| Performance





Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg

UK, 1970


Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 09 February 2007

Source Warner Home Video VHS

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A Lockheed SR-71 flies through the air, a Mercedes sports down a highway, and pair of bodies make love. Much of the first half of Performance is as disjointed as these opening minutes, incorporating later scenes as well as asides that either clarify or confound what is currently the narrative focus. It’s a disorienting technique that can regularly remove you from the film and enthrall you with boldly experimental craft. It is as if multiple parts of the film have been combined in a braid that mystifies the premise: Chas is a young and svelte gangster, whose prowess in completing his tasks (one in which entails dousing a Mercedes with acid and shaving its driver’s head bald) leads to vanity. He shoots one of his accomplices, and begins orchestrating an option out of organized crime.

Prior to his exit, the film relishes his occupation as a gangster for every act of violence it fosters, each of which is generously aestheticized. Chas’ mishap leads to his potential capture at his flat, his arrival is preceded by quick intersperses of what appears to be blood cascading across a wall or floor—this will later be revealed to be paint strewn to sabotage his flat, but the vibrant presence of red is employed to shock. Shortly, he is captured and held belly-down on his bed. As his back is whipped with an extension cord, flashes of more lovemaking occur, his ecstasy assuaging his agony. He feigns unconsciousness, procures a gun and aims it firmly at his tormenter, and the camera follows the path of the bullet through the target’s head, membraneous viscera rushing past each edge of the frame.

Performance gained much notoriety upon its initial release due to such violence. What remains so lucid about it now is not the visceral nature of the violence but the exploitative attitude toward it. There is no consequence or guilt, just blood and flesh. Chas’ first action in his escape is to change his look, which he does in makeshift by applying red paint to his hair. Later, washing it out with turpentine, the color drips down his face, framing a terrifying grin as he looks in the mirror.

Chas finds a temporary refuge in the basement of a reclusive rock star, Turner, who lives in a tapestried London flat, shared with two women (as well as a female dwarf who regularly engages Chas in conversation during a bath). Hallucinogenic mushrooms grow in an adjoined greenhouse, and there’s the impression that all are experiencing a constant euphoria. “I’ll try anything once,” Chas declares to Turner, after which he’s accepted into the modest bohemian collective.

Performance’s second portion begins here, and it is semi-distinct in comparison to the first half. The film drifts forward in anticipation of one of Turner’s regular bathtub trysts or another crime that Chas is invariably involved in. But these two aspects do not succinctly cohere; they’re poles between which the footage is lulled. Often, a scene will be peppered with shots (with no audio) from the unsubjected half. As the film progresses these sudden segues give way to more fluid segues. Chas’ life of crime and Turner’s of bohemian indifference remain generally disparate until Chas approaches his landlord with an interest in staging some Polaroid photography, an effort to contrive a photo for a fraudulent passport. Turner studies his tenant, and the camera assumes his perspective—it literally appears to travel inside his head. The two’s faces are superimposed over one another, and it becomes evident that the two have the same intentions in procuring and maintaining other, perhaps unnatural identities.

Performance is – above all – a craftsman’s film. At any given instant one is abruptly aware of its elaborate photography, camera staging, and frenzied editing. Once Mick Jagger’s Turner is seen in a corner with a guitar in an impromptu blues song, Chas’ plight becomes totally forgotten. The viewer is held rapt as an audience to Jagger’s performance. The film is such a variety of aural and visual tactics that Performance is something to see, even if its immense viscera leaves little aftertaste.

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