In our continuing series of 47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams, we look at Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.
Nicolas Roeg along with John Boorman and Ken Russell were the most active and fascinating filmmakers to come out of the British Isles during the 70s. Roeg was a former cinematographer whose credits included Doctor Zhivago and The Masque of the Red Death before he turned his hand to direction with the co-directed the gender-bending meditation on crime, stardom and identity Performance. His fragmented editing style and brutal frankness made provocative and exciting cinema in an unbelievable run of films that included Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout. Each film gnawed at the very idea of what it means to be human. Roeg was the antithesis of the Chariots of Fire school of prestige English cinema. His films are not scared of being ugly when looking at ugliness, but it is this clear-eyed courage which makes the moments of beauty and tenderness all the more meaningful.
Bad Timing comes at the end of a wonderful decade for Roeg but it wasn’t an easy decade despite the work produced (actually because of it). Performance was delayed for three years while Warner Bros struggled with what to do about it. Each film involved a battle with the studio, but the work would out. Taking its inspiration from an unread Italian novel, Bad Timing is the story of an unraveling toxic relationship. Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) is a psychoanalyst who lectures at the university in Austria, and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell) is a beautiful young woman drifting through Vienna, enjoying her alcohol and her various lusts. She is recently separated from her Czech husband (Denholm Elliott). Alex does some spying on the side and when he meets Milena, he seems to have found his perfect subject. The cold repressed scientist however starts to fragment as he is unable to handle Milena striking demands, her sexuality and his own jealousy. He tries to possess her with a proposal of marriage, something she seems to ignore completely: ‘But I’m happy now,’ she says.
Their relationship is played out in flashback against the long midnight of the soul of Milena’s attempted suicide. Harvey Kietel is a police detective who is trying yo piece together the chronology of the night’s events, suspecting that Alex has raped Milena while she was comatose from her drug overdose. The Bad Timing of the title is a dark joke, about as dark as you can get. The two main timelines allows Roeg to inter-cut the most disconcerting conjunctions – sex with a tracheotomy, orgasm with the operating room, love with a vaginal swab. Romantic love is shredded by sharp need.
The editing doesn’t just make connections, it evokes the untouchable distances between times, episodes, moments – the gaps, the interstices through which what we had disappears. Stanley Kubrick would explore the same themes in his adaptation of a story by the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, Eyes Wide Shut, but Roeg’s vision feels much more uncomfortable, less glossy and detached, more naked and vulnerable.
On a side note, the soundtrack features on eclectic mix of jazz, classical and rock with Keith Jarrett and Tom Waits suggesting the yearning that makes this film so moving even at its most brutal. The studio Rank were so appalled by Roeg’s movie they had their famous logo removed from the cut and famously described it as ‘a sick film made by sick people for sick people’. In other words, this is one for us.