BAD TIMING: A SENSUAL OBSESSION
A love it or hate it exercise that’s been
described as “a sick movie made by sick people for sick people”...by its
own distributor! Needless to say, I’m among those who love it.
Actually, the original reaction of Rank Films execs upon viewing the
finished cut of BAD TIMING: A SENSUAL OBSESSION was reportedly “Sick...sick...sick!” That was
back in 1980, and the film has rarely been seen anywhere since; its original
theatrical run was extremely limited, and subsequent screenings have been
sporadic. To date it has never been released on VHS or DVD in the US.
In retrospect, it can be seen as marking the end of British director
Nicolas Roeg’s most fertile period, which started with PERFORMANCE in 1970 and
continued with WALKABOUT (1971), DON’T LOOK NOW (1974) and THE MAN WHO FELL TO
EARTH (1976), all bold, experimental and ambitious films. BAD TIMING arguably
represents the apotheosis of Roeg’s cinematic obsessions. The film’s minimalist
story, with its claustrophobic focus on two less-than-virtuous characters, seems
more ideally suited to its director’s tendencies than, say, the sci fi trappings
of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, or PERFORMANCE, which is widely acknowledged to
have been largely the vision of its co-director, the late Donald Cammell. BAD
TIMING pushes Nicolas Roeg’s stylistic quirks to unheard of extremes, bolstered
by the fact that much of the narrative consists of flashbacks, one of Roeg’s
favorite modes of cinematic expression.
Alex, a stuffy college professor in Vienna, calls an ambulance one night to
the apartment of his mistress Milena, who has OD’d. Milena undergoes an
emergency tracheotomy to save her life and Alex is interrogated relentlessly by
an English detective curious about what transpired before the ambulance was
Flashbacks reveal Alex and Milena’s courtship, which from the start was
based entirely on sexual obsession. The two are otherwise fundamentally
incompatible; Alex feebly attempts to intellectualize his obsession while Milena
tries to break away. Her flighty behavior only leads to increasing physical
abuse by Alex until the final, fateful night, when Alex rushes to Milena’s
apartment to find her zonked out on God-knows-what and rapes her comatose body.
Months later, he catches a glimpse of Milena standing on the steps of a NYC
hotel, bearing a telltale tracheotomy scar on her neck.
To conclusively detail all this film’s stylistic quirks
would be impossible in anything less than novella form. As previously stated,
flashbacks are integral to the film’s construction, and come in many forms: as
quick two-or-three frame intercuts, as flashbacks within flashbacks and even
flashforwards within flashbacks. At one point Alex brutally reprimands
Milena and then his mood abruptly changes...and we realize we’re watching the
moments preceding the outburst we’ve just witnessed. Disorientation
seems to be Roeg’s overriding goal. Note his preference for jarring music cues,
in particular the song that plays over the opening shot: a view of a museum
painting whose serene mood is broken by Tom Waits at most gravelly. Waits’
voice is in turn cut off by the even more discordant tones of a siren...a
perfect lead-in, it turns out, to a singularly bleak story.
Art Garfunkle’s performance in this film has been
widely derided, but I found him quite effective as a weak man who’s in over his
head and knows it. Harvey Keitel, as the bizarre, possibly homosexual police
inspector, gives a performance so eccentric I’ve never been able to decide
whether it’s good or bad. As for Theresa Russell, this is certainly her finest
work ever, proving that she really could act once upon a time (an ability she
seems to have lost in more recent films like WHORE and KAFKA). She’s not afraid
to disrobe, which Roeg has her do constantly in a series of extremely graphic
and often disturbing love scenes. This is the only movie I know that intercuts
gruesome operation room footage with shots of its main characters having sex!
Rank Film Productions Ltd.
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Screenplay: Yale Udoff
Cinematography: Anthony Richmond
Editor: Tony Lawson
Cast: Art Garfunkle, Theresa Russell, Harvey Keitel, Denholm Elliott, Daniel
Massey, Dana Gillespie, William Hootkins, Eugene Lipinski, George Roubicek,
Stefan Gryff, Sevilla Delofski, Robert Walker Jr., Gertan Klauber, Ania Marson,
Lex Van Delden