Bad Timing (Criterion Collection)
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Amid the decaying elegance of cold-war Vienna, psychoanalyst Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) becomes mired in an erotically charged affair with the elusive Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell). When their all-consuming passion takes a life-threatening turn, Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) is assigned to piece together the sordid details. Acclaimed for its innovative editing, raw performances, and stirring musical scorefeaturing Tom Waits, the Who, and Billie HolidayNicolas Roegs Bad Timing is a masterful, deeply disturbing foray into the dark world of sexual obsession.
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True it falls apart in the last couple of reels when the performances don't quite ring true, but it's still the last great film Nic Roeg made before settling into prolific mediocrity. It's as a brilliantly edited post-mortem into a mutually destructive relationship rather than a police mystery that it really enthralls, even when it doesn't entirely work. Much more impressive than I remembered, it's not a feelgood movie - if anything it's the date movie from hell - but it is a remarkably ambitious and accomplished one.
So why is the film so little-known and perhaps even less-seen? Well, that seems to be down to some bad luck and bad timing of its own.
In the US it hit censorship problems and in Europe it had major problems with its distribution. It was one of Rank's last full slate of British productions, so should have been guaranteed a circuit release on the Odeon chain in the UK. Unfortunately, the head of Rank Theatres was so disgusted by the film (the Rank Organisation was originally started to make religious films and many of the old guard were still in place in 1980) that he refused to book it into a single one of their theatres - the only Rank film to be so 'honored' (although he wasn't much enamoured of Eagle's Wing either). The second biggest circuit was owned by Rank's biggest rival, EMI, who weren't interested in helping out their balance sheet, so it ended up on Lew Grade's very small Classic chain. Rank's distribution in Europe was no more enthusiastic.
(Of course, Roeg's next and most expensive film, Eureka, had even bigger problems, being pulled a couple of weeks after opening due to a libel lawsuit that kept it on the shelf for years. Since then, despite the not really successful brave try with Cold Heaven, he seems to be little more than a director for hire on a slew of disappointing pictures and cable movies.) As a result, it's been very hard to track down since its original release, but it's well worth the effort if you're looking for challenging fare.
Criterion's DVD boasts a much better transfer than the UK DVD (which only features a trailer) and a more comprehensive extras package - interviews with Russell, Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas, stills gallery and 16 deleted scenes. However, the laziness that has crept into some recent Criterion discs is evident in the latter: while 8 of those deleted scenes have no soundtrack, surely it wouldn't have been asking too much of Criterion to have included subtitles for the missing dialogue or at least to have included an introductory caption explaining the scenes? It's an irritating blemish on an otherwise excellent disc.
Set mostly in cold war Vienna, Milena interacts with the various men in her life. But it is Milena herself that is central to all that happens because she is not only beautiful but also sadly flawed. Is it a borderline personality disorder, a damaged childhood, or a bi-polar illness? Or is she just a self-centered, spoiled brat? Whatever, the problem, it makes for a fascinating, character-driven story as Milena's life impacts a psychoanalyst (Art Garfunkle), a detective (Harvey Keitel) and her older husband.
As expected from Roeg, a highly regarded cinematographer, the digital transfer of the carefully composed film is stunning. But what created the biggest stir when it was initially released was the raw sexuality and eyebrow raising body-part specific nudity. (Think THE scene with Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.)
The great score includes Billie Holliday, The Who and Tom Waits among others.
This is not exactly a date movie or a feel good flick, but it is a fascinating and disturbingly honest look at sexual obsession and a not uncommon type of mental illness.
It is worth finding and seeing with someone with whom you are planning to break up. This one raises serious questions that we usually prefer to not talk about.
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.
There was the one who told me that mental illness ran in her family and that her mother holds a laminated photo of Robert Redford up to her mouth for all-day conversations--and she told me that on our first date. There was the other one who spoke in a little girl's voice when the lights were out--every night. And the one who begged me to tie her up and then, when I'd relent, freak out and yell that she was an abused child. Yup, they're out there.
So maybe that's why I totally fell in love with Theresa Russell as the girl in this film: she brings out my worst instincts: I'm attracted to her and want to save her too. Bad timing, indeed. It always has been for me. Ms. Russell is brilliant in this.
Actually, I first fell for her when I saw 1984's version of THE RAZOR'S EDGE first (yes, the Bill Murray version--I loved it).
I'm glad to see this film get the full Criterion treatment and look forward to seeing all the extras. It's a bold, challenging film that I put right up there with DON'T LOOK NOW and LAST TANGO IN PARIS.
(And, if you really liked this film, check out Art Garfunkel with Jack Nicholson and Ann Margaret in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, another dark and funny look into sexual follies).
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