Bad Timing, the 1980 feature film by Nicolas Roeg, controversial in its release, went undistributed for home audiences until 2005 when Criterion put out a digital remastering. This version is streaming on Netflix.
The controversy surrounding the film in 1980 seemed to reach a general consensus of repulsion. NYT critic Janet Maslin wrote, “Though the title refers to the vagaries of their relationship, it could just as easily denote the pattern of the story's exposition. Scrambled flashbacks help complicate this tale, which begins as a tepid romance and ends with a tepid crime.” Messy, petty, and disquieting, the film explores an ill-fated love affair between Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), a university lecturer and psychoanalyst, and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), a student and all around bon vivant. Though sexually explicit, the film’s real boldness comes from an unflinching treatment of human weakness and erotic compulsion.
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Writer: Yale Udoff
Producers: Jeremy Thomas, Tim Van Rellim
Cinematographer: Anthony Richmond
Editor: Tony Lawson
Music: Richard Hartley
Cast: Art Garfunkel, Theresa Russell, Harvey Keitel, Denholm Elliott
Premiere: March 1980, San Francisco International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 25, 1980
US Distributor: World Northal (theatrical), The Criterion Collection (DVD)
Controversy was hardly new for Roeg in 1980, whose Performance (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), and Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), all honed in on contemporary anxieties, and gave him a sort of maudite status. Roeg began his career as a director of photography, and this film really highlights the director’s sense of art and naturalism. Bad Timing shows a moody and expressionistic Vienna, visually indebted to Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). He captures the hurly burly baroque of Viennese Art Nouveau thrown against a pervasive late-century brutalist drab. In an early scene, the two lovers wander through the Klimt museum. The camera falls on a romantic portrait of a lover’s embrace then moves to a grotesque double of the same portrait. This, of course, establishes the central theme of the picture: an exploration of erotic desire.
The film’s action unfolds over the course of a single night, with flashbacks telling the story of Alex and Milena’s affair. Harvey Keitel co-stars as a police lieutenant investigating Milena’s apparent suicide attempt. Through the course of the flashbacks several facts become clear. Alex and Milena are lovers but their relations do not satisfy Alex.
Milena asks, “What do you want? You already have everything.”
And Alex replies, “I want you to be mine.”
This seemingly simple statement seems to imply more than just exclusivity. Or even marriage. Bad Timing unapologetically engages a central theme of psychoanalysis: desire as erotic compulsion.
Like Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), the film effectively illustrates the manner in which erotic desire is necessarily founded in a lack. Alex experiences a desire that he obsessively cultivates through increasingly desperate measures, because desire in itself is pleasurable.
Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian pop-philosopher and critic, paraphrases French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, “Desire’s raison d’etre is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself.” Far from possessing an object of desire (in this case Milena), we derive pleasure from not possessing it. Desire can only be experienced as a sort of shell game. This has always been challenging for psychoanalysts, because compulsive movement towards annihilation, of self or object of desire, reflects a drive not understandable by the simple Freudian Pleasure Principle (that human’s maximize pleasure) because these existential movements can be painful—not necessarily pleasurable in themselves. Lacan suggests they reflect an almost metaphysical experience called Jouissance. The pitfalls Alex facilitates, prolong his movement towards possession, always deferring at what he might consider “enough.”
Hipster conventions have long resuscitated Garfunkel from sideman to something like wizened rabbi of cool, a Garfunkel surrogate provides a deus ex machina moment in Jonathan Lethem’s 2009 Chronic City, but there is still something especially satisfying in his Bad Timing performance.
He is not an actor with much emotional range (the movie lets Harvey Keitel, Theresa Russell, and Denholm Elliot to do most of the heavy lifting) but when you consider his only other picture was Carnal Relations (1971), with Garfunkel as sexual naïf, the difference in characters could not be more striking. What a difference the decade makes. Alex is so thoroughly sexualized, however neurotic, that the audience can’t help but follow his paranoid debauchery to the inevitable end. That the film came out a year before Simon and Garfunkel’s The Concert in Central Park, adds another tasty level of contradiction, as its hard to envision a wider gulf between Bad Timing’s satyr and The Concert’s oh so earnest “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
In a final note, Bad Timing has an enormous soundtrack, with Tom Waits, The Who, and Billie Holliday. For children of boomers, a sweet scene of something like reconciliation complimented by Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert will set off all sorts of pavlovian bells and whistles. The film enjoys a well-deserved cult status, as well as a resounding X rating.