Book review: The World Is Ever Changing, By Nicolas Roeg

Cut by cut, the great maverick director creates a scintillating montage of memory

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The Independent Culture

Nicolas Roeg, 85, is one of the darkest and most unsettling of post-war British film-makers. In a career that spans half a century from his debut as a clapperboy for British MGM in 1950 to the present, his romantic and sometimes brutal imagination has confronted such subjects as sexual awakening in the Australian outback and the rape of a drugged woman in post-Freud Vienna.

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Roeg's two most famous films have acquired cult status. Performance, his 1970 debut, told of gangster's mental disintegration in a hippie enclave of Notting Hill; Don't Look Now (1973) was a meditation on supernatural coincidence set in Venice that still frightens like an unlucky number. These films, with their scenes of tumultuous sex and disorientating camera-work, radiate a fierce beauty and disquiet that could only be Roeg's.

Born in London in 1928, Roeg fell in love with cinema at an early age. Babes in Toyland, with Laurel and Hardy, was the first movie to open up the "mystery" of celluloid make-believe. Roeg's has always been a painterly imagination in thrall to landscape. In his stylish science fantasy The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring David Bowie as a translucent-looking alien, Roeg made haunting use of the New Mexico deserts. His more recent work, with its trademark plot twists and rapid cross-cutting, has often been critically mauled. Only now can we see a film like Puffball (2006), based on the Fay Weldon novel, as enduring.

In The World Is Ever Changing, a book of reflections on film and the art of illusion, Roeg chronicles his "flawed life" as a director and cinema enthusiast. The book is concerned chiefly with Roeg's understanding of the "memory" of things. And, as memory has "no continuity of time", says Roeg, so the chapters can be read in any random order (Roeg has always set great store by the workings of chance).

In conversational prose, Roeg tells of his apprenticeship as a cameraman for David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago), Roger Corman and Francois Truffaut. From Truffaut he seems to have acquired an admiration for actors and their craft. Jenny Agutter was unforgettable as the schoolgirl lost in the Australian outback in Roeg's coming-of-age classic Walkabout (1971); Theresa Russell, Roeg's wife at the time, played Marilyn Monroe in Insignificance (1985), alongside Tony Curtis as a corrupted American senator.

The famous love scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now was reckoned to be shocking in its day. Yet there is nothing pornographic in it, says Roeg; rather, it shows a couple making love in a Venice hotel after their marriage has been put to the test by the death of their daughter. Daphne du Maurier, on whose novella the film was based, reportedly admired the film.

Roeg is no stranger to controversy. Performance, with Mick Jagger as a burnt-out rock star, was shelved for a year before Warner Brothers dared release it; Bad Timing (1980), starring Art Garfunkel as a repressed American psychoanalyst (and suspect rapist), was condemned even by its own distributor Rank as a "sick film made by sick people for sick people." Roeg, then 52, was already established as a director in the visionary company of Powell and Pressburger, and cared little for box-office approval.

The World is Ever Changing, a work of rare poetic insight, is tinged with the amazement and self-examination of an older man looking back on a most unusual career. "The strings of the lyre of modern poets are endless strips of celluloid," wrote Franz Kafka. Roeg, who effectively invented a new language cinematic language, might agree.