Say what you will about muse-stalking director Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now), but he's no sellout. Film after extraordinary film, Roeg crafts kaleidoscopes of image, idea, emotion, and pure impulse. His narratives are invariably difficult, but Roeg's extraordinary edge is doubled by eccentricity that sometimes crosses over into excess. Bad Timing, first released in 1980, exemplifies the rich, acquired taste of the Roeg film.
An executive of the Rank Organisation, which produced Bad Timing, infamously described the Roeg work as "a sick film made by sick people for sick people." While a bit odd coming from the company whose films always opened with a muscle-bound man, stripped to the waist, striking a gong, the description is an accurate one (in an unprecedented decision, Rank removed its logo from Bad Timing).
In cold-war Vienna—land of Freud and The Third Man, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele—a man and a woman circle and feint at each other with psychosexual jabs. The man is Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), professor and psychoanalyst. The woman is Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), a 22-year-old separated from her Czech husband Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott). The film begins at the story's end, with Milena on an e.r. table in critical condition, as Alex answers the not-so-routine questions of a suspicious detective, Harvey Keitel's Inspector Netusil.
In their romance, if it can be called that, Alex initially wants more in the way of commitment than Milena is ready to give. She lives in the present; he wants to plan for the future. Milena's later attempt to get serious finds Alex coldly expecting sex with no strings attached. Indeed, theirs is a cold war (with a literal spy-intrigue angle emphasized by a brief influx of zither music): Alex improperly wields the Luscher Color Test as a flirtateous act of "one-upmanship," and Milena guards the truth about her husband.
As the locus of power shifts between the two fickle lovers, so too does audience sympathy (the harshly reductive Leonard Maltin Guide entry calls Russell "simply great" as "a self-destructive tramp"). Russell's deceptiveness and insistence on freedom ("Seems the more rules I make for myself, the unhappier I get") make her unattainable, frustrating the audience along with Alex (Roeg also intercuts, at one point, a snake charmer with Milena's professions of love). Alex's jealous possessiveness, however, becomes increasingly obsessive and irrational. "You'll never change, Milena," he says. "If you weren't who you are, I wouldn't have to." Touché. Men and women: can't live with each other; can't live without each other.
Roeg's persistent use of imagery intensifies his themes. Like Hitchcock and Powell, Roeg understands his inherently voyeuristic position, represented on screen by Netusil's invasive pokings ("Netusil" is Czech for "the man who didn't know something"). Intense zooms are a visual cue for invasiveness and occasional interior monologues provide the aural equivalent. Roeg even plants his camera between Russell's legs in one bedroom scene (perhaps uncoincidentally, Roeg soon married Russell, who he has featured in six other films). Another side of voyeurism reveals itself in the characters' intermittent, bristling isolation.
Romance and sexuality and voyeurism manifest themselves as the most personal of transgressions. Bad Timing is full of entries and exits: images of birth and death, peneration and withdrawal, surgical incisions, and border crossings; Russell's attempt to remain in a liminal phase between marriage and divorce is clearly doomed—the symbol of her apartment building is a falling star. Pain and pleasure become inextricable confused in the processes of sex, death, and lies—as such, Roeg fills the film with mazes both literal (objets d'art) and figurative (Netusil's investigation and Roeg's story). Sexual obsession, too, is a maze without an end: a maddening pursuit of a subjectively perfect lifestyle.
Bad Timing is not an easy film, to be sure, but Roeg's ambitious look at troubled modern "romantic" hang-ups bears deep examination (and cinema has caught up to Roeg's defiantly nonlocal editing). Garfunkel's performance perfectly moves from sad-sack to prick; Russell's bold work is marred at first by exaggerated facial expression but quickly turns hauntingly real. She's no angel, but Milena's tragically delayed journey, through an intense emotional threshold to misplaced loving vulnerability, poignantly lacks cathartic release. Alex's ultimate move for control brings Bad Timing to its promised, unforgettable depths of depravity.
In the 25 years since its theatrical release, Bad Timing has never appeared on any home video format, due to rights issues surrounding the impeccable soundtrack (Tom Waits' "Invitation to the Blues," Billie Holiday singing "It's the Same Old Story," Keith Jarrett's "The Köln Concert," The Who's "Who Are You"). Now, the Criterion Collection has rescued Roeg's film in an invaluable special edition.
Roeg approved the excellent anamorphic, high-def transfer and participated in a new interview featurette: "Trade Secrets: Nicolas Roeg and Jeremy Thomas" (28:01). As promised, Roeg and producer Thomas share insights, anecdotes, reflections, and "trade secrets." Beside addressing the film's themes and character relationships, Roeg alludes to the personal origins of his films and symbolism. Roeg and Thomas speak humorously and seriously about the film's perhaps too-ominous title (originally "Illusions"); the two men also elucidate casting and music choices, and wryly discuss the challenges of pursuing challenging cinema.
A Theresa Russell interview (19:17) is equally candid about the excitement and useful naivete she brought to Bad Timing, her takes on the film and her role (including impromptu contributions to the production design), her attitude toward the film's intensely sexual scenes, and her sometimes awkward working relationships with Garfunkel and Roeg. The latter partnership more often than not found a happy rhythm, though Russell reveals that her subsequent marriage to Roeg has since dissolved (Russell also mentions leaping to Bad Timing rather than pursuing a role in Superman).
The disc also features a treasure trove of 16 deleted scenes (totalling 17:07), a widescreen theatrical trailer (1:22), and a Photo Gallery of 125 images, including production photos and candid shots. With Bad Timing, Criterion delivers another happy opportunity to savor off-the-beaten-path cinema.
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