Wringing the ethos out of the vestige of beatnik and swinging 60s, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's hallucinogenic cult film PERFORMANCE (which marks both filmmakers’ directorial feature debut), was made in 1968 but mothballed by the studio for two years due to its obscene sexual contents and explicit violence.
For a new audience, it is fairly natural to get dumbfounded by the film’s frenetic editing of montages from the very start, amalgamating graphic sex sequences between our protagonist Chas (Fox) and his casual bedmate Dana (Sidney) with manifold clumps of irrelevant scenes which later rig up a flimsy narrative, it is a sharp, disorientating gambit, but seems too divisive by half (it is a post-production last resort to mitigate the smutty images at the expense of its own impetus and coherence as a dauntless cause célèbre by this reviewer’s lights).
Chaz is an aggro-prone tearaway working for the gang of Harry Flowers (a corn-fed Johnny Shannon), but before long he needs to lie low after rubbing out an attacker of bad blood out of self-defense, since Harry wants him vanish as well. So he hangs his hat in the basement of a decrepitresidence owned by a former rock star Turner (Mick Jagger’s acting debut), who has lost his demon in what he does and secludes himself from the outside world, co-habits with his lover Pherber (the late Pallenberg, a là Warhol’s Factory Girl) and a young French girl Lucy (a tomboyish Breton), the equilibrium of their boho ménage-à-trois will dutifully be ruffled (not exactly challenged as we tend to surmise judging by its cover) by Chaz, an unbidden outsider under the pseudonym of Johnny Dean.
The premise sounds promising for making a heavy weather of the underlying discrepancy/assimilation between two male ids: Chaz’s macho/gangsta make-up and Turner’s androgynous and lackadaisical stagnation, but in reality, however visually psychedelic the film looks (Dutch angles, a distorted God’s viewpoint shot, mesmeric mirror images, that creepy identity-shifting moment in the end, just to name a few), the fundamentals are only scratched skin-deep, often to one’s aggravation, instead, it evolves into a dashing and dazing shindig of excesses (nudity rather than sex)and a madcap platform for Turner/Jagger’s superstar glamour (who performs the theme song MEMO FROM TURNER in the MTV style, avant la lettre).
Notorious for its under-the-influence verité carried out during the filmmaking (there is literal acid involved in the plot where Chaz and co. terrorizing a hapless chauffeur), PERFORMANCE ultimately comes off as a short-range stunner and an experimental novelty which cannot elevate its own perversity and subversion into something significantly revolutionary and groundbreaking, although James Fox is arguably in his most absorbing and ambiguously sensual form here. At odds with the state of those participated, PERFORMANCE is more stultifying than stupefying from the POV of a first-time viewer in the 21st century, that ship has long sailed, save for its skirling soundtrack, operatively transmitting those signs of bygone times into one’s nostalgic delirium.
referential points: Nicolas Roeg’s BAD TIMING (1980, 7.5/10), DON’T LOOK NOW (1973, 8.3/10); Joseph Losey’s THE SERVANT (1963, 8.3/10).