Nicolas Roeg’s provocative and savage erotic drama is as certain to offend moralists and cinema purists now as it was at the time.
Once memorably described by a Rank executive as “a sick film about sick people for sick people” before the company pulled their famous Gong Man from the opening and confined the movie to the naughty step, Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing proves to have lost little of its impact in the last 35 years. It remains a visceral, challenging, frustrating masterpiece that is certain to divide audiences, thanks to a deliberately alienating non-linear style and the sheer sense of hysteria that leaks out of the movie continually.
Roeg was – indeed, is – one of British cinema’s few real creative visionaries. For me, he will always be bracketed alongside Ken Russell as the sort of flamboyant filmmaker who stood out from a world of dour realists and earnest message-movie makers in the British film industry (you could also add Peter Greenaway and even Derek Jarman to that list, I suppose). Like Russell, Roeg was, for a while at least, a ‘respectable’ filmmaker who should’ve been an art-house darling, but – and this is where he and Russell vary from Greenaway and Jarman – he refused to be locked into the ghetto of experimental cinema, but instead strove to make films that would have mass appeal without ever compromising his vision. Roeg’s films are often difficult, ambiguous and challenging, but they are not pretentious. He wasn’t a director who sneered at populist cinema, but rather embraced it and distorted it. Bad Timing is a great example of this. On the one hand, the film’s fractured narrative style seems to be a bloody-minded way of distancing the audience. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for the film to be structured this way, and there’s nothing wrong in a film making the audience work with it. Bad Timing requires a certain staying power, but that’s fine because the rewards are that much better.
The film feels like it belongs to a small but noteworthy collection of films that deal with hysterically extreme dysfunctional relationships – I’d place it alongside other masterpieces like Bitter Moon and Possession in that sense, though it is of course unlike either of those films except in its overall vibe. The film opens with Vienna-based psychoanalyst Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) accompanying a young woman, Milena (Theresa Russell) to hospital after she has overdosed on pills. At first, this seems to be a straightforward suicide attempt, but immediately, we are aware that things are not right. From the beginning, Linden seems a bit off. He’s evasive with the police, even about simple matters, and he lies to them about his relationship with Milena. We know this because the film constantly jumps from the hospital to points in their past relationship. We start at the beginning with their first meeting at a party, but it is by no means clear that the rest of the film – at least until the final act – is taking place in a linear order.
So immediately, we know that we don’t trust Linden. Whether he is hiding some criminal culpability is not an issue immediately, but we realise that he is not a person that someone should rely on or become attached to. But of course, that’s just what Milena does. She’s a fascinating conundrum – a lively, flirty, overtly sexual young woman who is also vulnerable, potentially unstable and desperately searching for affection. She’s clearly missing something from her secret husband (Denholm Elliott) who lives across the border and hopes Linden can fill that gap. But he’s hardly boyfriend material. Self-absorbed and cold, he soon tires of her free-spirited nature and becomes more controlling. On the surface, he seems bored with their relationship (which the film makes clear was never much more than sexual for him – when Milena says she doesn’t want to make love, he pouts like a child and storms out), yet he is also obsessively jealous, stalking her and throwing accusations about other men at her. Eventually, the relationship reaches breaking point (one of the 16 minutes worth of deleted scenes included on this blu-ray has Milena melting down at a similar party to the one at which she met Linden) and she takes her potentially fatal overdose.
But what happened outside this established narrative is what Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) is trying to establish. He sets out to break through Linden’s lies, misdirection and misinformation, slowly piecing together a theory. But this is not a police procedural movie. Netusil is not Columbo. Keitel’s strange, off-balance performance makes us as unsure of him as we are of Linden, and he clearly has a dark side himself (when, at one point, he talks about the psychology of a killer, Linden comments “it sounds as though you’re talking about yourself”). And while the film seemingly reveals the truth about what happened that night – more specifically what happened between Milena’s farewell phone call to Linden and his call for an ambulance – there remains a certain potential ambiguity. Are we seeing Linden’s recollection or the imagination of the Inspector as he pushes for a confession?
How do we define genre? What elements does a film need to fit into a certain genre? This is a more complicated question than we like to think, and Bad Timing is a more complicated case in point. It’s often called a psychological thriller, sometimes referred to as an erotic drama. It might well be both those things, though the sometimes surprisingly explicit sex is not presented in an erotic way and the film avoids all the traditional approaches of a thriller. Oddly, I would posit the idea that the film is actually a horror film. Not in the way we usually see horror films of course. But this is a psychodrama of the most intense sort, with a psychopath at the very heart of it. Not a movie psychopath of course, but the kind we have in real life. The kind who are not polishing off summer camp loads of kids over a couple of days but are the emotionless, self-absorbed, entirely unempathic people who only think of their own needs and destroy lives along the way. That’s Linden. And as the film builds slowly to a point of hysteria and then breaks past that to present one of the most shocking moments of sexual assault in cinema history (shocking because of the content and because it is both unexpected and inevitable) the film actually starts to horrify. This is real madness, real destruction and real horror.
Roeg balances the conflicting character points of the film and its complex structure with consummate ease, to the point that the narrative eventually develops its own curiously seamless flow from past to present, from truth to fiction and back. His cast is excellent and intriguing – Garfunkel looks very much like the professor type and delivers a perfectly cold, controlled performance that is unnerving. Russell, on the other hand, is all emotion – joy and anger, sadness and desperation. It’s an astounding, brilliant and brave performance, especially given some of the sexual content – it’s hard to imagine many American actresses being willing to give so much of themselves in a movie now. That she didn’t win all the awards for this shows just how vacuous the whole award thing is. Keitel is edgily weird – at times, it feels like his performance is too mockingly odd, but he holds it back just enough. And Elliott, in a small but important role, gives a certain sense of tragedy to a man who can see someone he loves (but can’t be with) being destroyed.
Bad Timing is a fairly extraordinary film. A challenging and difficult film that might not be something you’ll enjoy in the conventional sense, but which is a rewarding and unforgettable experience nevertheless. If you like cinema that steps out of the safety zone, this is essential viewing.