The first movie that Nicolas Roeg and Theresa Russell made together, Bad Timing (1980), was denounced by its distributor, the Rank Organisation, as a “sick film made by sick people for sick people,” which may sound to some like a ringing endorsement rather than a condemnation. Russell was twenty-two years old when she made it, and she was ambitious and very much her own person. She married Roeg, who was thirty years her senior, in 1982 and made four more features with him, plus a short for the movie Aria (1987), before they divorced sometime in the late 1990s.
When Roeg was conducting his last interviews before his death in 2018, journalists noted that a David Hockney portrait of Russell was prominently displayed in his home along with many other framed photos of her. This photo collage was commissioned by Roeg for Insignificance (1985), where Russell played a version of Marilyn Monroe. She is seen splayed out nude on pink satin sheets from many angles in the Cubist-style Hockney was favoring at that point, with her tongue lasciviously poking around her open mouth and her left profile seeming to merge with her full face, as if she is giving herself a kiss. This major Hockney piece expresses the deepest intent of the films that Russell and Roeg made together, which present the women the actress played from many angles simultaneously.
Russell’s character in Bad Timing, Milena Flaherty, is married to Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott), a man who is thirty years older than her, but the main drama here is the obsessive affair between Milena and the psychiatrist and teacher Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), who is nearly twenty years her senior. Russell herself had been dealing with older men from the time she dropped out of high school at age sixteen and enrolled to study at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. She was introduced to the producer Sam Spiegel, who aggressively pursued her in vain and helped get her into her first movie, Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976), where she played Robert Mitchum’s daughter. Russell then played Dustin Hoffman’s girlfriend in the very bleak Straight Time (1978), where her catlike, blue-gray eyes stared out at us from a default-sullen face that held touchingly limited hopes.
“Russell is very direct. Everything about the way she behaves says, ‘This is for real, this isn’t just pretend.’ ”
The opening credit sequence of Bad Timing features beckoning, decadent Klimt paintings, which Milena and Alex gaze at in a gallery in Vienna, where the film is set. Roeg cuts to Milena being loaded onto an ambulance after trying to kill herself with pills, and there is a key moment here when a male emergency responder leers at Milena’s unconscious body and Alex jealously pulls her shirt up to cover more of her flesh. Milena is just a sexual object to men even when she is near death, and this is part of what pushes her to the edge throughout the narrative.
Roeg flashes back to the first verbal meeting between his leads at a party, and Milena comes on strong with Alex, sticking one of her legs up so that he cannot pass her in a doorway and shooting him a look that is knowing and soiled and blowsy—and angry, too. There is no separation between Russell and Milena, no signaling that she is just playing a part. Russell is very direct. Everything about the way she behaves says, “This is for real, this isn’t just pretend.” She really puts herself on the line in Bad Timing and trusts that Roeg will control her most out-there and ugly physical and emotional impulses with his framing and editing.
In interviews, Russell has spoken about not wanting to have “ego” as a performer, and she isn’t afraid of looking bad here; her most persistent urge is defiance, and that means defiance of all norms of female presentation and beauty. She will widen her eyes or stick out her tongue to express the parts of Milena that are breaking down or fragmenting, and her own insecurities feel like fair game for her work. As someone who studied the Strasberg Method, Russell was taught to find the areas of herself that would best express the character she is playing, and she does that with such iconoclastic intensity that she is that rare thing in movies: an original who cannot be quite compared to anyone else.
Russell’s victimized Marilyn in Insignificance is just as direct as her Milena, but far softer and more innocent. The steadiness of her gaze was tested by Roeg’s Track 29 (1988) and Cold Heaven (1991) with plots that made her characters wonder what was real and what wasn’t. Roeg knew that Russell’s often deadpan “thereness” on-screen would be most disturbing when confronted by people and things that might not actually be there.
But in Bad Timing, Russell’s Milena is a person who is always projecting, “Who do you want me to be?” to the men in her life. Her voice sounds low and mature at one moment and then high and immature at others, and she often seems childlike with Alex. Milena can be a lot of fun, good-humored and lively, a party girl, but Alex wants to control her, and she rebels against that like a powerless teenager yet usually collapses under the pressure of his lordly glare.
When Milena tells Alex about her past, she breezes her way through the expected tale of woe. She says her father is still alive and has remarried. Her brother was killed in an auto accident, and she says she misses her mother. “She was only forty-six when she died, have a cigarette?” Milena says, and Russell makes certain that there is no pause or break between that statement and that question; it sounds like when a little kid unashamedly jumps away from a topic an adult is supposed to linger over.
When she has been pressed to her limit by Alex, Milena lines her eyes with red and paints a red clown-mouth on, making herself as grotesque on the outside as she feels on the inside. This is the reverse of the moment where she gives in to having sex with Stefan and her face takes on a detached look as he works away on top of her. Milena knows full well that she doesn’t need to be there for this sex and that only her body is necessary for Stefan, and yet this moment of disconnection is the shot in Bad Timing where Russell looks the most conventionally beautiful. It is in capturing this contradiction that Roeg’s own love for Russell feels as genuine and total as Alex’s “love” for Milena feels false and contingent.
Milena lies when Alex asks if she is married, but her nostrils flare with the effort as they lie together in bed. “I hate these sheets,” she says right afterward, for the look of sheets and colors and hairstyles and clothes mean a lot to Milena, yet she is unable to keep any living space neat or tidy; she cannot help wanting an external representation of the mess inside herself. At the end of Bad Timing, Stefan calls Milena a “difficult woman,” but is she really? She is driven to drink and self-destruction because men say they love her when all they want to do is have sex with her, and that’s not being difficult so much as being pushed to the end of your tether.
Russell’s Milena often tries to roll her eyes and shrug off her darker emotions, but Alex is always using words to hurt her, leaving scars that cannot ever be healed. In the key scene below, where Alex confronts her yet again, Milena’s mouth tightens as her feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing well up, and she starts to cry but fights against it. Russell does not protect herself at all here; she channels what she needs to channel emotionally in a way that is both admirable and uncomfortable. Roeg blurs the people in the background of this scene because he wants us to focus only on the gradations of emotion on Russell’s face, which by the end of the film has earned a look of secure contempt for a man who has tormented her, raped her, and refused to love her unconditionally.
By Dan Callahan
4 February 2019