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.

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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.

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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

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