“I prefer it when the familiar is made to feel strange.” – Nicolas Roeg
English filmmaker and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg is known for his unique visual and narrative style which is most evident in his works like Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Often counted among the least celebrated yet most influential filmmakers of the last half-century, Roeg passed away two years ago at the age of 90 but his untarnished legacy is preserved in the pantheon of great cinema. Some of the greatest contemporary filmmakers have cited Roeg among their influences, including the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, and Danny Boyle. But what was it about Roeg’s art that changed cinema forever?
Born in North London in 1928, Roeg maintained that he was interested in the film industry from an early age only because there was a studio across the road from his home. It is fascinating to note that Roeg made his directorial debut 23 years after his entry into the world of cinema. He started out by working as a camera operator on several film productions and was even a part of David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia as a second-unit cinematographer. Although Lean hired him for his 1965 project Doctor Zhivago as well, their artistic sensibilities were incompatible and he was eventually fired. He worked as a cinematographer on more high-profile projects like François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd but it was clear that a fiercely original artist like Roeg could not go on making films for other people. In an interview, he reflected:
“I think I scratched surfaces that people would prefer were left alone.”
That is exactly what Roeg did in his directorial debut Performance, a film which explores the life of an aspiring gangster (played by James Fox) who tries to evade his bosses by moving in with a reclusive rockstar (Mick Jagger). Shot and edited in 1968, the film was considered too “controversial” and strange for wider audiences. The distributor Warner Bros “didn’t think it was releasable” but it was ultimately released with an X-rating in 1970 and has gone on to garner a cult following of its own. Performance’s explicit portrayal of sexuality and violence left many people reeling, especially one studio executive’s wife who threw up during an initial screening. With Performance, Roeg was just beginning to formulate his uncompromising artistic statement, “I take the familiar and make it strange.”
Roeg had shared the directorial credits with Donald Cammell on Performance but he was on his own for his next project, the 1971 survival film Walkabout. Starring Jenny Agutter, it is the story of a teenage schoolgirl and her little brother (played by Roeg’s own son Luc) who are saved by a young Aboriginal (David Gulpilil) after their father commits suicide and abandons them in the wilderness. Despite its lack of commercial success, the film was widely praised by critics for its beautiful visual narrative, its formative role in the development of “quasi-mystical” cosmic themes in Australian arthouse films like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock as well as its paradoxically primitive conceptualisation of modern society. The film generated controversy for its depictions of animal murder and the fact that Agutter was only 17 when she filmed her nude scenes, pushing the ethics of voyeurism to questionable areas. However, Roeg does not just construct a cinematic world but an entire mythology which has its own laws and logic. Like the French New Wave, Roeg filmed using his own grammar of cinematic language. He indulged in kaleidoscopic editing, subversion of conventional narrative structures and wilful digressions in order to separate his idea of time and space from our biased preconceptions.
An adaptation of the 1971 short story by Daphne du Maurier, Roeg’s 1973 project Don’t Look Now stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a married couple who travel to Venice to recover from the recent accidental death of their daughter after the husband John accepts a commission to restore a church. They are warned by a clairvoyant that their deceased daughter is trying to talk to them but the husband dismisses such claims until he experiences mysterious sightings himself. One of the most definitive examples of Roeg’s directorial style, Don’t Look Now beautifully creates a network of association between the purely visual elements like colours, textures, objects, or props and the narrative elements they anticipate: characters, locations and events like the very real possibility of violence.
He even ventured into the sci-fi genre for his next film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) which starred David Bowie as a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to collect water for his drought-stricken planet. The role that Bowie was born to play? Roeg manages to perfectly capture the allegorical realism of the American wasteland while maintaining the surrealism of the narrative. Artists ranging from Philip K. Dick to Alan Moore have said that Roeg’s film is a source of inspiration for them and it has undoubtedly shaped the genre, influencing later works like Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin.
Although most of his works would later be seen as cult-classics, Roeg was unhappy with how his films had been received when they came out. In an exclusive interview, he said, “I was censored. I was derided. I remember when I made Bad Timing, which is rather well thought of now, one review just said: ‘There’s weird and there’s Bad Timing’. That was all it said. Not very helpful.” Bad Timing starred yet another musical icon, Art Garfunkel, as an American psychoanalyst in Vienna. The film investigates the dark world of sexual obsession through the dysfunctional relationship between the psychoanalyst and his female expatriate (played by Theresa Russell who later married the filmmaker). Roeg doubles down on his affinity for non-linear narratives by structuring the film in the form of impeccably constructed flashbacks. He also insists on filming what many consider “should not be filmed,” depicting the perils of human depravity in an incredibly uncomfortable scene where Art Garfunkel forces himself on an unconscious Theresa Russell. Bad Timing won the People’s Choice at the Toronto Film Festival and the London Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director but it was snubbed at other major institutions and was dismissed by many critics, proving that Roeg’s experiments with the cinematic medium were ahead of his time.
Nicolas Roeg’s last significant film would be his 1985 work Insignificance. It portrays a fictional meeting between Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Monroe’s second husband Joe DiMaggio, and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Of course, we cannot forget his adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel The Witches which, when released in 1990, did a fine job of bringing the terrifying villains to the silver screen with Anjelica Houston proving to be a phenom in the role of the head witch. While a new production is on the way, starring Anne Hathaway and with the aid of CGI, there are high hopes for another classic. But, Roeg’s 1990 effort will be incredibly hard to top.
Roeg would continue making films well into the first decade of the 21st century, helming a 2007 supernatural drama called Puffball which employed his characteristically strange imagery. However, it never managed to reach the philosophical heights of his previous films. Much like what Bergman did in Persona, Roeg uses his editing to flood our consciousness with images and leaves us to make the associations. He exploits the anxiety of the human psyche and inputs arbitrary fragments that form a gestalt by the time the film ends. Roeg’s stylistic choices have influenced countless works, including Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Nolan said that his film would have been “pretty unthinkable” without Roeg and even referred to the finale of Insignificance as an influence on his own Inception. Roeg’s deconstructions of conventional narratives is remarkable but his editing styles and visual motifs have been adopted by generations of artists as well. While talking about the nature of his work, he said:
“Films occupy whole sections of your life – all my films have a stamp of my life in them.“