Nicolas Roeg has only made 13 films in total, but the first seven of them makes up one of the most important bodies of work in European cinema.
He began in the camera department, and by the 1960s he was the cinematographer on some of Britain’s most iconic films, working on Lawrence of Arabia, Far From the Madding Crowd and Doctor Zhivago, though he remained un-credited on that last one after a falling out with David Lean.
Then in 1970 he made his directorial debut Performance, which, unusually for a British film, he directed together with Donald Cammell. Roeg concentrated on the look of the film, and Cammell worked with the actors and on the script. The gifted but troubled Cammell then made Demon Seed in 77, but when the studio mangled their cut of his Wild Side in 1995, he committed suicide.
Although the world of Performance is very much the one that Cammell inhabited, with its heady mix of the Mayfair set and gangster London, it looks and feels like a Roeg film. And the casting of Mick Jagger in one of the leads would be followed subsequently by Roeg with David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing.
Walkabout, his first film proper, was next in ’71. A startlingly original take on the clash of civilizations as a white boy and girl are left to fend for themselves in the Australian outback after being abandoned there. But it was Don’t Look Now in ‘73 that really caught the world’s attention.
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christy are in Venice trying to come to terms with the death of their child. The film unfolds with an elliptical, almost causally poetic moulding of time, and it is this more than anything that characterizes Roeg’s work.
This strikingly lateral, almost anti linear sense of time, and one of the most memorable and grown up sex scenes in modern cinema woke the world up to a serious European film maker.
The Man Who Fell To Earth followed in ‘76, Bad Timing in ‘80, Eureka in ‘83 and then Insignificance in ‘85. All are criminally over-looked. They each manage to be dazzlingly original in their look and feel as they tackle existential themes with a deft lightness of touch. Intellectual depth explored with visual brilliance, panache and originality, so that form and content perfectly merge.
If you’ve yet to see any of them, lucky you, it’s all ahead of you.
Castaway was something of a damp squib in 86, but Track 29 in 88, scripted by Denis Potter was a return to form. But his film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches in 90 was another mild disappointment, falling somewhere in between a children’s and a grown up’s film.
And that alas is pretty much it. There have been three films since, but they are hardly worth mentioning in the context of what had come before. And ever since, Roeg has been talking to various producers and financiers about making a comeback. So the Arena profile, aptly titled It’s About Time on BBC4 was something of a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, it was finally some sort of recognition for, arguably, the most important, and certainly the most original film maker that Britain has ever produced. On the other, if felt like an admission of defeat as far as any future projects are concerned.
Watch the Arena profile. And then treat yourselves to one of those first seven films of his.
Rather like David Bowie’s six albums between Young Americans and Scary Monsters, those first seven films of Roeg’s manage to be at once extraordinarily varied and yet visibly, distinctly crafted by the same brilliant hand.
In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Don’t Look Now. And this by the way is how you cut a trailer. Every studio head in Hollywood should be forced to watch this at least once a week.
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