Equal parts intellectual, provocateur, and sensualist, British cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg built a singular filmography during the active years of his career. (As of this writing, he’s semi-retired.) Known for his downbeat themes, fragmented storytelling, and startling depictions of sexuality, Roeg made a number of films that divided audiences, with advocates praising his inventive artistry and detractors labeling him a pretentious voyeur. As in all things, the truth probably lies somewhere between those extremes. In any event, while Roeg’s most celebrated works include Performance (1970), which he codirected, and Don’t Look Now (1973), the deliberately unpleasant Bad Timing occupies an important place in his ouevre. A challenging narrative puzzle that builds steadily toward one of the creepiest sex scenes in the history of mainstream cinema, the picture is unapologetically obtuse and unrepentantly adult. Sometimes known by the extended title Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, the movie explores a dark place where carnality and madness intersect.
Singer/actor Art Garfunkel stars as Alex Linden, an American professor living and working in Vienna. Alex is introduced at a hospital where beautiful young American Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell) has been admitted for a possible suicide attempt involving drugs. Police Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) interrogates Alex about Milena, deducing that they’re lovers and suspecting that Alex knows more about Milena’s circumstances than he’s willing to share. Roeg presents the storyline as a complicated mosaic, jumping between different periods of the Alex/Milena relationship in order to paint a portrait of a love affair gone wrong. In scenes depicting the couple’s early courtship, the uptight Alex finds Milena’s impulsiveness and volatility exciting. Later in their relationship, he becomes judgmental and possessive, resenting that she’s married to an older man named Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliot) and screaming at her whenever he discovers she’s taken another lover. All of this culminates on the fateful night of Milena’s overdose, when Alex’s twisted devotion manifests in grotesque behavior.
Bad Timing is powerful in fits and starts, even though long stretches are dull because they comprise awful people yelling at each other. Worse, the detective angle never quite works, and Keitel’s performance is artificial and mannered, whereas everyone else strives for naturalism. Garfunkel channels something grim and savage with his understated performance, so whenever Garfunkel’s character lets his unsavory side show, the effect is bracing. Russell, who subsequently married Roeg and starred in several more films for him, attacks scenes vigorously and lacks inhibition, which helps smooth over the bumpier aspects of her performance. Bad Timing is not as effective as it could and should have been, because the chilly aesthetic created by Roeg and writer Yale Udoff keeps viewers a safe distance away from the psychological brutality occurring onscreen. Every so often, however, the movie lands a body blow and leaves a nasty mark.
Bad Timing: FUNKY