Bad Timing

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Yale Udoff
Stars: Art Garfunkel (Alex Linden), Theresa Russell (Milena Flaherty), Harvey Keitel (Inspector Netusil), Denholm Elliott (Stefan Vognic), Daniel Massey (Foppish Man), Dana Gillespie (Amy), William Hootkins (Col. Taylor)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1980
Country: U.K.
Bad Timing Criterion Collection DVD
Bad TimingNicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing is a splintered portrait of a destructive love affair told with Roeg’s signature flair and intensity. Thrown about like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the film’s various scenes defy cause-and-effect linear structure long before such narrative trickery was fashionable (read: long before Pulp Fiction). Told in chronological order, the scenes would add up to a not terribly original story of love gone bad. However, Roeg’s approach of artfully jumbling them together so that events in the past can more readily inflect those of the present imbues the film with an added sense of urgency and despair. While this makes the story hard to follow the first time around, virtually demanding that Bad Timing be seen more than once, each subsequent viewing rewards more than the one before.

We see from the beginning that things have gone terribly wrong, as a young woman named Milena (Theresa Russell) is being rushed to a hospital after an apparent suicide attempt. Thus, even the happiest and most upbeat of scenes from the past are shadowed by the awful knowledge of where the road ends. Riding in the ambulance with her is Dr. Alex Linden, a research psychoanalyst who, when asks, refers to himself simply as Milena’s “friend.” That does not satisfy a police inspector (Harvey Keitel), who presses Alex for answers and slowly begins to piece together the story of their relationship.

Much of the film, then, is composed of flashbacks of Alex and Milena’s torrid affair, which takes place mostly in Vienna and begins at a party at which Alex says ominously, “If we don’t meet, there’s always the possibility that it could have been perfect.” But, they do meet, and they fall in love … or lust … or some form of intense connection that draws them together. Yet, it is doomed because Alex and Milena don’t fit together; they are like seemingly perfect pieces of a puzzle that can be forced to almost align, but ultimately never do. While he is protective, possessive, and jealous, she is flighty and open-hearted, a bird that refuses to be caged. While he constantly looks to the future, she is focused entirely on the present; he can never see the good of what’s happening in the now, while she can never reflect on how current actions affect future events. They’re both woefully short-sighted, but in opposite ways.

Bad Timing is a complex film, not only in structure, but also in terms of character. Both Alex and Milena are deeply flawed characters, and their flaws cause them to do damage to each other. Roeg doesn’t offer us any easy answers, and he refuses to make one characters the “good guy” and the other the “bad guy.” He realizes that, in the complicated dance of male-female relations, there is no black and white. Alex certainly does his share of damage with his jealousy and often brutish sense of entitlement, which culminates in a shocking sequence in which he takes advantage of Milena in a way that illustrates the sordid depth of his need for control. Yet, at the same time, Milena arguably bears much of the blame for their doomed relationship because her insistence on “freedom” and “living in the now” leaves little room for commitment and security. If she loves Alex, she often doesn’t show it in her carefree ways.

Screenwriter Yale Udoff’s fractured, nonlinear narrative style was heightened by Roeg during the editing, which allowed him to juxtapose different events in time, showing connections that might not otherwise be obvious. Sometimes it borders on belaboring the point, as when Roeg match cuts between Alex and the police investigator holding the exact same picture of a maze; but, at other times, the editing is strikingly evocative, such as when Roeg intercuts between Alex standing on a bridge in the present thinking about Milena, a flashback of them making love, and her in the hospital having her neck graphically cut open so that a breathing tube can be inserted. The cumulative effect is the violent collision of memory and reality, love and destruction, acceptance and denial.

While Bad Timing is often formally brilliant and carries a great deal of emotional weight, especially for anyone who has ever been involved in an intense relationship that was somehow doomed from the start, it is hampered by one key weakness: the performance by Art Garfunkel. Roeg had successful used pop stars in key roles in his previous films, most notably Mick Jagger in Performance (1970) and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Those two bits of stunt casting worked very well because the music icons Roeg picked meshed well with the roles they were required to play. The role of Alex Linden, on the other hand, is an incredibly complex one; it demands a great actor with great range, something that Garfunkel simply lacks. He is wooden and unconvincingly throughout the film, especially in comparison to the fire displayed by Theresa Russell in her breakthrough performance as Milena.

Like many of Roeg’s films, Bad Timing met with its share of controversy, starting with the company that distributed it, The Rank Organization. Rank executives were so appalled by it, in fact, that they refused to allow the classic corporate logo of the man banging the gong to play before the film, lest it be tainted by what followed. One of the executives famously declared that Bad Timing was “a sick film made by sick people for sick people.” He was on the right track, but was too caught up in his own visceral response to the film’s intensity. Bad Timing is in no sense a sick film, but it is one about sick people, and there’s a world of difference between the two.

Bad Timing Director-Approved Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • New video interview with director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas
  • New video interview with actress Theresa Russell
  • Deleted scenes
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Gallery of production photos
  • Gallery of original posters
  • Essay by film critic Richard Combs
  • Reprinted 1980 interview with Art Garfunkel
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 27, 2005

    Bad Timing has long been neglected on home video in the U.S. due to legal issues involving the music used in the film. Thus, fans of Roeg’s work (much of which is still not available on DVD) should be down on their knees thanking Criterion for this new disc, which not only makes Bad Timing readily available, but sports a shiny new widescreen anamorphic transfer supervised and approved by Nicolas Roeg. The transfer was taken from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored, resulting in a sharp, filmlike, and well-defined image that highlights the beautiful decay of Vienna and makes the pulsating colors in Roeg’s palette that much more intense. This is a first-rate transfer.

    The soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from the 3-track magnetic master and digitally cleaned up, sounds fine given the limits of monaural.

    The disc’s supplements start with a pair of new video interviews, one with director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas, and the other with actress Theresa Russell. Roeg and Thomas discuss the making of the film--how Roeg reworked it in the editing room and the controversies that arose with the distributor. Russell is tough and forthright in her interview, and those who know her only from the silly soft-core junk that gluts much of her filmography will be surprised by how seriously she takes her craft. Another nice supplement is a section of 16 brief deleted scenes, about half of which don’t have any original audio with them. The disc is rounded out by stills galleries of production photos and posters, as well as an original theatrical trailer. The 28-page insert booklet contains a new essay by film critic Richard Combs, as well as a reprinted 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Art Garfunkel, which is, alas, the only supplement that involves the lead actor.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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