Welcome to Cinematic Panic, a new column in which I anxiously watch all of the Criterion Collection films that have either slipped under my radar or have fueled my film obsession and then share my personal rambling insights as to what makes them so damn good. Enjoy.
Certain films should come with seasonal specifications. That’s not to say they cannot be consumed year-round and don't warrant multiple viewings per year, it’s just that, you know, they’re best experienced to coincide with the psychological state brought on by the specific season they adhere to. For instance, the summer is a perfect time to melt into Robert Altman’s lucid nightmare 3 Women, Sidney Lumet’s guttural and sweaty Dog Day Afternoon, or Wim Wenders’ existential Americana character study, Paris, Texas. It always seemed bizarre to me that most of Stanley Kubrick’s films premiered in the summer months, when A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, and The Shining have always been my go-to films come snowfall. But another director whose films feel distinctly meant for a chill in the air is English master of violent sexual obsession and radical non-linear storytelling, Nicolas Roeg.
Best known for his sci-fi mind-bender The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roeg has carved out his own slice of cinema, replicated by many since but possessing an essence entirely its own—whether critics have been receptive or not. Throughout his oeuvre, especially his early work, his films entice you with an almost drug-induced feeling, where the edges are always a little blurry and the world is a fever dream that you never really want to wake up from. No one does out-of-focus, sparkling-chandelier-light haze reminiscent of fantastical winter nights of intoxication better than Roeg. But for all his work, the one film that has always appealed to all my cinematic fetishes has been his 1980 erotic psychodrama, Bad Timing—or the film that made me sexually attracted to Art Garfunkel. An unpopular opinion in terms of his work, I’m sure, but a brilliant mosaic of a character analysis undoubtably.
In short, the film tells the story of a young woman, Milena (played by Theresa Russell) and her lover, Alex (played by Art Garkfunkel). Beginning with Milena being rushed to the hospital by ambulance with Alex at her side, their relationship is then shown through flashbacks, fragmented scenes, and jump cuts between past and present that illustrate the arch of their romantic entanglement, from the flirting innocence of their meeting to the sensual and deadly obsession that comsume them. As the film progresses, a police investigator (played by Harvey Keitel) worms his way into the story—working as a foil to Alex—to uncover what looks to be Milena's attempted suicide.
But that’s all basic plot outline. Bad Timing, in essence, is a film about the sexual obsession and savage attraction of two opposites. It’s also a film about chance and fateful encounters. “They were down for each other,” Roeg once vaguely expressed about Alex and Milena. As two Americans living in Vienna, their meeting is almost tragic from the start, intrinsically drawn to one another like two opposing forces, setting in motion a dangerous collision of psyches. Recently separated from her Czech husband, Milena meanders through life, finding pleasure in the impulsiveness of a moment. Alex, on the other hand, lives with structure as a psychoanalyst and professor. Milena has loose control over her emotions, prone to fits of passionate rage and sexual indulgence. Her aggression, fervor, and sexuality live on the surface, but underneath lies a woman who is driven by fear and vulnerability. Alex, conversely, is a cerebral man who sees love as a hurdle to be crossed or something to keep at an arm's length. He is composed and cold but represses a great deal of violent and sexual urges. Together, the two unearth various traits in one another—a lethal combination of flesh on flesh.
Like the Klimt painting “The Kiss” shown in the first sequence of the film, the story is told with a fragmented narrative—a collage of moments that make up their disjointed relationship. But what's interesting about Milena and Alex is that even in the deepest moments of affection or love you can taste that hate is only a touch away. Their desire for one another is primal, a type of obsession that stems from the games lovers play and the incessant torture they inflict on one another—whether it’s a purposeful pain or simply a subconscious desire to hurt that which you love before it can hurt you.
In an article for the Criterion Collection, Richard Combs once desired their relationship as resembling “one of those impossible ball-in-a-maze puzzles—there are, in fact, two matching sets of these in the film—where he is drawn to her wildness and chaos and impelled to tame it, perhaps because he fears a matching chaos in himself. When he despairs that she’ll never change, she retorts, ‘If you weren’t who you are, I wouldn’t have to.’” Their love is a rare breed that is an absolute fury and a fire. It’s as if the two have transcended past affection and become a sort of conjoined wound that just won’t heal, constantly tearing and bleeding with lust and hatred. They wish death upon themselves and one other. “Leave and you kill me. Leave and I'm dead,” screams Milena in a manic fit of rage towards Alex.
Using cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who also shot The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now), the aesthetic quality of the film is inherently Roeg. The colors vacillate between shades of purple, red, and washed-out blacks and beiges, and have a look that’s at once velvety smooth yet slightly cracked and off-kilter. Cromb compared the emotional texture of the film to the contrast between “the romantic shimmer of Gustav Klimt and the psychological darkness of Egon Schiele.” And what really makes all of Roeg’s films stand apart from his contemporaries is the mastery of editing and the skill of knowing how to manipulate a moment through cuts to allow the audience to penetrate the psyche of a character so they become invested in a moment and feel almost a part of their world.
Since its release, the film has caused myriad mixed feelings in its audience. Some find it tasteless and jarring, whereas others honor its brilliance and mastery of craft. There’s no doubting the audacity of Roeg as a filmmaker and the unapologetic performances by its cast and the characters they inhabit. When the film was released, one of the executives at the company that distributed it called Bad Timing "a sick film made by sick people for sick people." Well, if that is true, then please excuse me. I’m going to go lie down now.