Whatever happened to Nicolas Roeg? Wait a second… who IS Nicolas Roeg? That is the unfortunate response I would get today, as the once promising British director has faded into obscurity to all but the most avid cinephile. His latest film, Puffball: The Devil's Eyeball, is languishing in the On Demand sector rather than getting major distribution in theaters or even on DVD.
So who is Nicolas Roeg? A promising camera operator and cinematographer on such classics as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Fahrenheit 451, he quickly made the transition to director. With Performance (1970), he was called upon to co-direct with the movie's writer, Donald Cammell. This film is the first to feature his now oft-imitated non-linear techniques in storytelling. Though the movie faced some controversy due to its explicit sexuality (a recurring issue in Roeg's career), it propelled him to early success.
His earliest films as a director are his most satisfying, and many can be found in the Criterion Collection of DVDs. These include: Walkabout (1971), in which Jenny Agutter plays a young Australian girl coming to terms with her sexuality while stranded in the outback; The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), where David Bowie plays an alien arriving on Earth in search of water for his world, only to get sidetracked by this planet's temptations; and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980), in which Art Garfunkel's complicity in his lover's death may be less perverse than the act he commits after her demise. His greatest success came with his frightening film Don't Look Now (1973).
Don't Look Now stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as a couple mourning the recent drowning of their young daughter. In an effort to mend their shattered lives, they go on a "busman's holiday" to Venice where Sutherland's character, an architect, works on restoring a church. His wife meets two psychic sisters who have a warning for her concerning her husband. Meanwhile, murders are being committed in Venice by an unknown assailant. Then there's the continued sighting of a small figure in the same little red raincoat that Sutherland's and Christie's daughter was wearing when she died.
Roeg uses his non-linear narrative technique to great effect in Don't Look Now. Sutherland is routinely plagued by visions symbolizing death. These images contrast sharply with the Venetian surroundings at first. Slowly the atmosphere becomes more claustrophobic. The enchanting canals become a labyrinth from which the doomed couple cannot escape. The morbid images spliced next to the beautiful images of Venice inform the surroundings ominously.
One of cinema's strongest sex scenes owes its eroticism and realism to Roeg's editing technique. The intercutting of Sutherland's and Christie's love session with their shower and dressing habits post-sex highlights the contradictions of marriage. It is both routine and exhilarating simultaneously (the actors were also rumored to have been engaging in real sex during the filming of said scene).
His most recent film is Puffball: The Devil's Eyeball. It concerns Liffey (Kelly Reilly), a female architect who buys a cottage in the woods near Mabs (Miranda Richardson) Tucker and her family. Liffey unexpectedly becomes pregnant, maybe due to Nordic supernatural forces at work. Mabs and her mom (Rita Tushingham) use witchcraft to interfere with Liffey's pregnancy. Seems like Mom lost a son once in a fire and feels like the gods are overlooking her and her daughter's pursuit of a son of their own.
The movie is reminiscent of Don't Look Now in its thematically opposing motifs. Like the earlier film, there is an architect in unfamiliar surroundings restoring a building with a history, only now she is female. The couple of the first movie were mending their relationship while dealing with the loss of a child. In this one, Liffey and her boyfriend are exploring the fears of being parents to a new child. Where the sisters of the first film used their powers to warn the couple of their doom, Mabs and her mom seek to lead this couple to theirs. Liffey's fears are often manifested in the form of visions that she experiences, full of symbolism, like Donald Sutherland's in the first film. Speaking of… Liffey's boss is played by Sutherland, as if Roeg is directly commenting on his earlier film with the casting. Unfortunately, it lacks the shocking denouement that Don't Look Now had.
Puffball peters out at the end. There is a lot of build-up, but no payoff to the frightening imagery which the movie employs. The movie goes for a mild, all-loose-ends-tied ending, which I guess is a shock in itself for fans of Roeg. Perhaps that is why this film is now awaiting its fate beyond On Demand. There is enough to recommend a viewing of the film if you are a fan of Roeg's work. IFC Films was smart to not let this film by a once-great director sit on a shelf somewhere. But it is sad that Roeg, at age 79, may not have another chance to recapture his former status.