TIFF is doing a retrospective on the movies of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, two directors from different disciplines. Cammell is more of a writer while Roeg works visually. They would have diverging career trajectories but there will always be through lines in their work. And that’s true specifically because they worked together on Performance, a movie they co-directed. Roeg would be more successful than Cammell, the former’s films having bigger audiences. This means that Performance would be an insight into the latter’s interests in how he writes and works with actors.
Warner Brothers is the studio that produced Performance. And they were excited about having Mick Jagger in their movie and expected A Hard Days Night 2. That would have been nice but Jagger wouldn’t figure even twenty minutes into the film. Instead, what they got is Chas (James Fox), someone too clean cut to even be a mod. He hops between bars that feel like British versions of the ones we see in Melville’s work. Warner Brothers released this reluctantly in 1970, a time when rock and roll reigned, making this feel retrograde.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It does show that cockney counterculture has always been alive in Britain before rock came. Chas is a gangster who pisses off his boss and has to go into hiding. A mate recommended a basement apartment. It’s a part of a house that belongs to Turner (Jagger) and his two girlfriends (Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton). The gangster finally walks into rock and roll. A culture more underground than Chas’, he has no idea what he signed up for. And there’s no going back from here.
Again, this is an insight to Cammell’s future work that audiences don’t normally see. Seeing Performance, it makes sense that he would end up making his own brand of horror. Movies that deal with obsession. But Roeg’s visuals help deliver the world that Cammell fleshes out for us. He uses many uncomfortable close-ups, strange angles and shot lengths so short that would make Paul Greengrass’ head spin. Nonetheless, this is a film that needs a sober mind. The characters’ fears here are stronger than any substance they or anyone can take.
Before the theatre played Performance, TIFF programmer Peter Kuplowsky has a quick talk with the audience. And this talk is worth the ticket price, displaying the passion that local movie lovers know him for. He also matches the film’s energy as he reveals the back story behind it, especially Pallenberg’s contribution. The latter adds authenticity to what Cammell and Roeg capture onscreen. Kuplowsky brings a lot of obscure, exciting movies to TIFF. But he says that this is still the one that blows his mind. And he didn’t lie about that.
TIFF also includes Roeg’s Don’t Look Now into their retrospective. This is an adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier short story. It shows the events taking place after John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) lose their daughter. John gets work in Venice, which is, obviously, a tourist trap where they can escape their memories. But as these things turn out, people from John’s past keep showing up. This gives him no choice but to hide from them. John’s predicament predicts how incestuous Europe is becoming, which is a good subtext infiltrating horror.
Roeg also hits a level of respectability here, as he focuses on an upper middle class couple. But there’s still traces of trash here, as they deal with grief separately. Laura’s way is through seances. John, on the other hand, has the occasional drink or long strolls on they city’s streets that are unusually dark. Roeg uses cross cutting to show their separate moments, highlighting their psychic connection to each other. It also expresses a larger being. A force leading them to a fate more tragic than the one they already experienced.
Roeg shows that death is inescapable, as John keep walking into strange situations taking place within Venice’s Baroque-styled columns. Sometimes it’s a crime scene, in others it’s seeing Laura. The latter makes less sense since she had to return to Britain because of a scare involving their other child. Roeg seems to be using a handheld camera in some of these scenes. It makes them effectively creepier than they are already. The music helps in these scenes too, in all senses horrific, sweepingly romantic and melodramatic, adding to John’s defeated feeling.
Venice, in Don’t Look Now, is both a safe city and one with ghosts. Roeg also uses the colours red and black so well, draping them dramatically throughout the city. A place of miscommunication that, as these things go, lead to tragedy. This also has one of the most controversial endings in horror history, a problematic and spoiler heavy one at that. Most people have read about this ending without knowing the specific details. Audiences who might want to know how this film ends should see it when it plays onscreen.
Vice and Versa: The Films of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg is playing at TIFF until August 31st. For tickets and showtimes go to https://www.tiff.net/#series=vice-and-versa-the-films-of-donald-cammell-and-nicolas-roeg.