MADE nearly 30 years apart, the psychedelic London psychodrama "Performance" and the sugary Versailles romp "Marie Antoinette" — both out on DVD this week — have a surprising amount in common. Both concern role-playing games and identity formation. Both are sensual pinnacles of high-aesthete decadence. Both inject rock-star glamour into incongruous genres: the gangster film and the costume drama. And both were perceived as easy targets for a critical drubbing.
FOR THE RECORD:
Nicolas Roeg: The Second Look column in Sunday's Calendar section said one of director's Nicolas Roeg's films was "Don't Look Back." It was "Don't Look Now." —
"Performance," only now making its first appearance on DVD, was quite the scandal back in the day. Made in 1968, it was briefly shelved by Warner Bros., which dreaded the embarrassment of the X rating, before finally being released two years later. It was immediately apparent that this was an insider's portrait of swinging London's darker, druggier side — the primary location was closely modeled on the legendary crash pad of Rolling Stone Brian Jones and his consort, Anita Pallenberg. "Performance" quickly found loyal champions in Britain, but in the States the media went apoplectic. In the New York Times, John Simon termed it "loathsome" and "indescribably sleazy." Jointly directed by Nicolas Roeg, a veteran cinematographer, and Donald Cammell, a former painter and London scenester who wrote the script, the movie opens by following East End gangster Chas (James Fox) on his brutish daily routine. Forced into hiding after he kills a fellow thug, he finds refuge in the town house, where the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) frolics with a pair of barely clad playmates (Pallenberg and Michèle Breton). What follows is a woozy initiation rite in which the zonked degenerates put tough guy Turner on a diet of hallucinogens and get him in touch with his feminine side. Roles are reversed; identities fuse.
"Performance" is obviously a zeitgeist film, dated as much by its drug-culture debauchery as by its self-consciously wigged-out style (there are zooms, flash cuts and synthesizer drones aplenty). But it has also held up remarkably well. To watch this timeless conflagration of sex, drugs, violence and rock 'n' roll is still to encounter the shock of the new — mainly because of the "sex" part. The film's refusal to play by gender rules still feels genuinely subversive and thrilling — or, depending on your point of view, threatening.
Roeg went on to score '70s hits with "Don't Look Back" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth," but not all the key personnel were so fortunate. Cammell struggled to get his films made — his next one, the sci-fi horror film "Demon Seed," with Julie Christie, came in 1977 — and he killed himself in 1996 after disputes with the producers over his erotic thriller "Wild Side."
While "Performance" was deemed an affront to taste, "Marie Antoinette" arguably suffered from an excess of taste. Every element of the soundtrack, costumes, production design and casting (the supporting actors — Molly Shannon, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, Marianne Faithfull — make up a veritable hipster's convention) is an affirmation of Sofia Coppola's impeccable discernment. It's a valid approach — especially for a movie about conspicuous consumption — and easy to underestimate.
Sure, it's a tunnel-visioned film, but as with "Performance," many who denied its obvious pleasures revealed their own deeper prejudices. The critical establishment that bought so willingly into the middle-aged male fantasy of "Lost in Translation" had no time for what they perceived as "Marie Antoinette's" girlie indulgence. In another 30 years or so, maybe it'll be ripe for reevaluation.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times