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Nicolas Roeg: A Director Who Fragmented the World, Then Put It Back Together

The 1970s were the heyday of what was still known, with Victorian understatement, as the love scene: those writhing arenas of nude intimacy, which moviegoers experienced with a touch of voyeuristic awe, to the point that the scenes were talked about for years, or even decades. And except for the clashing close encounters in “Last Tango in Paris,” no love scene of the ’70s was as celebrated, as talked about, or as swooned over as the one that appeared a year later in “Don’t Look Now,” the splendidly creepy 1973 chiller that’s arguably the greatest movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, who died Friday at 90.

The film’s two stars, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, were both considered deliriously sexy at the time, though if you watch the movie today they look more or less like what they were playing — a handsome but ordinary middle-class couple still reeling in grief from the accidental death of their young daughter. The two are staying in Venice while Sutherland’s character, an art restorer, renovates an old church. Their love scene is lavishly romantic, backed by the gentlest of soft-rock chords, but it’s also naked and graphic and orgasmic. (Today, it’s hard to believe that rumors about whether the two actors were doing something more than acting weren’t further exploited for publicity purposes; but no, the two were simply treated like actors playing roles.)

For all its voluptuous daring, what truly made this a Nicolas Roeg scene was its audacious structural gambit: Roeg intercut the sex with shots of the couple getting dressed after they’d finished, looking as humdrum as they’d been ecstatic a few minutes before. That sly piece of editing, which was partly a way of trying to calm the censors, transformed the meaning of the scene’s passion. It said: This may look like a wild thing, but don’t let that fool you — it’s just life.

The scene also said what all of Nicolas Roeg’s films do: that past is present, climax is prelude, and even the most elemental acts belong to a circle of fate.

“Don’t Look Now,” based on a Daphne du Maurier short story, was full of disturbing cuts and sinister portents, all driven by Roeg’s visionary skill as a cinematic manipulator of time and memory. No film has ever let you taste the grandeur and rot, or the vertiginous anxiety, that arises out of the ancient maze of Venice the way “Don’t Look Now” does. In 1973, the movie had the shock of the new, and in a way it’s never lost that. It was the cinema’s first modern gothic, the first tale of a ghost world that seemed to be unfolding in a place where such things were too corny to exist. “Don’t Look Now” was about something more than scaring you (though it did that just fine, especially when a mysterious small figure in a red hood showed up); it was about a tear in the cosmic fabric. It was a prismatic poem of fear that made it seem as if the nightmare was cracking open inside your head.

In a handful of movies, Nicolas Roeg was a major film artist, revered for the hallucinatory pull of his images, the sinister power of his perception, and a kind of erotic obsessional quality that marked his best work. Yet his heyday as a filmmaker didn’t last long (though it should, by all rights, have lasted longer). Born in London, he joined the British film industry 23 years before he ever directed a movie, first chiseling out a career as a cinematographer. He worked on David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” then fought with Lean on “Doctor Zhivago,” finding his own vision with the Thomas Hardy-on-sedatives gauziness of his camerawork for “Far from the Madding Crowd” (1967) and the fashion-forward Godard-meets-Carnaby-St. vibe of “Petulia” (1968).

But those were very much their own directors’ films. In 1968, Roeg finally got a chance to co-direct (with Donald Cammell) his own concoction: “Performance,” a London-set gangster-hides-out-with-rock-star psychodrama that paired the elegant James Fox and the lurid Mick Jagger. The film was so ominously elliptical that its studio, Warner Bros., didn’t know what to make of it. They recut it (and didn’t release it until 1970), which may be one reason the movie doesn’t entirely make sense. Yet the thing about “Performance” is that it doesn’t have to. It has a menacing atmosphere of underworld cult griminess you can’t shake — sordid and foreboding, as if circling around an abyss, and it all comes together when Jagger sings “Memo from Turner,” a scene hypnotic enough to suggest what “A Clockwork Orange” would have looked like with Mick as Alex.

In between “Performance” and “Don’t Look Now,” Roeg made what you might almost call his idiosyncratic version of a Disney film: “Walkabout” (1971), which was set in the Australian outback and chronicled the connection between a wandering aborigine (David Gulpilil) and two stranded siblings (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, the director’s son). The tale of survival and cross-cultural friendship was conventional, yet Roeg’s images lent a certain depth to its humanity. The movie indicated that Roeg could take on almost any subject and infuse it with his sensibility.

Yet he wanted a wide audience, and in 1976, the year before “Star Wars,” he made one of the last vastly scaled science-fiction films to use futuristic imagery to tell a haunting tale of this world. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” was the first movie, and still the most resonant, to tap the silky-decadent otherworldly mystique of David Bowie, who plays an alien who lands on earth, searching for water for his own parched planet. But it’s his destiny to be fatally sucked into the place he’s visiting. He becomes a corporate entrepreneur, an alabaster-skinned addict, and a listless creature of earthbound appetite who watches several television sets at once: as prophetic an image of the place we were headed as anything in ‘70s movies. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is, in a way, an early cousin to “Blade Runner” — it’s another a movie of textures that asks you to experience it as a dark dream, with Bowie cast as a languidly ghoulish sci-fi Christ figure. It remains a thriving cult film and should have established Roeg, who was then 48, as one of our reigning creators of fantasy.

His career flamed out, though, never to re-ignite in any impactful way. And I say that as someone who’s actually a major fan of his next movie. “Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession,” released in 1980, is the last “classic” Nicolas Roeg film — the last to be rooted in a fractured mind-game aesthetic of time and imagery that feels hypnotic in its command. The subject? Male toxicity, in the extreme. The movie stars Art Garfunkel, in an occasionally awkward but daring performance, as a psychiatrist who falls for an emotionally broken femme fatale, played with great force by Theresa Russell (the actress who became Roeg’s wife). When the two break up, the Garfunkel character, through a combination of desperation and retaliation, commits an act so hideous that the movie feels like it should be a scandal. Yet hardly anyone saw it. And the rest of Roeg’s career became a footnote.

I liked one or two of his trifles, like “Insignificance” (1985), a whirling brainpan comedy that throws together a klatsch of 20th-century icons (Michael Emil as Albert Einstein, Theresa Russell as Marilyn Monroe, who in the film actually does an effective job of explaining Einsteinian physics). There are fans (though not me) of “The Witches,” Roeg’s 1990 Roald Dahl adaptation, which never found its intended audience. But the truth that can haunt you about Nicolas Roeg’s career after 1980 doesn’t just come down to the insignificance of the movies he made. It’s the alternative universe — quite easy to envision — of the films he might have made, had he fused his techniques with the machinery of escapism.

Okay, that’s only one possible route. Yet it’s not as if “Don’t Look Now” was so arty or highbrow (it was a horror film), and one can imagine, say, the sort of elegantly tricky espionage thriller that Roeg might have created. Starting with “Performance,” he made a total of four (or maybe five) films that really mattered. Yet thinking back on their wide-awake sensuality and snakiness, and their indelible images (Mick Jagger with his greased-back hair, the demon in the red hood, Donald Sutherland hanging from a broken church scaffold, David Bowie channel-gawking), I now want to go back and watch them all, to live in that place where people fall to earth and, simultaneously, seek in every way to escape its confines.

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