We should get one thing out of the way first: Nicholas Roeg's films are not everybody. Moving on, this is possibly Roeg's best work and essential viewing for any movie lover or fan of great acting. Released in 1980, this movie was not at all well recieved. Rank, the film's distributor stalled on the film's release, there was the controversey over an X rating and critics and viewers, at the time, obviously didn't know what to make of it. Twenty five years later with so many changes in what is accepted in movies today, it might be seen as lighter fare....well, maybe.
Nicholas Roeg could easily be passed off as a "shock director", but he is a unique talent who makes movies that have so many layers of meaning that it takes more than one viewing, maybe even two to understand what his movies are really about. The setting is cold war Vienna. Alex, a famous psychiatrist meets Meleana, an artistic,talented beauty without an occupation. Their attraction is immediate, their story unfolds through a series of flashbacks. Roeg makes it clear from the very beginning that the story does not have a happy ending. It is up to the audience to stay and find out why.
Alex appears to be quite normal from the beginning. He has the high paying job, the renowned reputaion, a glamouras life of high society friends. Everything about Alex symbolizes control and normalcy. Later in the film, though, we find that this isn't so. Alex is may appear like this on the surface, but he is truly an insecure man.
Which might be why he is so intrigued of Meleana from the very beginning. Meleana represents everything that Alex is not and can never be. Leaning in a hallway at a party, she stops him dead in his tracks by blocking him with her leg. Her presence is show stopping in the film and it's meant to be. Meleana is street smart, daring, wise, experienced and most importantly INDEPENDANT. She doesn't rely on anyone or have any kind of expectaions from anyone. She is a legitimate free spirit. Alex may not know it then, but he's drawn to her for more than her beauty. She fills in all the things he can't or ever hope to.
Meleana is not perfect. As most free spirits are she is somewhat hypocritical, irresponsible and surperficial. But she doesn't try to hide things. She does love Alex, but she refuses to let it destroy who she is and what she is about. Alex, on the other hand, control freak that he is, is determined to change her. He wants to make Meleana normal, when he can't do that, his sickness starts and it becomes out of control, ending in disaster.
This is not just a movie about "sexual obsession", as has been touted, but about "obsession". Period. Roeg is making a very strong case about turning people into objects and not treating them or "loving" them as how they truly are. As Meleana tries to convey to Alex to an embarrassing and painful end, why can't he love her and trust her for who she is? This begs to question, is Meleana really irresponsible or is she just being who she is, without any promises to anyone? Is Alex so insecure with himself that he can't accept a person's, god forbid a WOMAN, to be independant?
Most of the answers lie in the movie's ending, which is devastating and upsetting. I venture to guess it's the kind of ending that Alfred Hitchcock would have attempted, if he wasn't worried about the outcome and how it would effect him later in his career. Though it is not intentional, the film does seems to unravel in a Hitchcock fashion. And this is something that was definatey overlooked when it was released, overshadowed by all of the controversey. It is a testatment to Roeg's talent and ability as a filmmaker. The story unfolds as vital drama but also as a suspenseful thriller.
Many eyebrowes were raised i'm sure to the casting of Art Garfunkel. But this makes perfect sense within the first ten minutes of the film. Garfunkel, hands down already looks the part: the receding hairline of goofy hair, the lanky body frame and the effeminate physicality and tone of voice. Garfunkel also has a boyish innocence that comes across throughout the film. He is totally in tune with who the character is. It's a performance that was probably overlooked and underrated. A very smart choice by the director to choose someone other than an actor expected to fill the part.
Alex signifies someone who isn't strong or secure. But Meleana is attracted to him for these very reasons. At a restaurant, when Alex becomes upset with Meleana flirting with another man, she tells him, "you're sexier", as she throws herself at him. Meleana is happy with who he is, it's Alex who can't accept himself and lets his insecurity go awry.
Theresa Russell is groundbreaking in the role of Meleana. It is hard to imagine that Russell was only 22 when she played the role. And it's impossible to think of another actress from that time playing a role like this. Russell proved herself early in her career playing alongside great 70's icons like Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. But Russell was obviously not going to play along by Hollywood's standards of what a beautiful actress should aspire to. Russell is an intelligent actress and an independant thinker. These characteristics are brought to the very center of Meleana. Russell inhabits the character, she's not "playing" a character. It is astonishing to watch her for the time she is onscreen. At one moment she is fine, in another she is hurt at the very center of her being, in another she experiences a bizarre bipolar episode, putting on clown makeup and throwing bottles onto an empty street at night. It's hard to remember when an actress took these kind of roles, let alone these kind of chances on the screen. Unfortunately, Russel's talent was overlooked that year because of the movie's subject matter and controversey. It's the kind of performance that should be studied by actors and directors alike.
The same can be said for Nicholas Roeg. He is a true original. Sadly, it seems that slew of other directors, David Lynch comes to mind, would be inspired and later lionized for the road that he paved for them. Roeg has continued to make films as controversal and important like Bad Timing. But it is obvious that this is the movie that he should be known for and continue to be seen.