Nicolas Roeg: Seven great moments

Nicolas Roeg, who died last week, made films that — through his use of chronology-jumbling cuts — defied clip culture. Yet there are still moments in his work that act as calling cards to his great skill. Here are seven scenes that amaze us to this day.

Stephen Puddicombe
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The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

When Nicolas Roeg died last week, he left behind a body of work featuring some unforgettable films. The British director was a pioneer of a radical, new style of filmmaking that was at once hugely influential — Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan cite him as an essential inspiration — and distinct. You could never mistake a Nicolas Roeg film for anyone else’s.

You might not immediately associate Roeg’s style with that of someone who constructed memorable stand-alone scenes. Howard Hawks’ famous maxim that all a good film needs is “Three great scenes and no bad ones” does not easily apply to a filmmaker who would weave together his work out of fragments. His abstracted, innovative edits featured sudden flashbacks and flashforwards, which interrupted the linear flow of time and disrupting the scene’s cohesion. Isolated moments in his films cannot easily be comprehended. You need the context of the whole.

And yet there are certain scenes that do stand out when contemplating Roeg’s oeuvre. Take Don’t Look Now, his 1973 masterpiece about a married couple trying to come to terms with the death of their child. It’s a film that exemplifies Roeg’s technique of fragmentation. Premonitions of the future and flashbacks to past trauma persistently interrupt the narrative, but it’s also famous for certain moments — and three sequences in particular, all of which are analysed below.

With the exception of adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990), all of the scenes we’ve written about here are from Roeg’s 1970s work. Those films include: Performance (1970), an avant-garde cocktail of East End gangsters, bohemian counterculture and fluid identities; the Australian-set coming-of-age survival film Walkabout (1971); and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), his mysterious sci-fi about a visiting alien who is corrupted by earth’s worst vices.

There is much more of Roeg’s work to be explored in addition to that, from his fledgling work as a cinematographer, such as The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Petulia (1968), or his provocative, divisive later work like Bad Timing (1980) and Eureka (1983). But the films he made at the start of his directorial career constitute arguably the greatest ever run of cinematic creativity from a British director, so we’ve mostly limited our scope to the early 70s.

Performance (1970): Memo from Turner

Performance (1970)

Performance (1970)

If you’re going to cast one of the world’s greatest rock stars in your film, it would be remiss not to give him a storming number to sing — especially when one of its major themes is, as made clear by the title, performing. That’s exactly what the Memo from Turner sequence is for Mick Jagger in Performance, Roeg’s feature debute, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell. In an electrifying rock ‘n’ roll number the Rolling Stones’ frontman barks at a room of gangsters in a hallucinatory scene typical of the film’s psychedelic, fluid style. 

Jagger owns the scene, first buttoned-up in a wise-guy suit, then later — in one of the film’s many identity swaps — in his long haired, more effeminate guise. Roeg adds to the disorientation by having an overhead lamp swing back and forth over the room, and the editing becomes increasingly frantic as the song reaches its crescendo.

Walkabout (1971): encounter with an Indigenous Australian

Walkabout (1971)

Walkabout (1971)

Shot on location in Australia, Roeg masterfully exploited the considerable cinematic potential of the outback’s landscape for his 1971 film Walkabout, capturing the searing heat of the golden sun, the dusty dryness of the land and its many exotic, menacing creatures.

In this vast unpopulated wilderness, it is nevertheless an encounter between people that makes for the film’s most memorable scene. A girl and her young brother, forced to fend for themselves after their crazed father commits suicide, spot an Indigenous Australian nimbly hunting a lizard, taming the environment that threatens to overwhelm the children. At first they speak at each other uncomprehendingly in their native tongues, each wary of the other. But then the younger brother breaks through to him via a gesture, prompting a cathartic laugh of recognition from the Indigenous Australian that breaks the tension and starts a companionship that will shape the rest of the film.

Don’t Look Now (1973): opening scene

Has there ever been an opening to a film more devastating than the first moments of Don’t Look Now? Beginning with the serene sight of a little girl playing in the vast, secluded garden of her countryside home while her parents sit contently together indoors, a sense of disquiet creeps into the idyllic scene through startlingly loud, subliminal close-ups of some glass shattering and a cup being dropped. Unease becomes outright panic when we suddenly cut to the girl’s body drifting beneath the surface of a pond, and culminates in the shattering image of Donald Sutherland howling in despair, clutching the lifeless body of his deceased daughter.

It’s a sequence that is at once avant-garde in its construction (and quite possibly the finest example in all of Roeg’s work of the experimental cross-cutting he was famous for), while also eliciting raw, relatable emotion, capturing the surreal horror and banal awfulness of every parent’s worst nightmare.

Don’t Look Now (1973): sex scene

By 1973 the Hays Code, which had for decades prohibited what was permitted to be shown in cinemas, had been lifted for five years, during which time newly-liberated filmmakers in Hollywood had experimented and pushed the boundaries of previously taboo topics such as violence, bad language and sex.

Even in this climate of radical creativity, the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now stands out as especially bold. It caused a huge fuss at the time, and was so naturalistic in its frankness that audiences were fooled into believing that their performance wasn’t simulated.

Inevitably, the 45 years that have passed since its release has diluted its shock-value, but the scene endures thanks to its innovative editing — the couple’s coital intimacy is cross-cut with flash-forwards to them getting dressed afterwards, expressing simultaneously the fleeting passion and the mundane elements of their married life.

Don’t Look Now (1973): closing scene

One mark of a great filmmaker is the ability to transform and leave an indelible imprint on the most commonplace, unremarkable of objects or occurrences, so that audiences will never be able to perceive them the same way again. In this sense, Roeg is to red coats what Hitchcock was to showers and Spielberg to the ocean.

The child-sized, bright red anorak that the daughter dies in becomes a recurring image throughout the film, as Donald Sutherland is haunted by glimpses of a small figure wearing it while on vacation in Venice. In the climactic scene, he follows the mysterious child into an abandoned building, where, in a shocking, unnerving twist, it turns around to reveal itself to be not a child but a dwarf, who brandishes a knife and stabs him fatally in the neck. It’s a masterful sleight of hand from Roeg who expresses the pathology of the father’s grief while generating a trauma of our own.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976): the alien reveals itself

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Few people to have walked the earth could make themselves look more alien than David Bowie, so he was the perfect candidate to play the visiting extra-terrestrial in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Yet in one particularly striking scene he peels back the layers to reveal his authentic alien appearance, one that’s even more unusual looking.

The scene begins with the alien stood in a bathroom, his image reflected back at him through both a large and smaller mirror in a complex arrangement. He strips, first out of his clothes, then out of his human skin altogether.

We don’t actually see him shed, as the film cuts to his lover in the other room, and from here the tension builds up as in a horror film before he presents his real self to her. She screams in abject horror at the sight, but he is no monster; rather an exposed creature stood naked in his true form.

The Witches (1990): the convention

The Witches (1989)

The Witches (1989)

A family adventure adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel might seem something of a departure for a director who made his name making such adult-orientated work, but The Witches features enough frightful stuff to terrify the kids and get under the skin of their parents.

Take the scene in which the witches gather together for their annual convention. Through the use of some terrific latex special effects, we see the Grand High Witch peeling off her human mask to expose her hideous, grotesque face, another variation on the theme of shocking reveals Roeg had already explored in Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. She addresses the crowd as Roeg deploys an array of Dutch angles and unbecoming close-ups, all building up to a frenzy of quick-cutting and sudden zooms as the Grand High Witch zaps one of her disobedient underlings into a small pile of ashes.

 

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