A different way of seeing

Don't look now - Nic Roeg is making films again. But why, wonders Nick Hasted

Nicolas Roeg made Performance with co-director Donald Cammell in 1968. Its impact is still being felt. Its subject was startling enough: the mutually parasitic relationship of a broken rock star (Mick Jagger) and a fading gangster (James Fox). But it was Roeg's technique that truly shocked. He broke film down almost to the level of its consituent frames then spliced them in an order of his own. He was trying, he explained, to represent his characters' minds. Memories and premonitions, past, present and future were all-important, cut together with a surgeon's skill. It was a dizzying innovation. The films that followed - Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing, Eureka - took it further. Fittingly, his only hit, Don't Look Now (1973) was a ghost story, built on the memories of a father who believes he's seen his recently dead little girl in Venice - only to realise that she's a vision of his own impending death. His subjects were as extreme as his methods. In Bad Timing (1980), Art Garfunkel penetrated his ex-lover as she slid into a coma. In Eureka (1982), Gene Hackman invited gangsters to burn him alive. Even to his collaborators they sometimes seemed films at the edge of comprehension.

It was a body of work with few equals. But it's also work that in some way belongs to the past. It was after Eureka that the well first started to run dry. There have been good films since, from Castaway (1987) to The Witches (1990). But the mystery in Roeg's career is that, after 1982, he put the innovative visions that made his name to one side. In the worst of his recent films, little-seen literary adaptations such as Cold Heaven (1993) and Heart of Darkness (1994), the energy with which his career began seems gone. Roeg seems spent.

Not that you'd know it to meet him, Fresh from an intense Morocco shoot - making Samson and Delilah with Elizabeth Hurley - Roeg is a commanding, if somehow indistinct presence. A balding man with an Altmanesque beard, now 67, he talks in an allusive stream, leaving some sentences incomplete, fishing for words he can't reach. Like his films, his meaning is clear enough, but his way of expressing it is indirect. It's as if he isn't quite speaking English. It's easy to see where his films begin.

His latest is no exception. Two Deaths is about a doctor who decides he must have a woman who does not love him. He forces her to do his bidding for 20 years, but never really owns her. It's a story revealed one night to his closest friends, in the midst of the Romanian revolution. Michael Gambon plays the doctor, Sonia Braga the woman. Like many of Roeg's films, it is about a person exhausted by obsession. It is a condition at the heart of Roeg's life, too. "I think obsession exhausts you," he says. "Kafka called it 'the point that must be reached, the point of no return'. It's the point I need to reach to make my films."

As Roeg talks, the notion that he's washed up is hard to sustain, so committed does he sound. But view Cold Heaven or Heart of Darkness and the feeling that something has been lost becomes more certain. In Roeg's first films, he stretched cinema's grammar to its limits. In the films since, he hasn't. The question is whether Roeg knows this. "There's got to be some truth in this," he murmurs. "But that use of grammar was never my major concern." The early films seemed like what Kenneth Anger called "pure sensual cinema"; the experience of watching his later work isn't sensual at all. "I couldn't comment. You would be able to see that better than I."

He is reminded of something he said in 1976 about being concerned with "breaking barriers, challenging assumptions and taking the possibilities of film on a bit". "I think that's true," Roeg replies. "I wanted to say there's another way of looking at things, the way I look at things. But I have to find a different way of looking each time. If you repeat the way you see things, you don't see the gold beneath your feet. We all fall into habits. 'They liked it once, they'll love it this time.' It's a sort of exhaustion. You're not asleep because you're tired, you're asleep because there's nothing to keep you awake. I like new things."

Roeg is, it seems, simply unconcerned, even unaware of others' notions of the shape of his career. From his perspective, Two Deaths is not part of some sad artistic aftermath. Rather, it's the successor to one of the peaks of that early, innovative phase. "Two Deaths is to me very linked, in some way, to Bad Timing," he says. It's an unexpected claim. Because Bad Timing was no ordinary film in Roeg's career. Along with his cast, Art Garfunkel, Theresa Russell and Harvey Keitel, he let a relatively simple tale of sexual obsession take over his life. It was a film so extreme, so personal, that Roeg later apologised to his actors for what he had put them through. "Maybe we were all trying, in our madness, to push past that point of no return," he says now. It is an experience that one would have thought beyond Roeg today. But it's one he insists he has just been through again.

"It happened in Two Deaths that same way," he says. "The artists exposed the secrets of their souls, and I'd love for their sake that what they did would be accepted. I have a sense that Two Deaths will have the same kind of response as Bad Timing. One of pushing it away. Maybe if I had made it a little more PC, or pretended that it was?" he asks, perhaps thinking of Michael Gambon stripping Sonia Braga in front of dinner guests. He tails off. "I'm glad I made it."

The strange thing is, Roeg's faith in his new film may even be right. It is powerful and involving, its acting is great. It's just not powerful in the way that Roeg used to be, the way his audience still expects it to be. Roeg would point wearily to the fact that he did that "sensual cinema" for a decade. Perhaps it is only fair, after all, to give the way he sees things now a chance. Two Deaths, if not the duds that preceded it, is at least certainly worth watching.

Still, it's hard not to press him. Does he hope that his best film is still to come? Would it matter if it wasn't? "Best film?" he asks, incredulously. Doesn't he think in those terms? "No," with emphasis. "Not at all. I hope there's another film to come. I know what I want to do - there's a curious story about sexual identity that I'm interested in. It's just starting to obsess me now."

n 'Two Deaths' is scheduled for release on 14 June

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot