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Film

Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Nicolas Roeg

@Russellisation

“The rules are learnt in order to be broken, but if you don’t know them, then something is missing.” – Nicolas Roeg 

The career of the great Nicolas Roeg was certainly unconventional, experiencing an inspired creative flurry in the 1970s before burning out and peddling middling pieces of cinema toward the end of the 20th century. His influence was so great, however, that the handful of films he made during this stint transformed the landscape of Hollywood cinema and inspired a more experimental take on the contemporary craft. 

Often preferring to capture the wonders of foreign lands rather than the home comforts of urban stories, Nicolas Roeg told Little White Lies, “I like being a stranger in a strange land. We don’t go to all the sites in London, because they’re there and we can always go to them tomorrow”.

Continuing he adds, “I like that fact that things stand out, and then making the decision of whether to show the tour guide’s view of another city. Sometimes it’s very inviting not to show those places”. 

Having worked with several icons of the music world including David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Art Garfunkel, Nicolas Roeg helped to sculpt the careers of some of the 1970s most iconic stars.

With an eclectic career spanning feature films, documentaries and short music videos, let’s take a look back at the six most definitive films of Nicolas Roeg’s extraordinary career.

Nicolas Roeg’s six definitive films

Performance (Nicolas Roeg, Donald Cammell, 1970)

Making a name for himself as a cinematographer at the start of his career, Nicolas Roeg enjoyed a hasty education in cinema, working as a second-unit cinematographer on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as well as François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 before he turned to his directorial debut in 1970. 

Exploring the life of an aspiring gangster, played by James Fox, who befriends a reclusive rockstar (Mick Jagger), Performance was shot and edited in 1968 but was held for release for being too controversial for mainstream audiences. Having since garnered a cult following thanks to the appearance of the Rolling Stones frontman, the film features several explicit portrayals of sex and violence that quickly established Roeg as a powerful voice of cinema. 

Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)

For Nicolas Roeg’s follow-up to his cinematic debut, the director would create a puzzle of poetic vision, marked with a non-linear narrative to form a dreamlike exploration through the perils of the adolescent transition. It wasn’t a simplistic film, though neither was Roeg’s style.

Becoming lost in the dreamlike Australian outback, Roeg’s film follows a young brother and sister who are attempting to find their way home whilst traversing the wilderness. Speaking about the film’s legacy to The Australian in 1998, the director notes that it is “a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability”.

It’s a strange, beautiful and flowing journey that has since been recognised as one of Roeg’s finest films, consolidating its place as one of the most important films of Australian New Wave cinema.

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Continuing his extraordinary run of form following Performance and Walkabout, Roeg continued to establish his mark on contemporary cinema with Don’t Look Now, taking his preference for experimental filmmaking to the realms of horror. 

Starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, the film follows their travels to Venice to take on the restoration of a church, only to be followed by the grief of their recently deceased daughter and the psychic warnings of two strange sisters. Roeg utilises the experimental techniques of both his previous films to take the audience on a psychological exploration like no other, unpacking the concept of grief with tormenting suspense.

Though Roeg’s influence on cinema had already been established, Don’t Look Now showed he had so much more to give. 

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

The director’s tremendous run of form was bookended in 1976 with the release of The Man Who Fell to Earth starring David Bowie, a star ubiquitous with the experimental sub-culture of the late 20th century. 

Adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth follows an alien (Bowie) who must pose as a human to save his dying planet, only for the greed of humanity to falter his plans. Helping to capture a time of transition for the iconic performer who was then changing from his Ziggy Stardust persona to the slick Thin White Duke, Roeg well utilises the unique nature of Bowie as a performer to tell the story of a mysterious alien being.

A mind-bending film of experimentation, The Man Who Fell to Earth was an achievement that displayed Roeg’s culmination of skills, establishing a new kind of narrative language that continues to influence contemporary science fiction. 

Insignificance (Nicolas Roeg, 1985)

Though Roeg’s incredible form halted following The Man Who Fell to Earth, he remained a great visionary, helming the likes of Eureka and Bad Timing starring Art Garfunkel before he released Insignificance in 1985. 

Starring Gary Busey and Tony Curtis and Theresa Russell, this strange comedy follows four icons of the 1950s who meet in the same hotel room where they discover they’re more similar to each other than they would have ever guessed. It’s a bizarre comedy of chequered quality that veers away from Roeg’s usual style, even if it does dabble in the surreal. 

Discussing the scene in which Marylyn Monroe explains the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein, Roeg told Little White Lies, “It’s a marvellous situation. Both talked by strangers in a completely opposite way to how they’re behaving. And what she says is all true! So it’s the best lesson you’ll get in cinema”. 

The Witches (Nicolas Roeg, 1990)

Marked by scattered success, Roeg could never replicate his achievements of the 1970s, with Castaway, Track 29 and many of his remaining films failing to create significant critical or commercial excitement, that is aside from The Witches.

In possibly the director’s greatest departure from the usual style, you’d be forgiven for not realising that the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel was directed by none other than Nicolas Roeg. A beloved family comedy of the ‘90s, Roeg’s adaptation starred Anjelica Huston, Rowan Atkinson, Brenda Blethyn and Bill Paterson in a story following a young boy who must stop a coven of witches, even after he’s been turned into a mouse.

Showing his true versatility as a filmmaker, The Witches is a compelling family adventure that is suffused with a genuine sense of terror, reminding the audience with a knowing wink of the existential mastermind behind the Roald Dahl classic.