Monday, September 26, 2005

Bad Timing (1980)

Posted by Ian W. Hill

". . . a sick film made by sick people for sick people . . ."
-- an executive at Rank Films, which took its logo off UK prints of the film, on BAD TIMING

Months ago, watching nothing but film noir and neo-noir for weeks on end, I decided to take a break and rewatch one of my favorite films, Nicolas Roeg’s BAD TIMING. Only a few moments into the film, I was aware that I was watching yet another neo-noir, albeit this time one that I had seen many times before without ever thinking of it as such, or ever having seen it referred to in a noir context by anyone anywhere.

But neo-noir it is, in subject, character, mood and structure, and I’d like to see if I can put it in context as such.

“Of course, everything I say has to be taken in the context of who I am . . .”
-- The Foppish Man (Daniel Massey) in Bad Timing

The film opens in a museum in Vienna. We are moving around a number of familiar paintings by Gustav Klimt as the oddly fitting piano of Tom Waits plays "Invitation to the Blues" and credits roll. As Waits sings this sad, haunting ballad, we are presented, in this bright room of natural light, with the shadowy forms of Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), as they consider the Klimts. Waits continues to sing, mentioning "Cagney," "Hayworth," and "the counter of Schwab’s drugstore," overlaying a bit of Hollywood darkness in this Austrian room of glowing gold paintings. Before the song can play out, a dissonant sound begins to rise behind it . . . a Klimt image dissolves to a darker image by Egon Shiele, two figures locked in what may be a kiss, but looks vampiric . . . the sound rises, drowning out Waits . . .

And we cut to Vienna at night, the painfully loud siren that has been rising now at full, an ambulance racing down a dark street. Inside, Milena is gasping for life as she is given oxygen, Alex sitting next to her, oddly cool and distant. He notices that the paramedic attending Milena appears to be smiling as he looks down her robe at her cleavage, and quickly leans over to adjust it and block his view as we hear the voice of her thoughts say "Stefan, I’m sorry," and we move into her memory . . .

Now, trying to do a straight summary of the plot of Bad Timing breaks down, as the film is constantly shifting between the events of this night and the overlapping, non-chronological flashbacks of Alex and Milena reliving their relationship (as well as what may be fantasies of another character imagining what the history of Alex and Milena has been like); also, many of these flashbacks may be not what “actually” happened, but events as the characters remember them, or wish they had happened (several incidents are repeated, with crucial details changed as the people remembering change their memories to present themselves in a better light). So in lieu of how the plot is presented, a bit of how it goes, somewhat untangled:

Milena has attempted suicide with an overdose of pills, first calling Alex to say goodbye. Alex went to her apartment, and, finding her comatose, called the ambulance and has accompanied her to the hospital. As she is taken into an operating room, Alex is asked a number of routine questions about Milena, himself, and their relationship. Routine questions, yes, but Alex’s answers are variously arrogant, evasive, hostile, or obvious lies, arousing suspicion in the policeman questioning him, who calls in his superior, Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) to examine the situation further. Netusil questions Alex, receiving no more information then before, but unnerving Alex by coolly standing up to his arrogance and condescension (Alex, obviously fluent in German, apparently refuses to speak a word, and, when offered a cigarette, pointedly notes he only smokes an American brand). Making sure that Alex intends to stay at the hospital to await word of Milena's condition, Netusil begins to investigate the case as Dr. Alex Linden remembers . . .

Alex and Milena met at a party and were immediately attracted to each other, falling quickly into an obsessive, sexually-based relationship. Alex is a celebrated "research psychiatrist" from New York City, teaching in Vienna, sometimes at the Freud Museum, cold, distant, fiercely intellectual, but somehow charismatic; Milena is an US Army brat of no apparent means of support who has wandered back through the countries she was raised in to find herself in Vienna, a free spirit, a boisterous extrovert who can also fall into sudden depressions, with a growing drinking problem. We see bits and pieces of their relationship both from Alex's memories and from Milena’s as they remember them -- Milena sliding in and out of consciousness on the operating table while Alex paces the corridors and night streets outside.

