"Madness" is certainly one way to describe Performance, a film that Warner Bros. once found to be all but unreleasable, finally allowing a re-edited version to escape into theaters some two years after its cameras first rolled. Its wildly experimental leanings are apparent from nearly the first frame. In much the same way as Easy Rider roared out of the gate with "Born to be Wild", Performance opens to Randy Newman's hard rocking take on "Gone Dead Train". Within a matter of seconds, though, the overdriven guitars are replaced by the sparse sweep of a synthesizer, and that too quickly drops out. The opening sequence frantically crashes back and forth between a Rolls-Royce puttering down a pastoral highway and frenzied sex, backed by a symphony of complete silence.
This is a film that has Mick Jagger plastered across the poster art even though he's essentially a non-entity until nearly 45 minutes in. Drug use is rampant but presented in a very matter-of-fact, almost disinterested sort of way. Though Performance undeniably has its drug-addled, surreal stretches, it's a far cry from the heavy-handed psychedelia, fish-eye lenses, and clumsy, overbearing edginess of the usual grade of counter-culture films. The jittery editing sets out to be somewhat disorienting, at times smashing together two stories simultaneously and creating a greater whole through that juxtaposition. Performance revels in its depictions of sex and violence, graphic enough to still shock approaching a half-century after the fact. Writer and co-director Donald Cammell litters the film with allusions to his favorite works of art across most every form of media, undaunted that the overwhelming majority of his audience would never be able to recognize a Jorge Luis Borges quote. Its gritty premise about a low-life thug hiding in the basement of a washed-up pop star is largely discarded in favor of a study of identity. All of that is to say that Performance isn't a film that sets out to be embraced by the world at large. It's intensely polarizing, inspiring awe or complete revulsion but little in between.
James Fox stars as Chas, the muscle for a gangster (Johnny Shannon) on the East End of London. Chas is intimidating enough that he generally doesn't have to resort to displays of force to get his point across, but when he does... His boss, Harry Flowers, got where he is by being equipped to distinguish between business and personal feelings. Chas isn't, and his vengeful temper puts him in a position where Flowers has to put down this mad dog. Chas knows he's quickly going to be caught in someone's crosshairs, so he decides to lay low until he can worm his way out of the country. He even bullshits his way into the
Any review I'd write about Performance threatens to contort itself into an essay. The sticky relationship between sex and violence could easily fill a paragraph. There's the nature of who we are versus who we present to the world...how we're shaped and how we shape ourselves by those around us. The jump cuts and jarring shifts in perspective reflect the elusiveness of its characters' senses of self. Performance so deftly toys with the concept of identity that it's deliberately unclear at times which character is which, even blurring the lines of something as seemingly binary as gender. The greatest compliment I could pay Performance is that I'm not content to simply say whether or not I liked the film followed by a few paragraphs explaining why. I'm engaged by a strong slate of performances, including the first real acting role by Mick Jagger and a tremendous turn by James Fox that would be followed by a decade-plus hiatus. Its visuals are wholly entrancing, due in no small part to the presence of Nicolas Roeg's unparalled eye as he took the director's chair for the first time. Its visceral imagery, its spectacular soundtrack, the "Memo from Turner" proto-music video sequence that predates MTV by more than ten years, its fiercely unconventional approach to storytelling, its head-on collision of a deceptively commercial premise with the daringly experimental, and...well, the list keeps unspooling from there. Performance is a film that, if not for the deadline bearing down on me, I'd feel compelled to watch at least once or twice more before sitting down to write this review. It demands to be experienced more than once. It inspires rapt attention, analysis, and discussion. If that's not the basis for a strong recommendation, I don't know what is.
This presentation of Performance isn't a complete misfire. Its colors are wonderfully saturated, and contrast tends to be robust whenever the film is offered enough light with which to play. There's quite a bit of optical manipulation, at which time the image quality does take an unavoidable and very much acceptable hit. Nicolas Roeg whips out a spring-wound 16mm Bolex during one manic sex scene, with the deliberate shift in quality that goes along with that, and it seems as if most every shot featuring Michèle Breton is photographed in a soft, wispy haze. Despite all of that, the image initially struck me as respectably detailed. The more I watched Performance, though, the more...wrong it looked to me. This presentation is saddled with a video-like, frustratingly digital quality. Despite its not-insubstantial bitrate, the AVC encode is unusually sloppy. Film grain is often poorly resolved, rendered instead as a barrage of unstable, rapidly shifting, little blocks. A few cases-in-point are provided below. You may need to open them to full size to see what I'm droning on about here.
Performance is especially problematic in motion, but hopefully those still images illustrate the presentation's issues well enough. For what it's worth, I gave this disc a look on three different Blu-ray players and three different displays to verify the presence of these problems. I was intrigued enough by Performance that these authoring missteps didn't pull me out of the film, but it's unfortunate that this flawed release is almost certainly the only one we'll ever see.
Performance arrives on a dual-layer disc. The opening titles are very heavily windowboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 or so. The image opens up after that, with the faintest trace of pillarboxing bringing it to 1.75:1.
Backed by a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack in 24-bit, two-channel mono, Performance is a bit of an aurally mixed bag. The music showcased throughout the film sounds terrific, boasting the sort of clarity, fidelity, and full-bodied presence that
The only other audio option is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
The Final Word
The honest answer is that I'm still trying to figure out what, exactly, I think about Performance. This isn't the sort of film that can be readily digested after a single viewing, and it's more accurate to say that Performance is experienced rather than watched. It's a deeply polarizing work of art, one whose visceral, experimental edge hasn't dulled in the slightest over the past four and a half decades. If Performance has lingered as long on your wish list as it has on mine, this is a film very much worth discovering on Blu-ray, despite its flawed presentation. Recommended for the daring; the uninitiated with more of a casual interest may want to rent or stream Performance first.