Bad Timing (1980) bookended a decade of extraordinary creativity for its director Nicolas Roeg. In the 1970s he made Peformance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg experimented with montage and sound to explore aspects of identity, memory, trauma, sex and time. Bad Timing represents the purest exhibition of Roeg’s unique style and thematic concerns.
The film starts with a succession of seemingly unchronological scenes which are at first bewildering. We soon realise, however, that we are following two fairly distinct timelines. The first unfolds in the present and concerns the suicide attempt of a young women named Milena (Theresa Russell) and the subsequent investigation into her psychology teaching ex-boyfriend Alex (Art Garfunkel) by police Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel). The second timeline presents a series of roughly chronological scenes depicting the meeting between Milena and Alex, and the subsequent rise and fall of their relationship. These timelines are intercut throughout the film (this structure is utilised in Derek Cianfrance’s thematically similar Blue Valentine (2010)).
This double narrative is an abrasive experience but throughout the film the viewer is drip-fed various clues which suggest a key to unravelling the structure. These clues are in lines of dialogue, lingered-on images, and on the soundtrack.
The biggest dangling carrot is the presence of Sigmund Freud. Alex is a research psychoanalyst at the University of Vienna, both Freud’s alma mater and employer. Early in the film we see Alex give a lecture on “political voyeurs”. A student asks: ‘you are saying we are all spies?’ Alex replies: ‘I prefer to label myself… an observer’. This gestures towards the Freudian concept of scopophilia, the desire to look/to gain sexual pleasure from looking. From this point forward we see several scenes of Alex watching Milena, or probing her past relationships. Alex’s face is always impassive during these observation sessions. We cannot tell whether he is motivated out of jealousy or is pursuing some sexual thrill.
Scopophilia has a legacy in cinema. This kind of content always shows up the metanarrative of spectatorship. We, the audience, sit unobserved and take great pleasure in watching the onscreen subjects. In her famous essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Laura Mulvey wrote that in cinema, scopophilia takes the form of the male gaze. The cinematic subject is cast as male (so the audience inhabits the male point of view) whilst the object is female. The desire to look is thus the desire to control and objectify the female. Personally I follow the view proposed by Joan Copjec that Mulvey fundamentally misunderstood the (Lacanian) concept of the gaze. The gaze cannot be possessed by anyone, male or female. It is always possessed by the “other”. Thus the fear of the gaze isn’t that someone may be watching but that nobody is watching you. Hugh S. Manon gives the best illustration of the disembodied gaze of the “other”. Imagine some spot in the room you are in. It must be unoccupied and outside your line of sight. Then imagine watching yourself from this corner.
Freud proposed that repression or frustration of scopophilic desire would lead to hallucinations. I will later explore how in Bad Timing both Alex and Inspector Netusil appear to hallucinate when their faculty of observation is blocked. Jacques Lacan wrote that a traumatic encounter with the “other” would lead to a shattering of the symbolic order (the rules and structures that we expect reality to adhere to. These are prone to collapse). The separation of timelines at the start of Bad Timing represents the collapse of Alex’s symbolic order. We discover at the film’s climax that this is caused by the trauma of Alex raping the near comatose Milena. Alex must retreat into his past to rebuild the symbolic order, through the use of literal symbols (which is of course symbolic).
Alex must create a cultural archive. This project is constantly interrupted by Netusil. Netusil is another scopophile but his symbolic order is still intact. He has no need of an archive. ‘The Germans have always been very good at archiving’ says Alex. ‘This is Austria’ replies Netusil.
Alex’s archiving flashbacks start at an obvious juncture: the art gallery in the Stallburg where he first met Milena. Itself an archive, the gallery colours the relationship between Alex and Milena in terms of cultural artefacts. The opening shot of the film lingers in close-up on Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.
As we will see, the art shown in Bad Timing reflects the progression of Alex and Milena’s relationship. Roeg starts with this section of The Kiss, showing the blissful embrace of two lovers. The next shot shows the painting in its entirety. The lovers are surrounded by patchworks of gold leaf, an eye-popping field of flowers, and a glittering and smeared gold background. Patterns of concentric circles, spirals, and eye-like shapes adorn the quilt and flowerbed. Like Alex and Milena, the lovers in Klimt’s painting must surround themselves with decoration and beauty in order to be content in their passion.
The next painting exhibited by Roeg is Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes. This time the back of Alex’s head fills the foreground of the shot. We watch him watch the painting. The painting depicts the biblical character Judith holding the head of Assyrian general Holofernes. Judith has assassinated the general and saved Israel. She becomes highly sought after by men but rejects all offers of marriage. Klimt’s Judith is erotically charged. Her expression is that of exhausted fulfilment, her right breast is covered by a semi transparent dress and her left breast is fully exposed (Roland Barthes would only deem the covered breast erotic. It is the suggestion/tantalisation of sexuality, rather than direct confrontation, that is truly stimulating). Judith’s exposed navel lends her a maternal air. As in The Kiss she is gilded in circles and plants. The gold appears to flow off the flat background into the foreground, giving the painting an unsettling stereoscopy effect.
The head of Holofernes is curiously cut off by the bottom right corner of the frame. He is twice decapitated. As Alex’s head is also severed by the frame we can liken him to Holofernes. His presence in the shot suggests that (from his point of view) Milena will destroy him. He will not become a decapitated/castrated head, but he will become an objet d’art, another cultural artefact with which to decorate her apartment. His scopophilic passive observation suggests that this prospect is a turn-on rather than an anxiety. Eventually Alex destroys Milena in an inversion of the desired decapitation of the male. As Milena is comotose and unable to destroy Alex, he attempts to take her place (by destroying himself) but with disastrous and traumatic consequences.
The film then switches focus to the works of Klimt’s protégé: Egon Schiele. In the Stallburg gallery Alex and Milena see Schiele’s Death and the Maiden.
The painting shows the embrace of a man and a woman. The figures are typical of Schiele: skeletal and contorted. The female’s (maiden) eyes are closed and her expression peaceful. Her hold on the male (death) appears to be slipping. Death clutches the maiden to him, his mad eye glares directly out of the frame. The maiden’s “peace” here reflects the false “peace” of Milena’s coma in the film. When Alex rapes her he stares at the camera. He becomes so suspicious of those scopophiles who may be watching him that he can no longer take pleasure watching Milena (because he cannot see her).
Schiele pictures pop up in various art books in Milena’s apartment. A page showing Two Girls Embracing appears in the background of a shot of Alex and Milena embracing. Milena’s affairs have forced Alex’s erotic “look” away from her and towards potential rivals. If his vision is de-sexualised then Alex is figuratively castrated. The two girls embracing become the embrace of the girl and her eunuch.
Inspector Netusil’s search of Milena’s apartment turns up more Schiele. These are two paintings of individual figures which seem to represent the state of the (now separate/individual) couple. The first is one of Schiele’s Female Nude paintings. It shows the amputated body of a woman who’s sole remaining limb is a withered arm. This evokes the defiled body of Milena who at the time of Netusil’s investigation is being sliced open for a tracheostomy.
The second is one of Schiele’s self portraits. It shows a nude man covering his face. The vision is obscured (à l’Alex), and the nude bony body is as sexual as a nude concentration camp inmate. This represents Alex’s self destruction as a sexual being (either desiring or desirable) following his rape of Milena. I will discuss later how I read Netusil’s scene in the apartment as hallucination or fantasy. I will also propose that these scenes are possibly Alex’s fantasy. He hallucinates Netusil’s hallucination. Remember that Netusil has no need of an archive, but as Alex’s avatar he becomes interested in art.
In one scene Milena is shown to be reading Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky. The novel tells of an American couple’s marital breakdown in North Africa. This obviously reflects Milena and Alex’s breakup in Morocco. I do not think that this archive of cultural detritus merely symbolises and reflects the narrative of the film. I am quite willing to believe that the relationship between Milena and Alex solely exists to reflect and symbolise the art and books in the archive…
We turn back to psychoanalysis now. Several scenes are given over to discussion and showcase of the Lüscher colour test. Test subjects place 8 cards of various colours into order of preference (supposedly guided by the unconscious). From this order one can discern the subject’s personality traits. Milena enthusiastically takes the test on the boot of a car with the following results:
A basic analysis of Milena’s results would focus on violet in 1st, orange in 5th, and brown in 8th. The placement of brown suggests a rejection of physical wellbeing and sensual satisfaction. This is most clearly illustrated in the montage sequence which splices Milena’s orgasm with her surgery. Maximum pleasure is equated with maximum discomfort. The placement of the orange suggests a restriction of sexuality. This does not mean that Milena’s sexual activity ceases, but that she is restricted to participate only in Alex’s fantasies of observation. The de-sexualised Schiele paintings reflect her own de-sexualised copulations. The placement of violet is the most interesting. It suggests a desire for the breakdown between subject and object, and the belief that there is no discernible difference between dreams, fantasy, and reality. As this whole flashback is really part of Alex’s fantasy archiving, let’s assume that the outcome of this test reflects his own psychology. The rape of the comatose Milena is the apex of Alex’s desire for the abolition of subject/object relations. In this state Milena is liminal (neither subject nor object) as she is essentially undead. Alex fulfils his desire but at the cost of losing his sense of symbolic order (which was held together by the foundations of subject and object). When reality begins to unravel in the later scenes we are witnessing the return of Alex’s sexual drive. His desire moves in circles, from intensifying desire, to fulfilment of desire, to the shattering of his symbolic order, to rebuilding via archiving.
Roeg often ends scenes with a zoom towards an object, or starts scenes with a zoom away from an object. Such moments often capture Klimt or Schiele paintings, but there are two other pictures which stand out. The first is a diagram of a labyrinth.
This diagram is representative of the layered and confusing structure of the film. Closer examination reveals the labyrinth to be unsolvable, or at least the centre is sealed off. I have attempted to locate the source of this image but to no avail. The meaning of the brown spheres and other markings will remain unclear. This unbreachable core perhaps refers to the riddle of the film’s narrative, or could be a representation of the unconscious mind. I propose it as a diagram of Alex’s circle of desire, this time imagined as a spiral. He burrows ever closer to the realisation of desire but is eventually frustrated, forced to turn back and start again at the entrance of the labyrinth.
The second intriguing image is that of a fenced in unicorn.
This is a reproduction of the last panel of The Hunt of the Unicorn, seven tapestries woven in Belgium at the turn of the 16th century. The panels show the hunting and killing of a (the?) unicorn. This final panel shows the unicorn in alive in captivity, possibly risen from the dead. This seems to relate to the “capture” of Milena by Alex, the taming of her spirit. The undead nature of the unicorn echoes Milena’s (and Alex’s) desire to destroy subject and object boundaries.
I think that both the sealed centre of the labyrinth and the prison of the unicorn can be seen as like panopticons. Thus the centre of the labyrinth is not unreachable, and the ring fence is not a prison. They are secure vantage points for Alex to observe his targets, in a 360 degree panorama.
Bad Timing’s soundtrack is an eclectic mix of Billie Holiday, Tom Waits, The Who, and various classical and jazz pieces. The most striking inclusions are Keith Jarrett’s “Koln Concert” and two works by Harry Partch.
Harry Partch was an American composer known for his work with microtonal scales. Microtonality involves the use of instruments capable of playing notes between between the range of 12 notes per octave that is found in most Western music. Partch composed using 43 tones per octave rather than 12. Unsatisfied with a Western musical tradition that he perceived as in decline since Bach, Partch sought to bypass the restricting Western heritage. He drew his influence from the music of ancient Greece, Noh and Kabuki theatre, and African theatre. These disparate styles used instruments capable of microtonal tuning, and tended to marry instrumental and vocal music, the separation of which in Western music drew criticism from Partch. It is telling that Milena is the character to play Partch records. The African drumming they contain links them with Alex and Milena’s trip to Morocco. Milena fits into this surreal landscape with its snakes, dancing, and sexually charged atmosphere. The presence of Partch shows that Milena has a very different project to Alex. Whilst he wishes to catalogue a Western artistic tradition, she wishes to bypass it and move back to the cradle of civilization (Africa), the birth of European culture (ancient Greece), and a culture that is independent from Western influence (traditional Japanese theatre).
Keith Jarrett’s Koln concert is a solo improvised piano recital performed and recorded in 1975. Jarrett mixes styles such as jazz, rock, and minimalism. The microphone picks up his signature shouts and singing during the performance. In a way this performance is a showcase of Jarrett’s cultural archive. The nature of improvisation is to be somewhat semi-conscious. As in automatic writing the author/composer must work with whatever bit of cultural detritus is floating through the mind at that particular moment.
The Koln concert scores a scene in which Alex has a tense encounter with Milena in the university quadrant. During their conversation certain fragments of conversation fail to match up with the character’s mouth movements. Either the sound and visuals are deliberately out-of-sync, these are thoughts voiced aloud, or dialogue is intruding from another scene. This breakdown in aural/physical relations is of no concern to the characters within the film. It is only disorientating for the audience. This is either Alex’s memory or fantasy. The logic of memory and fantasy means that time isn’t linear (thus dialogue from other temporal spaces may intrude) and Alex is free to imagine what Milena may be thinking (thus her thoughts are vocalised). There is a quote from Keith Jarrett regarding the success of the Koln concert that is apt for both this scene, and for Alex’s retreat into a past of cultural artefacts: ‘We also have to learn to forget music, otherwise we become addicted to the past’.
I suggested previously that Alex’s memories are blending with his fantasies; certain scenes that he is absent from are thus taking place on a purely speculative level. The key scene for this theory is Netusil’s investigation of Milena’s apartment.
Alex leaves Milena’s apartment following violent and upsetting lovemaking on the staircase. As he leaves he passes two men, neither of whom he recognises. We cut to Milena: upset and lying face down on her bed. We then cut to Netusil and another officer standing in the doorway. The camera then pans to the room, messy and vacant.
Netusil moves into the room and looks at the bed. Cut to Alex and Milena having sex involving a red silk scarf. Cut back to Netusil licking his lips. Cut to Alex, suddenly disturbed. Cut to Netusil looking at Schiele prints. Cut to Alex walking towards the camera looking annoyed. Cut to Netusil pouring sand into his hand. Fade into Moroccan desert (a shot reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia, for which Roeg was second unit cinematographer).
We are clearly jumping in time throughout this montage: between the past of Alex’s memories, and the present of the police investingation suicide attempt. However, there is a sense that Netusil is fantasising the sexual encounter with the red scarf. He is somewhat of a voyeur himself. But Alex responds and confronts Netusil. A strange thing for a voyeur, whose concealment is paramount, to fantasise. My solution to this knot is to propose that this is all part of Alex’s fantasy. His memories and fantasies are so entangled that they become inextricable. Here, whilst delving into the realm of memory, he fantasises a “good” sexual encounter to make up for the “bad” one on the stairs. As Alex’s particular fetish involves watching, he uses Netusil as a voyeuristic avatar. This also gives him the opportunity to angrily confront a voyeur, perhaps to chastise his own scopophilic tendencies.
If the swift and thorough police investigation seems unrealistic, it is because it is another fantasy of Alex’s. Although he was not responsible for the suicide attempt, he did defile Milena. To alleviate his guilt he conjures up an investigation. This investigation will not lead to any charge or punishment, only to recognition of Alex’s transgression, and an absolution of sorts from the rational and sympathetic Netusil.
Closing the Archive
Bad Timing is a film about guilt, trauma, memory, fantasy, desire, and symbols. It shows how we build our structures of reality around certain touchstones: art, music, sex. These are ways of translating raw sensory experience into coherent memories. The film shows how weak these structures are. The dismantling of the framework leads to a crisis where memory, fantasy, and reality all blend into each other. This is a film that equates the act of looking with eroticism and transgression. It warns of the dangers of over looking, and obsessively looking at symbols. I obviously didn’t heed this warning…