The Wanderlust of a Romantic Nihilist
As someone for whom Nicolas Roeg was and remains a favourite director, the last few years have been humbling. The most recent film in the Roeg filmography, according to the Internet Movie Database, is The Sound of Claudia Schiffer (2000). Not long before that was the made-for-Turner TV flick, Samson and Delilah (1996) with Liz Hurley as the object of desire, and Full Body Massage (1995), the thinking man’s straight-to-video “erotic thriller.” Critical attention has shifted (not unfairly) to Donald Cammell, his co-directing partner on Performance (1970), suggesting Roeg’s contributions were mainly technical. There is a palpable sense, especially in British film circles, that the trademarks of Roeg’s best work – the intricate use of flashback, the unapologetic use of jump cuts and zooms, the far-flung settings, and the obsessive characters – have lost their power to astonish and have shown distinct signs of self-parody.
On the surface it would appear that Roeg has fallen distinctly out of fashion, but one only has to list the four films he made in the ’70s to be reminded how important Roeg was and still is. In Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980), Roeg rendered the very real and specific locales of the Australian outback, the canals of Venice, the American Southwest, and Vienna with both an appreciation for their exotic appeal and a dread of their terrifying unknowability. Behind all of these films is a question about landscape: how can we even think we can understand the ones we love, when we can’t even feel at ease in the places we live in? To the chagrin of many critics, Roeg did not delineate this existential paradox with the austere moralism of Bergman or the godlike minimalism of Bresson, but instead seemed to revel in the beauty of this horrifying enigma. In Roeg’s films, characters don’t realise they are in hell because they have been having too much fun for the most part. And by the time they do realise what is happening, they have resigned themselves to the fact that they are past the point of no return. When I first became enamoured of Roeg’s work as an overenthusiastic teen cinephile in the ’70s, I called him a “romantic nihilist.” I think the label still applies and I think this combination of overreaching expressionism and elegant despair is what makes him such a fascinating director.
Roeg entered the British film industry in 1947 as a gofer at De Lane Lea dubbing studios on Wardour Street. He scraped his way up from clapper boy to focus puller, slowly moving towards a career as a cinematographer. His first break came as Freddie Young’s assistant on George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction (1956). As the angry young late-’50s began to morph into the swinging ’60s, Roeg went from prestigious gigs as a camera operator on Fred Zinneman’s The Sundowners (1960), Ken Hughes’ The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), and the train explosion sequence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to director of photography on two Clive Donner films The Caretaker (1963) and Nothing But the Best (1964), Roger Corman’s The Masque of Red Death (1964), the wonderful over-budgeted and over-directed party that was Casino Royale (John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest, Robert Parrish, and Joseph McGrath, 1967), Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1965), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). His cinematography on these iconic ’60s films culminated in his collaboration with Lester on Petulia (1968). Petulia anticipates both the visual and thematic content of Roeg’s work as a director: bold and jarring designs that often contrast natural settings with the confusion of technological progress; an unapologetic appreciation for the zoom lens at a time when critics were pronouncing it as a faddish affectation; a fondness for juxtapositions and throwaway scenes; and perhaps most importantly, a refusal to shoot a scene in the simplest, most economical way possible. As a cinematographer, Roeg was rarely content to be a craftsman. While directors like Lester relished his collaborative style, others like Lean (who fired Roeg during pre-production on Dr. Zhivago ) stifled the future director’s instinct towards expressionism.
During this period, Roeg was socialising with many of Swinging London’s movers and shakers especially the Rolling Stones-Beatles-Robert Fraser-Chelsea demi-monde. It was through this crowd he met Cammell, a painter who had reached the end of his tether with naturalism, and was reinventing himself as a screenwriter with Duffy (Robert Parrish, 1967) and The Touchables (Robert Freeman, 1967). Under the benevolent watch of producer Sandy Leiberson, Roeg and Cammell co-directed Performance in the summer and fall of 1968. If ever there was a film that deserved the description “ground-breaking,” Performance was it. The only thing simple about Performance is its plot – a cocky London hood (James Fox) goes on the run and hides out in the crumbling Notting Hill home of a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger). While a convincing case can be made for it as a landmark British gangster film, the film’s mood and structure owes more to Francis Bacon, Jorge Luis Borges, RD Laing, and Stan Brakhage – to name a few – than to any tall tales about the Krays. Like Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), this is a film about private and public identities forced into a state of radical transformation. Yet where Losey’s approach was only one or two steps removed from classical shot/counter-shot, Roeg and Cammell threw in everything they had absorbed about culture high and low including kitchen-sink realism. Dumped into the marketplace by Warner Brothers in 1970, Performance, like Michael Powell’s film maudit Peeping Tom (1960), has slowly graduated from cult status to become an essential part of the British film canon. Although it is doubtful that any film that follows the trajectory of a bullet through a man’s skull or a striptease to the tune of “Memo From Turner” will ever be confused with Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945).
While Cammell was fighting Warner execs over the final cut of Performance, Roeg began to set up his solo debut, Walkabout. Based on the novel by James Vance Marshall, Walkabout deals with a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Lucien John, Roeg’s then nine-year-old son) who are stranded in the Australian outback after their father kills himself. From its traumatic beginning, the film becomes a kind of prelapsarian love story thanks to the appearance of an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil, who would later star in the Roegian Last Wave [Peter Weir, 1977]), who guides the brother and sister back to civilisation. The journey becomes tragic as the aborigine is abandoned by his friends for the city’s comfort and distraction.
In Don’t Look Now, arguably Roeg’s most compassionate film, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a husband and wife restoration team working on a church in Venice. As they slowly come to terms with the recent loss of their daughter in a drowning accident, the wife begins to believe their dead child is trying to contact them. More than a crisply told ghost story, Don’t Look Now is a film that explores the ways in which we so easily misread the obvious signs towards happiness as we go on with the business of living. In most of his films, Roeg treats this very human tendency with bleak fatalism, but here it seems almost heroic.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, an ambitious tale about an alien (David Bowie) who comes to Earth in order to save his dying planet, also demonstrates Roeg’s ability to reinvent and transcend the limitations of a genre. Making the most of David Bowie’s otherworldly pop star persona, Roeg fashions a complex love story that contains a critique of the way in which America’s dream of freedom has been highjacked by consumerism and uncontrolled corporate and political elites. Sadly much of that thematic density was rendered incoherent by the initial US release version which was 22 minutes shorter than Roeg’s director’s cut (which has prevailed on subsequent video and DVD reissues).
The Man Who Fell to Earth was not a box office success and five years elapsed (much of them taken up with abortive projects such as Out of Africa , Flash Gordon  and Hammett  – all eventually directed by Sydney Pollack, Mike Hodges and Wim Wenders respectively) before Roeg resurfaced with the art-house and festival triumph of Bad Timing. The ultimate boy meets girl story, Bad Timing deals with two expatriate Americans, a thirtysomething psychoanalyst (Art Garfunkel) and twentysomething Army brat (Theresa Russell), who embark on a destructive affair in Vienna. The details of their l’amour fou are related in a series of dazzling flashbacks within flashbacks as Harvey Keitel’s police investigator questions Garfunkel about Russell’s suicide attempt. Bad Timing represented the culmination of Roeg’s exploration of characters struggling heroically with their past and themselves. It was also the beginning of a series of fascinating, but problematic collaborations with Russell, who became his second wife.
Eureka (1983) was a watershed film that dealt with the theme of how to exist when one’s wildest dreams are answered in mid-life. A gold prospector (Gene Hackman) strikes it rich after years of impoverished struggle, but the empire that he builds in the Bahamas turns into a purgatory of disappointment and frustration. Paul Mayersberg’s script was self-consciously Wellesian in its depiction of ambition gone sour. Produced under the aegis of David Begelman’s troubled reign at MGM/UA, Eureka was shelved for almost two years and then dumped into a handful of cities. The film is full of superb performances from Hackman, Russell, Rutger Hauer and Mickey Rourke, but the mercenary ciphers they played made it difficult for many to connect with the film.
In the wake of Eureka‘s troubled production and release, Roeg retrenched with Insignificance (1985), a witty, if subdued adaptation of Terry Johnson’s play that imagines Joe McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein convening in a New York hotel. Castaway (1986) was also another minor triumph – a kind of Walkabout update focusing on the domestic strife between Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohue. Track 29 (1988), scripted by Dennis Potter, brought Roeg back to America, but the satiric shots at mommy love and the medical profession never quite hit their mark. Witches (1990), based on a Roald Dahl novel (Anjelica Huston’s witch has done as much damage to impressionable young minds as Jenny Agutter’s skinny dipping in Walkabout), is one of the strangest children’s films ever made, but it managed to connect with both its intended audience and armchair auteurists.
By 1990, one could sense a creeping disinterest in Roeg’s work, work which always seemed steeped in passionate curiosity regardless of the material’s pessimism. Cold Heaven (1991) was a murky tale of reincarnation and religious visions that lacked any of Don’t Look Now‘s rigor. Heart of Darkness (1994) was dutifully faithfull to its source and suffered as a result. Two Deaths (1995) was intended to be a timely mirror to the political horror show of Eastern Europe in the ’90s, but it was hard to tell if the film was revelling in the characters’ viciousness or criticising it. As for the erotic short Hotel Paradise (1995), Samson and Delilah, Full Body Massage et al., the only redeeming thing about their existence is that they have a low profile in the Roeg filmography.
Although Roeg, a recent BFI fellow, is now considered one of England’s greatest directors, he has always been happily oblivious to exploring the questions of race, history and class that have even engaged fellow iconoclasts such as Ken Russell, Derek Jarman, and Peter Greenaway. Roeg has more in common with the restlessness of a writer like Graham Greene than his fellow directors. Like Greene, he has the heart of an adventurer, but the eye of a moralist. It is a combination that can only take an artist so far before exhaustion and disappointment set in. Yet through his work in the ’70s and early ’80s, Roeg continues to take us to places that remain tantalisingly foreign, palpable and not entirely conquered.
Performance (1970, w/Donald Cammell)
Don’t Look Now (1973)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980)
Aria (1988, contribution to omnibus film)
Track 29 (1988)
Sweet Bird of Youth (1989, TV)
The Witches (1990)
Cold Heaven (1991)
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992, TV)
Heart of Darkness (1994, TV)
Two Deaths (1995)
Full Body Massage (1995, TV)
Hotel Paradise (1995, short film)
Samson and Delilah (1996)
The Sound of Claudia Schiffer (2000)
Brown, Mick, Performance: Bloomsbury Movie Guide No. 6. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
Feineman, Neil, Nicolas Roeg. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Izod, John, The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind. Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1992.
Lanza, Joseph, Fragile Geometry: The Films, Philosophy and Misadventures of Nicolas Roeg. New York: Paj Publications, 1989.
MacCabe, Colin, Performance. London: BFI Publishing, 1998.
Sanderson, Mark, Don’t Look Now. London: BFI Publishing, 1996.
Sinyard. Neil, The Films of Nicolas Roeg. London: Letts, 1991
Articles in Senses of Cinema
“What’s been puzzling you is the nature of my game”: Performance by Adrian Danks
Compiled by Michelle Carey
Splatting Image – Nicolas Roeg
One of the better online resources for Roeg, this German-language article (by Marcus Stiglegger) explores Roeg’s major films, his themes and various approaches, in a scholarly manner.
Gerald Peary Interviews Nicolas Roeg
Peary interviews Roeg about Bad Timing.
Basic page with a broad array of information.
Nicolas Roeg Interview
Interview with SFX Magazine August 1999.
Loving the Alien: Nic Roeg Interviewed
Informative interview by Xavier Mendik.
The Self and Other in Roeg’s Eureka and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness
A paper by Cynthia Baron analysing both texts and how each informs the other.
Don’t Look Now
Review by Sameer Pandania.
Yahoo! Groups – Roeg
Discussion group for those interested in all things Roeg.
Click here to search for Nicolas Roeg DVDs, videos and books at
Nicolas Roeg at Blackstar
Good selection of Roeg available on PAL VHS.