A different way of seeing

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