The setting is Vienna. A young American woman is brought to a hospital after overdosing on pills, apparently in a suicide attempt. A police detective suspects foul play on the part of her lover, an American psychology professor. As doctors try to save her life, the detective interrogates the professor, and through flashbacks we see the events leading up to the woman's overdose; her stormy and intensely sexual relationship with the professor, her heavy drinking and numerous affairs, and her estrangement from her Czech husband. A darkly erotic study of several rather unsympathetic characters.
Art Garfunkel ... Alex Linden
Theresa Russell ... Milena Flaherty
Harvey Keitel ... Inspector Netusil
Denholm Elliott ... Stefan Vognic
Daniel Massey ... Foppish Man
Dana Gillespie ... Amy Miller
William Hootkins ... Col. Taylor
Eugene Lipinski ... Hospital Policeman
George Roubicek ... Policeman #1
Stefan Gryff ... Policeman #2
Sevilla Delofski ... Czech Receptionist
Robert Walker ... Konrad
Gertan Klauber ... Ambulance Man
Ania Marson ... Dr. Schneider
When BAD TIMING: A SENSUAL OBSESSION emerged in 1980, its distributor dropped it like a hot potato. Sex! Surgery! Semen stains! Strippers rolling around on meshy overwire! It was all too much for the Rank Organization, a fading production empire with a long history of releasing family classics like GREAT EXPECTATIONS. (Curiously, Rank did sponsor a 'Win a trip to Vienna, location of BAD TIMING!' publicity contest at early bookings). The only reason they financed the picture, allegedly, was for its Freudian-tinged pedigree. When they saw the finished product, they labeled it 'a film about sick people, made by sick people, for sick people.'
Deviant psychology is but one of the many twisted pleasures in this tragically neglected masterpiece from '70s visionary Nicolas Roeg. With iconoclastic films like WALKABOUT, DON'T LOOK NOW and MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, Roeg pioneered a new kind of film language. He replaced traditional narrative storytelling with stunning photography, explicit carnality and a signature editing style of jump cuts, cross cuts and subliminal flicker cuts Mixmastered into a mosaic of multiple interpretations. (Unlike today's A.D.D.-inducing overkill, Roeg's fragmentary cutting technique always provided insight into character psychology.) To those of us weaned on art cinema in the '70s and energized by the limitless possibilities of the medium, Nicolas Roeg was (and remains) a god. No filmmaker since has picked up the maverick torch that this deity carried for more than a decade.
Trying to encapsulate BAD TIMING's nuanced, character-driven plot is like describing Europe in a postcard. Essentially, it's about an eroticized interpersonal attraction that goes horribly awry, spiraling into jealousy, paranoia and (of course) sexual obsession. Theresa Russell's wild child Milena (the personification of Henry James' headstrong American girl abroad) is compulsively drawn to a fellow Yank stationed in Austria -- the buttoned-down, Freudian shrink/visiting prof Dr. Linden. Their passionate affair has led to a potentially tragic outcome, and it's up to a local police inspector (Harvey Keitel) to sort out what went wrong, why, and whether criminal malice was involved.
What makes this relationship drama so compelling is Roeg's structure: the film starts in the middle, jumps ahead to the end, then back to the prologue within the first four minutes – and continues in a non-linear fashion until the final shot. It takes us viewers a while to get our bearing, but it also elicits our rapt attention to detail. Never are we certain if the cascading flashbacks are meant to be objective on the filmmaker's part, or the skewed perspective of one of the three main characters. Is Russell a victim, or a tramp? Is Garfunkel a creep, or is that just Keitel's projection? Is Keitel a sympathetic doppelganger, or a crafty manipulator? The stars turn in complex, though off-center performances. Keitel turns miscasting to his advantage; never has he underplayed 'menacing' like he does here. Garfunkel's lack of charisma will turn many viewers off, but he's 100% believable as a shrewd, unstable shrink. Yet it's Russell who's the revelation – those who subscribe to the lazy theory that she can't act will be astonished here. What she may lack in formal technique, she compensates with fearless commitment. Hers may be the most passionate performance by a 21-year old ever captured on film.
Tony Richmond's widescreen photography is particularly rich in color and composition (the film's look was based on the art of Gustav Klimt). He shows us a Vienna that's cold, academic, clinical – but electric whenever Russell's on screen. There's a sequence in a university courtyard where he changes lenses, practically from shot to shot, to convey Russell's emotional collapse. (In the background, Keith Jarrett's 'Köln Concert' mourns her sad dilemma.) It's a heartbreaking passage, poetically surpassed only by the connecting shot of Garfunkel brooding through a polarized car windshield at daybreak. Frequently Richmond balances the stars' close-ups on the very edge of the screen, which is why the film's power is neutered on cable TV, where 2/3 of the image is lopped off. In that pan-and-scan atrocity, the screen is forever hovering on backgrounds and earlobes.
The real tragedy is that BAD TIMING has never been released on any home video format, and I fear it may never happen. It was made at a time when music licenses weren't automatically cleared for home viewing. Considering the eclectic soundtrack incorporates Jarrett, Tom Waits, The Who, Billie Holiday, Harry Partch and others, the idea of renegotiating deals at this point would be any lawyer's nightmare. Even worse, Roeg himself believes the few prints that Rank struck are probably lost or damaged beyond repair, and one fears for the state of the negative. My overlong, effusive review here is a direct plea for a rescue operation. Is any entrepreneurial DVD-releasing outfit willing to salvage this forgotten treasure from obscurity and give it the best letterboxed release possible? Once people are able to see this film as it was intended – for the first time in 24 years or more – I believe its reputation will grow immeasurably. There is simply no other film like it, and, based on current popular trends, nor will there ever be.
