Where to begin with Nicolas Roeg

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the visionary cinema of Nicolas Roeg.

Matthew Thrift

Don't Look Now (1973)

Don't Look Now (1973)

Why this might not seem so easy

Tackling the films of Nicolas Roeg is to attempt to get to grips with one of British cinema’s most idiosyncratic stylists. However, with the exception of his 1991 film Cold Heaven (still maddeningly unavailable on DVD), all of his films are at least now pretty easy to track down. This wasn’t always the case. Take 1980’s Bad Timing: “A sick film made by sick people for sick people,” said the Rank Organisation; the film’s own distributors embarrassedly withdrawing it from circulation for more than two decades following a short release.

A similar fate had befallen his co-directorial debut Performance (1970), with Warner Bros execs in the US refusing to release the film until a series of cuts and administrative shuffles were in place. Even after the success of Don’t Look Now (1973), Roeg couldn’t catch a break Stateside; his 1976 masterpiece The Man Who Fell to Earth arrived in cinemas heavily truncated, while MGM would hold Eureka (1983) back from its pitiful distribution for a couple of years (only in summer 2016 did it find its way to UK home video uncut, courtesy of the Masters of Cinema imprint).

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

It seems that studio executives have always been allergic to Roeg’s mesmerising experiments with narrative, those temporal dances that eschew linear editing patterns in favour of hauntingly fragmented visual mosaics. It’s a sad inevitability that a voice as distinctive as his would find itself increasingly marginalised as the years went by, releasing only three theatrical features after his last major studio gig (The Witches, 1990) while consigned to a handful of largely anonymous works for television.

Even with such consistent wrangling to get his work seen, for two decades Roeg’s commitment to an audacious storytelling vision remained undimmed. To watch any of the 10 features he made between 1970 and 1990 – each radical, fractured examinations of physical and emotional landscapes, of isolation and alienation, of foreignness and outsiders, of sex and death – is to see a master filmmaker constantly searching for an elliptical means of communication unbeholden to the dotted i’s and crossed t’s of mainstream cinematic language.

The best place to start – Performance

If critical opinion has shifted somewhat over the years when it comes to assigning authorship to the first film that bears Roeg’s name as director – favouring artist-turned-screenwriter (and the film’s co-director) Donald CammellPerformance remains an essential part of the Roeg canon. Part gangster film, part psychedelic identity trip, the film sees James Fox’s wide-boy-on-the-lam and Mick Jagger’s reclusive musician lose/fuse themselves in a bitches brew of drugs and existential ramblings.

In this time capsule of an era’s dying embers, the directing duo stir up an overflowing melting pot of disparate styles. The ramshackle bohemian decadence of Jagger’s Notting Hill gaff consuming and transforming Fox’s fish-out-of-water like so many of Roeg’s alien terrains.

It would be remiss, however, to overlook Roeg’s prior career as cinematographer, in which many of his stylistic traits can be found in embryo: the symbolic shocks of red that prefigure Don’t Look Now in Roger Corman’s phantasmagoric marvel, The Masque of the Red Death (1964); the frenzied zooms that highlight incident and bring a manic intensity of movement to François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1968); and, perhaps most notably, the flashbacks and jagged jump cuts of Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) – a proto-Nic Roeg film if ever there was one.

Performance (1970)

Performance (1970)

What to watch next

Foreign landscapes serve as more than mere backdrop to the successive films that would follow: from the Venetian canals of Don’t Look Now through the border-zone wilderness of Bad Timing’s Vienna, all the way to the absolute isolation of Castaway’s (1986) desert island, Roeg charts the psychogeographical effects a place asserts on his protagonists.

Walkabout (1971)

Walkabout (1971)

His first solo credit as director, Walkabout (1971) sees two children adrift in the Australian outback, torn from ‘civilisation’ by the apparent suicide of their father. Shot with lyrically unexpected angles and a full stylistic arsenal, Roeg’s Oz could as easily be the Garden of Eden as the surface of Mars, a stage set for burgeoning sexuality and an explosive approach to form – not least sound design – that verges on the extraterrestrial.

The alien’s eye view would manifest itself literally a few years later in The Man Who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie’s visitor from another world falling foul of capitalist dependency in a bid to save his home planet from extinction. Never a filmmaker inclined to make explicit political statements, Roeg pushes his narrative ellipses further than anywhere else in his filmography for a dreamlike reimagining of the myth of Icarus. Through his parallel editing, hallucinatory cross-cutting and time-travelling leaps across cuts, Roeg fashions his most poetic work. Its visual structure is not as rigorous as that of Don’t Look Now perhaps, but it’s every bit as heartbreaking – a tragedy finally borne out of an excess of humanity.

Bad Timing (1980)

Bad Timing (1980)

For many, Bad Timing is Roeg’s masterpiece, but it’s by no means an easy watch. A relatively straightforward story that tells of a passionate love affair that spirals out of control, the film sees Roeg’s approach to narrative structure at its most formidable. Flashing forwards and backwards from Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell’s meet-cute to her suicide attempt, as a detective (Harvey Keitel) attempts to extract a confession from Garfunkel concerning the hours leading up to her hospitalisation, it’s a bruising examination of sexual and psychological warfare.

The film itself feels like an open wound, infected by Roeg’s harsh and uncompromising editing patterns. Bad Timing is a study of emotional guilt, dependency and control whose labyrinthine complexities ask questions of memory and responsibility. Its climactic sequence led the Rank Organisation to have their signature gong man removed from the opening credits.

While not as narratively cohesive as his best works, Eureka remains an essential watch. Its bifurcated structure sees Gene Hackman’s prospector strike gold before leaping forward to his later years of untold wealth in the Bahamas. Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg set out sprawling Kane-like themes, but the abundance of cosmic mysticism and symbolism never wholly click. Still, it’s wonderfully strange, at its best in an opening act that prefigures the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s wordless opening to There Will Be Blood (2007), as Hackman hits the motherlode, washed away by a river of gold in the Canadian wilderness.

The Witches (1990)

The Witches (1990)

Jumping ahead to 1990, Muppet-maestro Jim Henson knew what he was doing when he tapped Roeg for an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The result is a kid’s film ostensibly, but one shot with all the tropes of a full-blown horror movie.

Roeg goes for broke in the film’s central set-piece, a witches’ convention at an English seaside hotel. Crash-zooms and leering grotesquerie are the order of the day – the stuff of adult (let alone childhood) nightmares. The ending may be compromised – two were shot, but studio nerves following a test screening won out – leading Dahl to denounce the film, but it’s a stylistic marvel, complete with a killer turn from Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch.

Where not to start

It’s easy to wonder where Roeg could possibly go next after the apocalyptic finale of his terrific Einstein-meets-Marilyn picture, Insignificance (1985). If Castaway is the film of his most in need of reappraisal, Track 29 (1988) sees him at his most hilariously bonkers. In this adaptation of a Dennis Potter play, relocated Stateside, Gary Oldman stars as a mysterious visitor infiltrating the home of a loveless couple. Cue Freudian hysterics dialled all the way up, as accents and tantrums abound.

Roeg’s return to the big screen after a string of made-for-TV movies – including an unfortunate Sweet Bird of Youth (1989) with Elizabeth Taylor, a straightforwardly respectful Heart of Darkness (1993) and an awkward stab at cable-erotica with Full Body Massage (1995) – came in 2007 with Puffball. Adapted from a novel by Fay Weldon, it’s not without a wealth of ideas, but it doesn’t really hang together. There’s little here to suggest the presence of the Roeg of old.

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