Meanwhile, Inspector Netusil, investigating Milena's suicide attempt, begins to find evidence that makes nonsense of Alex's version of the evening’s events, and, in trying to make sense of what he finds, in police records and in the disorder of Milena’s apartment, begins to play psychiatrist himself to figure out the twisted relationship of Alex and Milena, and some of what we see of their past may be nothing but his own supposition as to what happened between the two of them.

At the hospital, Alex plays detective with his own memories, seeming to look for the places where everything went wrong between himself and Milena. His arrogance and need for control being frustrated in his complete sexual obsession with the uncontrollable Milena, he began to treat her with greater cruelty and suspicion, believing that she was sleeping with every man she looked at for more than a moment. Doing some top secret profiling work for the US military in Vienna, investigating possible operatives for intelligence work, Alex discovers that one of his subjects, Stefan Vlodnik (Denholm Elliot), a Czech citizen, is in fact married to Milena, albeit estranged, resulting in yet another confrontation with her, and attempts to force her to get a divorce. The relationship degenerates into passionate sex interspersed with violent arguments and several "breakups," which always end with Alex or Milena having to see the other again, unable to stay away despite how terrible it keeps turning out. As much as they try to love each other, they seem to be doomed by "bad timing" -- one of them will always say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time to set the other one off into cruelty towards the other.

Netusil, by this point, has discovered another kind of "bad timing": that the facts point to Alex being at Milena’s apartment well over an hour earlier than he had claimed, and of having thus waited to call the ambulance until long after Milena had fallen into her coma.

Something happened between Alex and Milena in her room that night. Something horrible, it would seem. And Netusil brings Alex back there to confront him, hoping to provoke him into some kind of confession. But of what?

"You must understand, Dr. Linden, it is not enough to love a woman, especially when she is so . . . difficult. You must love her tremendously. Even more than one’s own dignity, don’t you agree?"
-- Stefan Vlodnik (Denholm Elliot) in Bad Timing

Bad Timing is a difficult, disturbing film that polarizes its audience (as small as that audience has been). Almost every aspect seems designed to walk a fine line between brilliant and clumsy, and every viewer will find it entirely one or the other (I fall, as is obvious, into those who find all of it brilliant). Theresa Russell has generally received praise for her brave performance as Milena - not just brave in terms of willing to be filmed from unflattering angles in various states of undress or non-dress, but emotionally brave and revealing - but Garfunkel and Keitel have just as often been criticized for performances that are for some, respectively, wooden and overwrought, but for others perfectly capture the cool distance of Alex and the emotional, manipulative Netusil.

Roeg, who had reimagined the form of the horror film in Don't Look Now and the science-fiction film in The Man Who Fell To Earth, here, whether intentionally or not, uses the tropes of noir - multiple flashbacks, including flashbacks within flashbacks and untrustworthy, subjective flashbacks; an investigator as involved in his case for emotional, personal reasons as for the law or justice; a seemingly rational, level-headed man’s obsession with a woman sending him to irrational, violent lengths - to question his audience’s ideas about the possibility of trusting memory and perception, and about how terrible they might become themselves under similar circumstances. Though we are presented with what seems to be the truth of what happened between Alex and Milena on one horrible night, we can never know for sure.

Or can we? It doesn’t spoil anything to say that the coda to the film takes place months, maybe years, after the film proper, and a final encounter between the former lovers, in another city, on another continent, with Alex still obsessed, facing a silent Milena, her previously warm, open face now transformed into a cruel, pitiless mask of hatred. Perhaps the film could be subtitled, "The Creation of a Femme-Fatale."

Bad Timing has not been released to date on USA video in any form, though a terrible pan-and-scan version of this beautifully-shot widescreen film used to show up on cable from time to time. An okay, bare-bones R2 DVD release came out from Carlton in England a couple of years ago, and I believe it has also come out in Australia. It will finally be released tomorrow, Tuesday, September 27, on DVD in the USA by the Criterion Collectionin a beautiful transfer with many extras. If you’re willing to maybe be one of the “sick people” who prize this film above most others, please check it out.


Karen said...

Wonderful reanalysis of this terrific film, which has been one of my favorites for years. Did a paper on it in film theory class years ago.

Post a Comment