Based on an obscure Italian novel, Nicolas Roeg's upsetting and brilliant film details the doomed affair between a cruel psychoanalyst and a melodramatic free spirit. The film begins with the girl comatose and a detective investigates the circumstances. Through flashbacks, the audience learns a terrifying love story has ended with a criminal act.
What makes this film so uncomfortable is that it relentlessly focuses on a time in our lives that most of us would like to forget- that is, the time when you know is relationship is doomed, but you have to wait until it hits rock bottom before you finally part ways. Roeg understands that people can't divorce themselves from their emotions, even when they know intellectually that something is wrong.
Although Theresa Russell as Milena is the undoubted star of the film- she simply overpowers everything with her vivacity and directness- special mention must be made of the "miscast" male leads. Art Garfunkel gives a superb, selfless performance as Alex Linden. Alex is not a sympathetic character. He's a controlling, possessive person who gathers data on his unpremeditating mistress. Even an innocent game (the Luscher color test) ends up as part of a psychological profile that's handed in to a security agency. He's resentful as he watches Milena kiss other men but doesn't confront her about it until she's helplessly sprawled on the floor. He never relaxes except in post-coital moments and he becomes frustrated that Milena is untamed, unmarriageable and has a past that she won't share or give up.
Harvey Keitel is very charismatic, if unconvincing as an Austrian detective. His performance as the moralistic Inspector Netusil (the name refers to somebody who knows everything who knows one small detail) does not soften the arrogance or the self-righteousness of the character. A thorough investigator who knows that there's more to the case than a suicide attempt- he says plainly "How, Dr. Linden, do you account for a girl getting in such a state- drugs, depressions?" Milena is somebody who has no idea who has no idea what she wants out of life, sees pleasure as an end in itself and is prone to bouts of melodrama and selfishness. The best scene in the film is her drunken outburst at her uncaring lover: "We are celebrating the death of the Milena and the birth of the Milena you do want". It's a powerful sequence, but it begs the question- why would this beautiful, intelligent girl let herself get so messed up? Beautifully shot by Roeg's regular cinematographer Anthony Richmond and filled with small, telling moments (e.g. the handwritten note that says "I wish you understood me less and loved me more"), this is a picture that demands multiple viewings. Roeg at his peak made the busiest films of all time- they're bursting at the seams with ideas and this film, often shocking and heartbreaking, is one of his most accessible. It's unfortunate that this brilliant movie is not more well known- maybe Roeg was right when he said "people don't like it when you hold a mirror to their face".
Seen a quarter of a century on, 'Bad Timing' stands out as one of Nicolas Roeg's most satisfying and complex films and yet it can be one of his hardest to discuss. It's a film I feel a little guilty about writing so little about, but even on a second viewing it's still rather overwhelming. It's interesting how it manages to be so genuinely multi-layered, more like a novel than a film - the way it mixes voyeurism, spying and emotional, psychological and legal investigation (with Keitel's investigation of the suicide scene placing him firmly in scenes as an unseen voyeur through Terry Rawlings typically brilliant editing) is remarkable enough, but the film manages to do so much more besides. And the performances are incredibly brave - how many leading men can you think of who would effectively (and quite deliberately effeminately) play the woman's role during the lovers' initial meeting? Russell in particular shows an astonishing range in what should be an impossible part, making her inability to find decent roles these days even more disappointing.
True it falls apart in the last couple of reels when the performances don't quite ring true, but it's still the last great film Nic Roeg made before settling into prolific mediocrity. It's as a brilliantly edited post-mortem into a mutually destructive relationship rather than a police mystery that it really enthralls, even when it doesn't entirely work. Much more impressive than I remembered, it's not a feelgood movie - if anything it's the date movie from hell - but it is a remarkably ambitious and accomplished one.
So why is the film so little-known and perhaps even less-seen? Well, that seems to be down to some bad luck and bad timing of its own.
In the US it hit censorship problems and in Europe it had major problems with its distribution. It was one of Rank's last full slate of British productions, so should have been guaranteed a circuit release on the Odeon chain in the UK. Unfortunately, the head of Rank Theatres was so disgusted by the film (the Rank Organisation was originally started to make religious films and many of the old guard were still in place in 1980) that he refused to book it into a single one of their theatres - the only Rank film to be so 'honored' (although he wasn't much enamoured of Eagle's Wing either). The second biggest circuit was owned by Rank's biggest rival, EMI, who weren't interested in helping out their balance sheet, so it ended up on Lew Grade's very small Classic chain. Rank's distribution in Europe was no more enthusiastic.
(Of course, Roeg's next film and most expensive, Eureka, had even bigger problems, being pulled a couple of weeks after opening due to a libel lawsuit that kept it on the shelf for years. Since then, despite the not really successful brave try with Cold Heaven, he seems to be little more than a director for hire on a slew of disappointing pictures and cable movies.) As a result, it's hard to track down, but worth the effort if you're looking for challenging fare. Carlton have released a budget DVD in 2.35:1 in the UK which is an acceptable transfer, but the film remains as elusive as ever elsewhere.