Performance (1970) could be the greatest bad film you will ever see. It was voted the 48th greatest British film of all time while generating reviews like this one from Charles Camplin of the Los Angeles Times: “[It’s a] pretentious and repellent little film” that “cannot rise above the world it pretends to examine.”
Likely, Gary Arnold of The Washington Post nailed the odd bifurcation of the script: [“It’s like] Mickey Spillane trying to write like Harold Pinter” and that the filmmakers “…may have stumbled into a cult hit.”
It seems they did.
It’s two films – both visual and thematic – barely conjoin. If Spillane wrote the first half of the film, then certainly Pinter could have completed the last. On one side we have a well developed, East London-based gangster flick centered on a tough guy named Chas (James Fox), who hangs with tough talkin’, underworld goons, living life with a spirited zest reserved only for cinematic sadists.
But then…then we have Mick Jagger at the height of his Satanic Majesty’s decadence, dragging his lips around an underlit mansion, going flesh-on-flesh with doped up female acolytes, lending his monotone to lazy, cosmic utterances that are so 60s you can smell the patchouli oil. The second-half of the film rarely leaves the mansion, suggesting these people, vampiric in many ways, really don’t need the sun.
Jagger does a good job of playing Turner, an aggressively decadent rock star (talk about strong casting). James Fox delivers an outstanding ‘performance’, almost self-editing his work, adapting to the deep-set disconnects in the script.
So why the cult following? What lifts this film out of the ghostly crowd of mediocrity? Film direction, like film acting, demands choices. Why light a scene this way? Why edit a scene that way? Directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg display a creativity that goes far up and beyond expectations. Their choices are often original and appropriate.
What shakes the core of the film, and certainly contributes to its weaknesses, is a general thematic instability: you can almost see where the film should be going, where the logical progression will place the narrative – but it never arrives, enchanted by its own appearance – as if Caliban can’t tear himself from a mirror. Instead, the conclusion, calling on a faux spirituality or perhaps shaman tricks, is unconvincing and awkward.
Anyway, it takes a lot of talent to fail so superbly.