Some releases from the year 1970 barely qualify as ’70s movies, not only because they were filmed and/or completed in 1969 but because the style and themes of the movies are tethered to the preceding decade. Performance epitomizes this conundrum even more than most 1970 releases, since the picture was actually made in 1968 but not commercially distributed until two years later. Nonetheless, because of the date on which it reached screens and because of important connections to various threads of ’70s cinema—notably the picture’s status as the directorial debut of English provocateur Nicolas Roeg—Performance merits consideration in this space. If I sound reluctant to engage with this particular film, I have my reasons. Having seen Performance two or three times over the years, I’ve always found the thing to be boring, indulgent, and silly. Yet at the same time, I regularly meet intellectually formidable people who revere the movie. So even though Performance is not remotely to my liking, I acknowledge the film’s unique power over certain discriminating viewers.
Produced in the UK and co-directed by Roeg, who also served as cinematographer (his former profession), and Donald Cammell, who wrote the bizarre script, Performance depicts the collision of two unlikely characters. One of them is Chas (James Fox), a thug in the employ of a London gangster; the very first scene gives us a hint of his kinky inclinations, because he’s shown having a bondage-filled sexcapade with a girlfriend. After a criminal scheme goes awry, Chas flees his neighborhood for the safety of a different part of town, giving friends time to seek a passport for his planned travel to America. Dyeing his hair and adopting a fake name (the first of many games the film plays with identity), Chas seeks lodging in a flat owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a onetime rock star now living as a recluse with two girlfriends, Lucy (Michele Breton) and Pherber (Anita Pallenberg).
Whereas Chas’ old life was decidedly conventional—natty suits, short hair, tidy grooming, and heterosexual dating—Turner’s existence blurs cultural lines. Not only does Turner seem willing to have sex with anything that moves, but Turner also wears feminine clothes and makeup while lounging about his house in a perpetually drugged state. Determined to remain out of sight from the hoodlums who are pursuing him, Chas spends all his time with Turner and the ladies, eventually sampling the household’s various carnal, hallucinogenic, pharmaceutical, and sartorial delights. By the end of his time in the strange enclave—which is decorated like a cross between an opium den and a whorehouse—Chas has indulged in cross-dressing, drugs, and (perhaps) gay sex.
The “perhaps” in the preceding sentence brings us to the defining aspect of Performance, which is the disjointed and surreal storytelling style Cammell and Roeg embraced not only here but also in their subsequent films. (After this collaborative endeavor, the duo separated; Roeg enjoyed a significant career, but Cammell remained a cult figure.) Right from the start, Performance is filled with tricky edits and shots that distort perception—sometimes it’s hard to tell when something is happening, sometimes it’s difficult to determine exactly what’s happening, and at all times, it’s anybody’s guess why things are happening. Especially when the movie gets completely bizarre toward the end, with a drug-addled sequence of Jagger singing in character to a roomful of naked gangsters while Cammell and Roeg splice in shots from the past, the future, and who-knows-where, Performance becomes the cinematic equivalent of a drug experience. All of this is compounded by a mind-fuck of an ending that combines murder and the possible transference of identity.
I’m sure devoted fans of the movie can defend Performance’s fragmented storyline in at least two ways (by offering a linear explanation or by saying that the movie explores themes that run deeper than linear understanding), but for me, Performance still seems garish, noisy, and overwrought. What I won’t argue with, however, is the notion that Performance is a film of ambition and substance. Whether you dig it, therefore, depends on how effectively the filmmakers seduce you into deciphering their narrative hieroglyphics.