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Outsiders: The 1970s Cinema of Nicolas Roeg

This weekend BBC Four will air David Thompson’s Arena special on the singular Nicolas Roeg, which helps to bring the broadcaster’s Genius of British Cinema season to a close. By way of celebrating, I thought I’d re-post a piece I wrote about six years ago after a first viewing of Bad Timing blew my tiny mind to smithereens.

Portrait of Nicolas Roeg

More than twenty-five years after the initial release of Walkabout, during a 1998 interview published in The Australian newspaper, director Nicolas Roeg was asked why a film produced, as it was, by an Englishman (as opposed to a ‘local’) was nevertheless capable of providing one of the most powerful visions of the Australian landscape. And in many ways, his response neatly reflects the motivations of many of his central characters during the 1970s:

I suppose I simply viewed it without preconceptions. But then, that’s always the way isn’t it…an outsider’s eye is always the most acute.

Each of Roeg’s 1970s films featured individuals trapped in strange, inhospitable places, characters which are often outsiders, seemingly unable to adapt to their new environments, plagued by obsession and stuck behind hopelessly romantic preconceptions of unattainable exotic lifestyles.

Still from Walkabout (1971)

Walkabout (1971)

Discounting Performance (1970), an intoxicating film starring Mick Jagger and co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout could be seen as Roeg’s first real foray as a director, having spent much of the 1960s working as a cinematographer for, amongst others, François Truffaut and Richard Lester. Walkabout tracks an encounter in outback Australia between two extremes of the social spectrum, a pair of precocious British schoolchildren forced to fend for themselves, and a young Aboriginal male on walkabout fending for himself as a matter of spiritual necessity. Introducing a theme that would reappear throughout his career, Roeg presented a masterful tale of outsiders forced to confront this mysterious other.

Still from Don't Look Now (1973)

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Don’t Look Now, Roeg’s harrowing exploration of the aftermath of tragedy, takes the idea of obsessive outsiders one step further. When a couple relocate to Venice on a ‘working vacation’ in order to recover from the death of their young daughter and rebuild their marriage, they seem unable to adjust to this new environment. The woman seeks comfort in the friendship of two elderly sisters, one of whom claims to be in psychic contact with the couple’s dead daughter. Meanwhile the man, unsettled by the sisters and suspecting their motives, is faced with his own obsessive delusions, and begins chasing a shadowy figure who resembles the young girl. Rather than repairing the negative effects of tragedy, the couple’s move to Venice brings forth their new status as outsiders, plunging them into an unfamiliar environment and resulting in these encounters with ‘mysterious others’, enhancing both their grief and their obsessions.

Still from The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The notion of the outsider is taken to the extreme in Roeg’s next film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, which stars David Bowie as an alien from a drought-ridden planet who crash lands on Earth in search of salvation for his people. Interestingly, this film combines the ‘outsider’ and ‘mysterious other’ within a single character, and while the humanoid alien prospers at first, he is eventually forced to confront his past (and his true identity), losing his place in society and failing in his mission to rescue his people.

Bad Timing

Bad Timing (1980)

The dialectic between the ‘outsider’ and the ‘mysterious other’ is perhaps most evident in Roeg’s final work of his 1970s period, Bad Timing (1980). Art Garfunkel plays the outsider, an American psychoanalyst living and working in Vienna, who embarks on a tumultuous relationship with a mysterious American woman who has seemingly led many lives across Eastern Europe. Told in fractured flashbacks after the woman’s hospitalization, Bad Timing provides an acute study of the outsiders inability to adapt to new environments or comprehend the exoticism of the mysterious other. Once again, Roeg manages to coax a peculiar sense of obsession from his central characters and maintain a sense of foreboding that is unparalleled.

The five films directed by Nicolas Roeg during the 1970s are undoubtedly his finest accomplishments. But what makes them stand out as classic examples of some of the best films of that period is his ability to invoke that strange sense of obsession that wells within us all, via the experiences of outsiders with whom we can all relate.

Originally published in 2009 on Suite.io (formerly known as Suite101).

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