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

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil