Sex and death: Nicolas Roeg at BFI Soutbank

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Ahead of a new Nicolas Roeg season, David Jenkins admires the brilliance of the director’s lesser known work

Discussions of the work of visionary British director Nicolas Roeg rarely stray outside the key years of 1968 (when he co-directed the psychedelic identity-swap classic ‘Performance’, with Donald Cammell) and 1983 (when he made ‘Eureka’, his paranoiac ode to ‘Citizen Kane’ with Gene Hackman). A retrospective at BFI Southbank which collects together most of his directorial oeuvre (what, no ‘Full Body Massage’?), including a number of notable works he was involved in as cinematographer, asks us – in true Roeg fashion – to step outside our comfort zone and consider his later, less well known works. By all means, go and catch his harrowing, supernatural deconstruction of grief, ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973), on the big screen (not least because it was voted the best British film of all time in a recent Time Out poll). But after that, why not go and see 1988’s ‘Track 29’, a film that doesn’t fully cohere, but which offers a fascinating insight into Roeg’s preoccupation with the almost sexual bond between parent and child?

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Roeg famously chivvied his way up the ranks of the film industry, working as focus puller on Lewis Gilbert’s evocatively titled British noir, ‘Cosh Boy’ (1955), and earning his spurs as a cinematographer on 1960 Lionel Jeffries vehicle, ‘Jazz Boat’. The striking way he captures the colour red (used to such iconic effect in ‘Don’t Look Now’) can be traced back to his pre-directorial career: just look at the way he picks out the ravishing costumes in Roger Corman’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1964), or the fire engine which hurtles between book burnings in François Truffaut’s speculative sci-fi, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1966).

The dense and dreamy visual sense that Roeg developed during those early years became an integral part of his later films. His probing camerawork, made up of agressive zooms and oblique angles, is instantly recognisable, and is perhaps suggestive of Roeg’s need to get awkwardly close to sensitive detail. This is coupled (more so in his early works) with a rhythmic, fractured editing style which allows the parts of a story to gradually converge like pieces of some warped jigsaw puzzle. ‘Bad Timing’ (1980) employs this technique to haunting effect, making bold back-and-forth narrative leaps to tell the story of the abusive relationship between Art Garfunkel’s Marlboro-chugging psychoanalyst and Theresa Russell’s prepetually denuded lush. Even the use of Keith Jarrett’s seminal improvised jazz disc ‘The Köln Concert’ on the soundtrack offers an aural key to Roeg’s experimental tendencies.

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Castaway’ (1986) frames the psychologically crippling power-struggles of marriage against a deceptively idyllic desert island backdrop. Though Roeg offers ample bare flesh – something those fans of ‘Walkabout’s’ infamous skinny-dipping scene will be more than used to – the points he makes about the importance of sex in relationships are sharp, and almost make up for being forced to listen to Olly Reed (in unflattering Speedos) recite dirty limericks for much of the film.

But Roeg’s interest in sex is perhaps as much a physical manifestation of his passion for examining bigger questions about life and the fragile nature of existence. One of the greatest scenes in his oeuvre (contained in one of his most underrated films) occurs in the opening half of 1985’s ‘Insignificance’, a cosmic meditation on our place within the universe which has versions of Marilyn Monroe, Senator Joe McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio and Albert Einstein meeting in a hotel room and discussing identity, procreation and astrophysics. The scene sees Marilyn (played by Roeg’s then-wife Theresa Russell) explaining the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein with the aid of some toy trains and a balloon. The way this audacious episode is choreographed is at once majestic, thought provoking and richly cinematic. It’s an example of the director celebrating the stylistic possibilities of cinema, and offering an eccentric and intimate view of two humans considering their place within the galaxy. And really, you can’t get more Roegian than that.



Nicolas Roeg runs at BFI Southbank throughout March. ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ Blu-ray is released on Mon 4 Apr.

Author: David Jenkins



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