British director Nicolas Roeg was hardly unaccustomed to controversy. Throughout the 1970s, his work had regularly elicited vehement reactions. Roeg’s 1970 debut Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell) was shelved by Warner Bros for two years while the suits worked out what to do with his psychosexual gangster meltdown. And then, three years later, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland’s controversial humping in Don’t Look Now brought the censors out in hives. But even seasoned provocateur Roeg was shocked by the fallout to Bad Timing.
The film’s distributor, Rank, labelled it ‘a sick film made by sick people for sick people’ before begrudgingly releasing it in October 1980. It was a reckless damning. The truth is that Bad Timing, billed as ‘a terrifying love story’, is an uncomfortable experience filled with pain, obsession and bitterness. And, with its alienated characters, fractured timeframe and plenty of sex, quintessential Roeg cinema.
On paper, Bad Timing is a simple enough story set in cold-war Vienna. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) is a straight-laced university lecturer who embarks on a passionate affair with Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), a ravishing pleasure-seeking siren. Their relationship starts to implode when Alex is assigned by the US government to investigate Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott), Milena’s Czech husband. Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) is called in to piece together the events that have led to Milena fighting for her life in hospital after a suicide attempt. Through Roeg’s radical editing style, their love story is diced up, turned in on itself and played out as a romance in reverse. Graphic shots of overdosed Milena in surgery are intercut with scenes from the couple’s shared history. The result is a rich and complex mosaic of experience, details and identity.
Fate is at the heart of all the director’s films. And none more so than with Bad Timing. There is a claustrophobic sense of inevitability to Alex and Milena’s relationship. On meeting him for the first time at a party, she even says: ‘If we’re going to meet, it might as well be now.’ The characters are on an unstoppable course, swerving towards emotional oblivion. In Don’t Look Now, the inescapable climax was John Baxter’s predestined date with violent destiny dressed in a red duffel coat; here, it is the absolute disintegration of a couple. The sensation is like a looped dream. The viewer can’t help but want to reorganise the edited scraps in a desperate bid to change the unavoidable outcome in some way.
Another reoccurring theme is that of chaos versus order. In Performance, straight-laced hood Chas (James Fox) comes undone in the disordered world of drug-addled Turner (Mick Jagger). For all his hip talk and professor swagger, Bad Timing‘s Alex is similarly pedestrian. He is unable to control the elemental force that is Milena and seems out of his depth in her wayward lifestyle. It is a doomed partnership: he wants to marry and own her; she wants to enjoy the moment. Alex lectures on voyeurism to his students: ‘We are constantly in isolation, watching, spying on everyone and everything around us… I prefer to label myself an observer.’ At times, he is nothing but a jealous boy, peeping on Milena; Roeg playfully pokes at this when Alex, sat in the back of a truck in Morocco, struggles to peer through the dusty window at Milena sat up front with two lecherous men.
The Vienna setting of Bad Timing is crucial. Alex and Milena are both US citizens in a foreign land. They don’t belong there. All Roeg’s characters are visitors to another land: whether the Baxters in Venice in Don’t Look Now; Walkabout‘s English children in the Australian outback; Eastender Chas in Turner’s Notting Hill drug den in Performance; and, most literally, David Bowie as a marooned extraterrestrial in The Man Who Fell To Earth. They are all separated from their natural environment, trying to find a way home.
The tragic reality of Alex and Milena’s affair is beautifully hinted at in the opening scene. As Tom Waits sings ‘An Invitation to the Blues’ (‘She’s a moving violation from her conk down to her toes…’) on the soundtrack, Milena stands in a gallery, studying Klimt’s painting, The Kiss. At first, the artwork appears to be a study of an amorous clinch. But closer inspection reveals a chilling undercurrent: the man in the painting is passionately kissing the woman but his lover’s cheek is slightly turned, a disengaged gaze in her eyes. Klimt captures this fleeting moment forever. And in that suspended beat, the couple have never been further apart.
Like Klimt, Roeg is fascinated by these momentary incidentals. In his films, the edge of the frame, the split second is where the truth is hidden, or briefly held. This can be nothing more than a humorous aside: as in the scene where Alex meets with a tea-drinking diplomat to discuss the legalities of divorce in a foreign land. Roeg’s camera glimpses a bowl of heart-shaped sugar cubes: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cry for sweet love perhaps. But Roeg also uses these flashes for unsettling purposes. And he does so with devastating effect early on in Bad Timing.
Alex is stood talking to a nurse in the hospital corridor, while a team of surgeons try to revive Milena. Netusil is led by the night duty officer past Alex. The two characters have not yet been introduced: they are strangers. Alex briefly looks up at Netusil and in that fraction, Netusil winks directly at him. It is nothing but, at the same time, everything. A link is made between the two: they are now somehow complicit in the events about to unfold. It is random, dazzling and confrontational. Just like the film.