Bad Timing October 5, 2017
icolas Roeg, among the most challenging of iconoclasts, cuts his movies in a way that parallels one’s thought process. Forget about linear storytelling: sophisticated is the jumbling up of an arrangement of images and ideas and hoping they’ll eventually stick together texturally. Such is a divisive
recurrence in Roeg’s films, like Hitchcock’s adoration of cool blondes or the Dardenne brothers’ rejection of musical scoring.
Some find Roeg’s stylistic signature artistically interesting, while others, like myself, don’t take to it so easily. I found his regularly lauded, supposed masterstrokes Performance (1970) and Don’t Look Now (1973) to be, for instance, unfocused and jarring, their prolix storylines made more defeating by Roeg’s never-ending fascination with manipulating time.
But Theresa Russell, the female lead of his polarizing 1980 psychosexual drama Bad Timing, thinks this is an exciting storytelling method. “You think kind of back and forth and up and down — you don’t think A-B-C, in chronological order,” she told Sam Wasson in 2011. “I really think that Nic changed the grammar of film. [Bad Timing] was ahead of its time.”
On one hand, we can agree with Russell’s sentiments. Bad Timing is about the torrid relationship between the unscrupulous college professor Alex (Art Garfunkel) and the narcotic-dependent 22-year-old Milena (Russell). In the film’s present, Milena is getting her stomach pumped, having devoured a bottle of sleeping spills, and her suicide is being investigated by the strong-willed Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel). This leads Alex, who’s been called to the building, to reminisce about his romance with the woman, and what led to its souring. As such, Roeg’s fragmented storytelling technique makes sense: When one remembers a past romance, after all, only certain chunks can be retrieved, some euphoric and some hellacious.
But because part of the movie is shadowed in mystery — since Milena is introduced as a woman fighting for her life, we’re curious how she got to this state — Roeg’s modus operandi starts to resemble a sickening ploy. We discover, moments before the feature comes to a close, that Alex might not have immediately called an ambulance upon stumbling upon his lover in her drugged-up state — he might have done something heinous before doing the moral thing. So as long as the movie is told nonlinearly, the director seems to reason, it might bring a kind of elegance to the fact that this movie might have otherwise been lurid and repulsive.
The film has a lot in common with Gaspar Noé’s horrifying Irréversible (2002), which, infamously, circles around the brutal rape of a pregnant woman and the vengeance that followed. Like Bad Timing, it tells its story nonlinearly, albeit backward. But conversely, Noé’s construction of the plot does not feel like a stylistic provocation: it is, in fact, vital to the movie’s success. By pushing its ugliness to its forefront, we’re forced to not only consider how much revenge is justified, but also ruminate on just how much cinematic violence we’ve consumed in the past without really processing what’s been placed in front of us.
But Roeg, who adapted Yale Udoff’s screenplay conventionally only to decide during post-production to scramble the editing, makes Bad Timing complement the ideas and memories of Alex, who is despicable. This is a film about sexual obsession — and a generally unhealthy relationship — gone severely wrong, but it does not stimulate. Comparable movies, like Vertigo (1958) or The Piano Teacher (2001), could overcome their inherent ugliness by concocting flawed characters we wanted to unravel, in spite of their wrongdoings.
But we despise Alex, who is your typical misogynist who won’t stand for a woman who won’t adhere to his sexual and emotional needs. And we’re baffled by Udoff’s characterization of Milena, who is rendered so unbelievably unstable that we’re certain a part of the screenwriter and Roeg wanted us to slightly side with the man antagonizing her so.
The wrongheaded developing of these characters, along with the misguided use of the nonlinear narrative, though, are the least of Bad Timing’s troubles. Most painful is how unsuccessful it is in drawing a convincing romance between the leads. We can partially blame this on the way Udoff’s screenplay too aggressively highlights what was wrong with the relationship — therefore we’re pressed to really understand why these individuals were drawn to one another in the first place — and partially on how no chemistry exists between Garfunkel and Russell. Garfunkel is a smarmy weasel; Russell is a mad she-beast who deserves a place in a better movie.
Bad Timing is a failure, the rare sort of a reprehensible movie whose existence has the power to incite outrage. But Russell is so fantastic — believably worn and out of control — that a viewing might be warranted just to see what an electric presence she is. Everything else about Bad Timing, though, is seedy, nightmarish. I wish I could scrub it off. C-