Some films seem to disappear into inaccessibility not long after they are released, and Nicolas Roeg's 1980 Bad Timing is one of the most prominent. It's appeared on television off and on, but only in a completely un-watchable pan-scanned version; The American Cinematheque showed a surviving 35mm print in 1998 that had turned yellowish and was missing about ten minutes' worth of footage.
Criterion's new DVD release rectifies that situation. Bad Timing turns out to be even better than it seemed in 1980. Roeg and his editor Tony Lawson's jarring cutting patterns are no longer difficult to understand, as editing in the commercial realm has finally caught up, twenty-five years later. The film's complex temporal-subjective viewpoint serves a vital function in telling a story in which the 'action' is almost entirely limited to mental states and perceptions.
Bad Timing is also an intensely erotic look at subject matter that would be immediately categorized as 'sick' by the mainstream audience. Yet there probably isn't as good a film about the possessive, oppressive nature of erotic relationships.
Bad Timing is a clear example of a film way ahead of its time. What seemed obscure in 1980 is now crystal clear, and we follow Roeg's non-linear cutting patterns without the slightest confusion. The film's 'time-space' takes place in the hours when Milena's life is in danger; Roeg opens up his story slowly by slipping backward in time as the brooding Alex Linden recalls their relationship. When Inspector Netusil tries to worm his way into Alex's mindset and receives little inspirations of his own, he too seems to 'share' certain memories.
The boundaries of normal flashbacks are clearly marked, allowing no confusion between the past and present. Roeg doesn't use flashbacks in the normal sense, but adapts film grammar to express a flowing state of consciousness. Past events become alive as we recall them. Colors, actions and dialogues trigger specific memories. Through the clarity and richness of Roeg's vision, they take on patterns that encourage meaningful interpretation. Artworks, music and objects are woven into the memory-fabric. Roeg 'encourages' some of these patterns to comment on the neurotic love relationship of Alex and Milena - the Kilmt paintings, for example, that center on brooding, intertwined lovers. At other times our attention is drawn to details given compositional stress, such as the pattern in a bed spread next to Linden's conflicted face. How many of our memories of important places and events are inexplicably dominated by images of unimportant details like wallpaper patterns, or cracks in a tile floor?
The density of Roeg's visuals enables reality to be eclipsed by an ever-changing set of visual interpretations. Alex Linden looks at a room, which pops back in forth between tidy and messy states, with and without Milena's drugged body as part of the decor. In his jealous delirium, a glimpse of her face will trigger memories of earlier moments - enigmatic smiles, provocative pouting. Netusil finds some photographs lying on a table, and comes up with another incorrect interpretation to add to Linden's own. Also, entire scenes are warped by a character's subjectivity. Linden confronts Milena in a college corridor, and her close-ups alter radically to match his inner turmoil - the focus becomes shallow, the background diffused.
Roeg also elects to change subjective viewpoints when he shows Milena's back story with her sad Czechoslovakian husband Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott). Lest we think her a helpless victim in this psychosexual drama, we see Milena toying with Stefan's affections. She pretends to be concerned, when she's actually amused by her ability to walk away from a man so hopelessly in love with her. Milena cherishes her sexual freedom, whereas Alex is rooted in the need to possess her, to make her exclusively his. Alex doesn't realize that he already 'has' Milena as much as she can be 'had', and it's his damning flaw (shared by most men) that he wants excusive rights. The conventional Alex is obsessed with Milena and can't stand the thought of her being with someone else, an attitude that naturally drives her into the arms of others. The movie is less about bad timing then it is about bad sexual chemistry. During a trip to French Morocco the lovers are in total harmony. She's ready to see their relationship go on forever, just as it is. But he wants to hurry to a position of control - a bill of sale in the form of marriage. Milena accuses Alex of being greedy in love, of demanding too much. Her continual question is, "What do you want?"(spoilers follow)
The missing two hours that put Milena's life in danger reveal the malignancy of this modern pairing. Bristling at what he thinks is Milena's manipulation, Alex dawdles before bothering to answer her call for help. Finding her insensate and helpless, he seizes the opportunity to take from her what he thinks he deserves -- Alex's obsession is no deeper than the selfish desire to make another person's body his personal property. The rape scene that follows is about as explicit and disturbing as non-pornographic movies get, and many viewers won't see a distinction. It's more 'horrible' than the necrophiliac relationship in Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. In that horror film the doctor's original 'victim' is a willing partner. Bad Timing, to put it mildly, isn't going to put any dates in a romantic mood.
Bad Timing goes beyond normal definitions of what is controversial. Those viewers inclined to see any portrayal of sex as inappropriate will be outraged. Adding gore to the mix, the graphic emergency-room scenes of Milena's tracheotomy are potentially more disturbing than the effects in most horror films.
Art Garfunkle's poised inexpressiveness is perfectly suited to an intellectual accustomed to hiding his feelings to the point where he's not sure he still has any. Theresa Russell's performance is outstanding and as brave as can be imagined - one can picture a thousand actresses terrified by her ability to be truly uninhibited. Harvey Keitel would seem to be a terrible choice for an Austrian policeman. He underplays the role so thoroughly, we accept him without question.
Bad Timing is perhaps the culmination of the 70s idea of a director's picture. Ex-cameraman Roeg expresses more with his camera and cutting than any dialogue script could - the characters' attempts to use words to psychoanalyze each another repeatedly fail. Inspector Netusil bears down with a rational approach to the truth, like a Monk who has never seen a manifestation of God but knows his lot in life is to keep searching. Roeg and his cameraman Anthony Richmond get the maximum from their images. The visually precise Bad Timing outpaces even Roeg's earlier 'masterpieces' The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don't Look Now and Walkabout.
Criterion's DVD of Bad Timing (in Los Angeles we knew it as Bad Timing, A Sensual Obsession) is another of the exquisite disc renderings that film fans happily pay a premium for. The sharp and colorful enhanced image is director-approved and will thrill viewers frustrated by screenings of edited versions. It's always been assumed that legal clearances for the eclectic soundtrack --Tom Waits, The Who, Keith Jarrett, Billie Holiday -- were responsible for keeping Bad Timing off video. The track here is a clear original monaural.
Disc producers Deborah McClutchy and Spencer Leigh give us two definitive interviews. Director Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas are relaxed and reflective when talking about the film, hitting all the big issues and filling in many small details. Theresa Russell uses frank terms to discuss the experience of filming under such exhibitionist circumstances.
A selection of deleted scenes shows us more of Art Garfunkle than we wanted to see, and the disc extras finish with a generous gallery of photos and posters and an original trailer. A fat insert booklet has an insightful essay by Richard Combs and a reprint of a 1980 interview with Art Garfunkle, which touches upon his ill-fated relationship with actress Laurie Bird.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bad Timing rates: