A Sensual Obsession
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 18 November 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Bad Timing begins and ends simultaneously: we see the initiation of a volatile relationship between Alex, an American psychologist, and Milena, a precarious and young divorcee. At once, this courtship is dissected by images of its conclusion a few years later, with Milena on a stretcher, in a coma, and Alex supplanting smoke in the space between him and an obnoxiously interrogative detective. The remainder serves to connect these disparate elements, but its narrative is no more succinct than in these opening minutes. In every moment that the ill-fated couple appears content with each other, you are to anticipate something that will further degrade their trust—every subtle gesture is potential for misconception, and every single exchange between the two encourages some amount of scrutiny.
It is impossible to immediately orient yourself in this film, even with the expectation Nicolas Roeg’s name lends it. It’s evocative of his prior work, an exhibition of the scattershot editing and rapid tonal shifts that characterize Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bad Timing, as a successor to these films, pronounces these stylistic tendencies even harder. This is not to say its elaborate artifice overwhelms its substance; contrarily, and perhaps more successfully than either aforementioned film, the divergent style is invariably married to the narrative: the passionate and harmful relationship between Alex and Milena.
This is conceptually equivalent to the vulnerability that a relationship exploits, and any disruption, as a result, is rendered more volatile. Roeg’s tactic in treating the viewer is not masochistic (perhaps it would be if Milena’s near-death concluded the film, but her torment carries little suspense), but essential to the film. His characters are unfair and self-absorbed. Each is the victim of the other’s immobile self-absorption; the viewer is treated summarily.
The tone and chronology shift rapidly back-and-forth between infatuation and depression: love’s beginning and end. This disables any sympathy the couple may elicit because their conceits are admitted prior to, or simultaneous with, their depressions. At once romantic and tangibly depressive, the film becomes a process to determine the inability of the two to escape the corruption of their relationship. It becomes a fight for power, waged in manipulation, drug use, despair, need, and lust.
Bad Timing opened with a great amount of controversy, due chiefly to its distributor’s renouncement of any affiliation. Popular with European audiences — it is a quintessentially European film — it inevitably tanked in America. Art Garfunkel’s casting in the role of Alex is surely of some blame. He is cohesively insecure, unsexy, and out of place, nothing to admire, and precisely appropriate as Alex. Like the wide tonal shifts that distinguish this film, Garfunkel’s presence in the film elicits some perception of sensitivity or openness to the role; when Alex does not demonstrate these traits, his utility in further displacing the viewer’s anticipation is manifested.
Bad Timing’s chief exhibition, finally, is its very medium. Throughout, one is made aware of the techniques that serve to enhance the frustration and despair shared between Alex and Milena: the associative cuts and long forward zooms are incessant; reprisals of excerpts from the soundtrack are intense and unexpected (namely, the piano-driven bridge from “Who Are You”); and voice-overs score action that occurs at a different time. Nothing really fits together here, and nothing should. Intense and tumultuous, Bad Timing is the resulting offspring of a misguided, under-thought and passionate affair: scarred and broken, a kaleidoscope of painful memories.