happens seems excessive to the stimulus and the stimulus highly contrived, but some action is welcome!

Then there is a late-night call from the headmaster of John Jr’s school and Laura rushes back to England. Except that John Sr. sees Laura and the two elderly women dressed in black on the Grand Canal.

From that premonition on, what happens is unbelievable to me. I don’t believe that the police would arrest the British women. Even if they did, I don’t believe the blind one would be left alone in the police station (from where John rescues her after talking to Laura as she is leaving their son’s school).

Either as someone with psychic powers himself or as the rationalist, I don’t believe John would relentlessly follow and corner whoever is in the red plastic raincoat like Christine’s. I don’t believe that Laura (whom no one contends is psychic) could follow the route he took. Moreover, knowing that Laura would be going to the sisters’ hotel to meet him, would he go rushing off like that? And why couldn’t Heather keep him there, out of danger? Etc.

And if John has psychic powers, why does he not share the blind woman’s premonition of disaster for himself. Or realize that he is not seeing a reincarnation of his dead daughter roaming the bridges and alleyways of Venice!


Roeg, whose love of fragmenting narrative was mostly held back through most of the movie lets loose a montage of image as John bleeds to death, including seeing the three women in black at what will be his funeral cortege.

In short, exceedingly contrived and making no sense regardless of whether the viewer accepts the reality of psychic “second sight.”

End plot spoiler alert

I find most everything in the way of plot unbelievable, but in addition to the danker, non-touristy parts of Venice, I think the movie provides a solid portrait of grief-stricken parents and a fairly good portrait of church restoration.

Miscommunication between the sexes is Roeg’s leitmotif and abundantly in evidence in “Look,” between John and the sisters even more than between John and Laura. And there’s a lot of broken glass (including some smashed mosaic replacement bits) in the movie. And water, including repeated iterations of two female bodies being fished out of cold water. And enough symbolism to keep scores of analysts occupied for years…

As with the final sex scene in “Bad Timing,” I think that the extended sex scene in “Don’t Look Now” is excessively long. And as there is more of the tall, skinny Art Garfunkel’s derrière on view in “Bad Timing,” there is more of the tall, skinny Donald Sutherland’s in “Look.” I doubt anyone would describe me as a prude and complaining about too much male nudity is something I rarely do, but I think that Sutherland looked better in his dark blue coat and colorful scarf in “Look.”

Apparently, a reason for intercutting dressing with the sex scene was that American censors would not permit humping to be shown (something must have change before “Bad Timing” which has exaggerated Garfunkel humping! Or “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which has full frontal male and female nudity). I think that the movie could have shown than the couple had passionate sex without going on and on, though that it upset Warren Beatty, who was then involved with Christie, makes me more sympathetic with Roeg’s exploitation.

If “Don’t Look Now” were more a movie about grief-stricken adults (and/or about the seemingly sinister characters played by Clelia Matania and Renato Scarpa), less propaganda for listening to clairvoyants (and clairvoyance), the sexual exploration would seem less gratuitous to me. For me, despite all the heavy-handed jump-cutting, plot implausibilities, and dawdling pace of much of the movie, the central performances and many of the images are powerful. I don’t think it is a great movie, though it has some great stuff in it (as does “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Walkabout”). In fact, I don’t think it is a good movie.

Roeg elicited some outstanding performances (in other movies; there’s not much other than sex and moping and irritation from Christie and Sutherland herein), used varied locations brilliantly, and made movies filled with impressive visual compositions (working recurrently with Anthony B. Richmond), but in his time (the 1970s) I don’t think he made a good movie. And after it? I recall the 1990 “Witches” fondly, but perhaps need to extend my retrospective to watching it again. Certainly not the 1985 “Insignificance”!

The “Don’t Look Now” DVD has no bonus features other than a theatrical trailer. I’d have liked to hear from Christie, who has had intelligent things to say about her movies every time I’ve heard her. I don’t miss hearing from Roeg, however.

