One of my most anticipated DVD releases has arrived, Nicolas Roeg's 1980 release, Bad Timing in a sparkling Criterion Collection edition. i hadn't seen the film since 1980, when it rocked my world.
Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel play Milena and Alex, obsessive and tragic lovers in Vienna, finding each other unendurable, yet impossible to avoid. Harvey Keitel is the police inspector inquiring into the circumstances surrounding Milena's suicide attempt. Inspector Netusil has a curiously intimate, parallel relationship with Alex as he questions him on the details of his life with Milena, reflecting aspects of Alex's character, and also reflecting our responses as we watch the story unfold in elliptic, impressionistic episodes. Filmgoers are comfortable with non sequential narratives now, but in 1980 Roeg was really pushing the envelope, particularly in the crosscutting during the film's most intense scenes. Tony Lawson's editing is brilliant, the beginning of a long association with Roeg on several fine pictures. Of course, Bad Timing is gorgeous as only a Nic Roeg film can be, which helps sell the more diffficult aspects of the very raw and disturbing story. To se the gamut of opinion and controversy that greeted this film's release, read a few of the comments on the amazon DVD link. Theatergoers thought it was the story of their life, or were utterly repelled.
The real sell, though, is in the direction and acting, which still holds up perfectly 25 years on. If you have only seen Art Garfunkel in his earlier and better known supporting roles in Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge, you haven't really seen him act. Many well trained actors lose their way when required to play unsympathetic types who are remote or self protecting, and either reach for sympathy, lapse into villainy, or shut down precisely when they need to give it up. Art brings it home every time he needs to, which is no small thing. When Harvey Keitel came to Bad Timing, he was a few years past his string of early Scorsese films, and had finished The Duellists, and the remarkable Death Watch. His police inspector may seem familiar because he was cast as so many cops throughout the 80's, but here is the role that probably cast him as all those other guys. Denholm Elliott is a joy, and this is one of my two favorite performances (the other, Friar in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) of his. He isn't in many scenes, but his rich emotional range is an essential anchor.
The true revelation, then and now, is Theresa Russell. In 1980, when she met Roeg and made Bad Timing (marrying him a few years later), she had only made two films (The Last Tycoon and Straight Time) and a miniseries (Blind Ambition). At 22 she wasn't a great deal more experienced in movies than Art Garfunkel, but she was a trained and committed actress who had already worked opposite DeNiro, Mitchum, and Hoffman. That Roeg saw her as pretty and sexy enough to play Milena isn't surprising, but their work together is hard to imagine equalling with another actress. Bad Timing requires the viewer to be turned on, repelled, moved and critical in turns, not unlike some of David Cronenberg's most challenging work. To keep the audience as alternately seduced and frustrated as the men in Milena's life, Russell had to be naked emotionally as well as physically. Her work in this picture, as well as Eureka and Insignificance, are my case for her as the most underrated actress of her generation. For a period in the 80's it was difficult to imagine her making it to the millennium without an Oscar. Then came the mainstream thrillers calculated to get her one (like Black Widow, Physical Evidence, and Impulse), and it was all over but the regrets. Like her husband's, her finest work is a bit too edgy to be widely appreciated on release.
The extras on most Criterion releases are good; this one has some lovely surprises. The booklet has a good essay by Richard Combs and a 1980 Art Garfunkel interview where he discusses his loss of Laurie Bird, concurrent with the postproduction of Bad Timing. There is a new interview with Theresa Russell, where she discusses working with the inexperienced Garfunkel, and another with Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas, where Roeg discusses using Art's intellectual presence to carry a scene. Another thing mentioned is that the rerelease of Bad Timing was delayed by a decade due to the difficulty of securing music rights for the soundtrack, which includes work by Tom Waits, Keith Jarrett. The Who and Billie Holliday. To read a good overview of Nicolas Roeg's career, see Lee Hill's piece here.