Performance June 23, 2016
Experimentalism can only go so far before I begin to feel the effects of sensory overload-induced fatigue. Slaphappy style can most successfully avert my attention in the form of a painting or a short-form video, but when bombarded by it for the length of a feature film do I rapidly lose that ever-important feeling called interest. While I’m all for artistic expression within the scope of a risky piece, I’m not so easily seduced by a movie that has nothing much else to offer besides its style; I like visual massages better when they take the time to emotionally, or at least intellectually, get me to a point of an optical climax.
But Performance is like Midnight Cowboy minus the wide-ranging palette of humanistic feelings. It’s a series of overbearing imagery without the depth to make it resonate as anything other than a masturbatory cinematic exercise on the part of its filmmakers. Here, those filmmakers are Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, a pair of icons of the British avant-garde who used the movie, like star Mick Jagger, as a vehicle to debut their innovative auteurist maneuvers.
And I can take it — to a point. Performance begins with tantalization but leads to a bad case of exhaustion on the part of its viewers. It’s a film more impressed by its own ocular smorgasbord than it is with nearly everything else. In return, we get a hallucinatory masterpiece that also leaves you dazed and confused, never allowing for unguarded enthrallment.
Despite its habit of toting Jagger as its main, Performance is really headlined by James Fox, a blue-eyed beaut with a snake in his boot. He portrays Chas, an East London gang member whose sadistic nature has gained him a reputation as one of the finest thugs working for Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon), the ruthless leader of the crime conglomerate. His liking of beating the truth (and cash) out of Flowers’s said enemies translates into his sex life, where rough encounters abound. He’s a brute, and maybe we wouldn’t be so mesmerized by his persona if we weren’t so sure that there were some vulnerability lurking beneath his hardened surface.
Chas could go on living like the devilish beast that he is for the rest of his life. But his rigid assurance sinks into a pit of despair when he kills (in self-defense) a murderous shop owner with whom he has a mangled personal history. After Flowers refuses him protection — to off him is easier — Chas figures it be best to hide in the secluded countryside until the smoke clears off. But a change of fate keeps him in London, sharing the house of Turner (Jagger), a loony, has-been rock star, and his women, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton). What begins as an attempt to find solitude, though, turns into something more as the strange goings-on within the House of Turner start to have an effect on its newest resident.
In principle, Performance is two films merged into one, one a revamping of the gangster movie genre and the other a critiquing of rock-star life. Though I prefer it when it’s emulating Le Doulos and having a profound influence on Guy Ritchie, neither film, if looked at individually, would be a good one. Such is so because Cammell, who wrote the screenplay, isn’t interested in developing the characters or the situation that befalls them; he gives most work to Roeg, whose visual peculiarities overstay their welcome after a half-hour passes and we come to realize that the movie is more pretense-ridden than it is meaningful. It asks us to have our cake and eat it, too, but it snatches it out of our hands before we can appreciate its sugary delights. It’s unable to connect with its audience — it’s too self-congratulating for that.
But at least it pulls out first-rate performances from Fox (a sly miscreant) and Jagger (a magnetic presence), and at least it’s fertile enough in its imagery to avoid everyday boredom. But it does verge on the tedious and it does cross paths with the overblown on many occasion. How one responds to its stylistic superfluities depends. C+