Bonus P.S.

Zipping back to the druggy 1970 first movie directed (codirected with Donald Cammell directing the actors) by Nicolas, “Performance,” I was impressed by James Fox as Chas, a violent Cockney (!) gangster who hides out with a faded rock star played by Mick Jagger. Jagger plays Turner, an aficionado of Borges and has a photo of Jim Morrison. What happens in the end is left to the audience to provide. It’s not even clear whose face (Chas or Turner) is in the white limo. (Bergman had already done that in “Persona,” no?) A bonus feature informs that Fox’s role (a Cockney gangster?!) was intended for Marlon Brando (!?).


©2011, Stephen O. Murray


Nicolas Roeg’s “Bad Timing”

I think that the late  (Friday) Nicolas Roeg was not just a serious film-maker, but a maker of serious (aka adult) films. Thus, I wish that I could like the films he made. Alas,…

Roeg was daring in, among other ways, presenting titles that seemed to invite easy critical dismissal: Don’t Look Now (1973), Bad Timing (1980), Insignificance (1985). The timing of the three points of the triangle in “Bad Timing” is not notably bad. The working title of “Illusions” would have been somewhat better. The tagline of “A Terrifying Love Story” might have been better still.


The movie was (in)famously denounced as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people.” Most of the way through struggling to make sense of the extremely disjointed movie, I thought that attack extreme, and I don’t think that the movie was made by sick people. It sees to be about a sick (mentally ill) woman (Milena, played by Theresa Russell in her first Roeg movie) who has nearly died of some mixture of drugs brought into a Vienna hospital by an American research psychoanalyst Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) who insists he is a “friend” not the boyfriend of the young woman and through most of the movie seems to have barely gotten out of a tempestuous relationship intact.

From fairly early on the very un-Viennese Harvey Keitel’s Police Inspector Netusil seems to be badgering the well-contained American. Alex has flashbacks of the relationship in the hospital, in Milena’s somewhat torn-apart apartment, and in timing the drive between his apartment and hers with the inspector. In her vibrant (and sane!) 2005 interview for the Criterion edition of the movie, Russell reports that the movie was shot chronologically, then carved into flashbacks from the arrival (and emergency tracheotomy) at the hospital, a reorganization about which she had initial misgivings.

As in “Memento,” a fairly banal story is so fragmented and strewn in deliberately misleading order that it looks experimental (or in a more skeptical alternative, “artsy”). Other Roeg films I’ve seen recently (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Insignificance) also struck me as excessively disjunctive—and also as beautifully shot. I haven’t seen “Don’t Look Now” since it first came out, but I’m pretty sure that the creepy mysteriousness in it also derives heavily from hyper-cutting.


I have to say that Russell and Garfunkel were daring, beyond the extensive nudity and sex scenes. Their characters, who become obsessed with each other, are disturbed (and disturbing). Milena is something of a Pandora of unknowability for Alex who wants to own her and to obliterate her past (including her marriage to a cipher of a character played by Denholm Elliot who lives in Bratislava, Slovakia, then Czechoslovakia.) Having just read Julian Barnes’s Brooker Prize-winning A Sense of Ending with a clueless, buttoned-up man and a woman he wants to please and totally fails to figure out (40 years ago and now), the sick relationship seems very British to me, even set in Freud’s city with some zither music in the middle to recall “The Third Man” (which was a British film with two American males and an inscrutable European…).

On the Criterion Edition disc, I really liked the Theresa Russell interview and found Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas in the 27-minutes of their recollections more tolerable than I found them on “The Man Who Fell To Earth” Criterion edition. (They still came across as pompous to me, however.) I skipped the 16 deleted scenes (snippets), the stills galleries, and the original theatrical trailer. That is, for those who like the movie, there’s a lot to treasure on the disc. For most, 123 minutes of the movie is already too much.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray