Performance: Dir: Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg; Cast: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton, Laraine Wickens; 1969; 105 mins
Don’t Look Now: Dir: Nicolas Roeg; based on story by Daphne du Maurier; Cast: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Adelina Poerio; 1973; 110 mins
The Watershed was showing these two Nicolas Roeg films in a double bill as part of its retrospective season of classics, curated by Mark Cosgrove. My friend Helen Taylor, who was introducing Don’t Look Now, invited me to see both of them with her.
First up on the double bill was Performance: neither Helen nor I could remember when we had first seen it, but thought it was probably soon after its release in 1969, in other words a fair old time ago. I had forgotten the violence in it, or perhaps I should say the violence of James Fox and his pals in the London criminal underworld. My memories of the scenes, those dreamy, druggy, sexy scenes, in the Notting Hill house where Mick Jagger hangs out with Anita Pallenberg and the child/ woman Michèle Breton are more vivid. Perhaps back then I half-recognised the late 60s counter-cultural mise-en-scène (not that my experience of it was half as glamorous) whereas the casual brutality of London gangland could have been fiction for all I knew.
This time round I snoozed a bit during the dreamy scenes. They are actually quite boring. The whole film feels dated. It’s very blokey, both in that counter-cultural blokey way of the period, and also in its focus on Chas, the James Fox character, first in his – swiftly deteriorating – relationships with the petty criminals he hangs out with, and then in his relationship with Turner (Mick Jagger) in his basement pad.
The two women fulfil a narrative function as primarily sexual beings. Indeed a large part of the Q&A after the screening was taken up by the retelling of the Mick-and-Anita did they/ didn’t they really do it? story, with added details of Keith Richards, then Anita Pallenberg’s boyfriend, waiting in a car outside the shoot, seething with jealous rage. Yet, despite that, I thought that both women exerted a commanding screen presence. Perhaps that comes from Roeg’s skill as a cinematographer/ director (on this film he is co-director with Donald Cammell). He coaxes from his performers performances that surprise us, and perhaps surprise them too. He also gets a great performance from Laraine Wickens, who plays the landlady’s small daughter Lorraine, a sturdy and sceptical inhabitant of the real world that Roeg gives us glimpses of on the screen: the squares and streets of 1960s Notting Hill in all their urban seediness.
My verdict: I can’t say I’d go out of my way to watch Performance another time.
But Don’t Look Now: what a terrific film, endlessly watchable. Perhaps part of its success – the extraordinary atmosphere of dread it evokes, the melancholy beauty of the decaying city built on water – comes from Roeg’s affinity or sympathy with the atmosphere of the original Daphne du Maurier story. In her introduction Helen spoke of the close parallels between story and film, and suggested some of the things to look out for, such as the many ways in which Roeg draws our attention, with the camera lingering on windows, mirrors, watery reflections, on blooms of bright red against the grey, to what it might mean to look, to watch, to see. The title of both film and story, Helen reminded us, is taken from du Maurier’s opening line: ‘ “Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.” ’ With its crumbling edifices, drip drip drip of water, and sudden surprising cul-de-sacs, end-of-season Venice is a sinister site of decay and death, a place of ‘polymorphous perversity’ as Helen put it, where things are not what they seem and anything can – and does – happen.
Daphne du Maurier wrote the story, Helen told us, while she herself was suffering from troubled vision. When she saw Roeg’s finished film she loved it.
This time I found it as powerful as I ever did: moving and mysterious, with wonderful performances from Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and from Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania as the sinister sisters. It was wonderful to see it again in the cinema.
We didn’t get out until 11 pm. I was a little nervous, but felt I must turn down Helen’s kind offer to come with me to where I’d left the car in an underground car park on the far side of Millennium Square. Millennium Square on a Friday night: the last place on earth, I realized, that a red-caped child-sized murderer would hang out. The chances are a drunk woman in a tight dress and high heels would fall on top of them and squash them flat, while screaming with laughter. But I know that I’ll continue to be haunted by many of the images in the film, just as I have been for the last forty-five years.