Unlike Time and Tide, to cite another youth-pandering criminal spree, Performance lingers lovingly over its mayhem and boasts a psychedelic surplus of meaning as the androgynous hippie magus Turner (Jagger) casts his voodoo spell on the ultraviolent cockney enforcer Chas (James Fox). The movie is considered by some to be the definitive portrait of late-'60s London, but its most memorable landscapes are mainly flesh. Cammell and Roeg get the show on the road by putting the camera in bed with some mildly kinky naked young people thrashing aboutin this case Chas and his compliant bird. This is scarcely the only exercise in rumpled sheets, but first the movie follows swaggering Chas through a day's worth of brutal shakedowns. A sadist who enjoys his work all too well, Chas winds up getting whipped and beaten and, after dispatching his tormentor, is forced to take it on the lam. Against all logic, the tough guy seeks refuge in the run-down town house where the reclusive Turner, a onetime rock idol, lives in barbaric splendor with his concubines, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton).
This happy hippie hideaway is well stocked with period accoutrements and icons, both cinematic and literary. (Jorge Luis Borges comes in for special abuse.) Lolling like pashas beneath their mirrored ceiling, the Turner ménage is only too pleased to mindfuck the macho straight who has wandered into their lair. The movie's polymorphously perverse premise seems to have been almost immediately travestied by the original stage production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but its style has rarely been revisited. New wave with a vengeance, Performance offers a nonstop farrago of strobe cuts, flash-forwards, percussive zooms, rack-focus shots, weird aural cues, and trippy interpolationseven before Chas goes native, blasted into inner space on a dinner of psilocybin mushrooms.
The movie is a facile enough pastiche of underground pyrotechnics and Euro-art pretensions, but far more evocative now is the fast, offhand repartee between the principals. (According to production accounts, the movie had strong aspects of psychodrama, with various participants playing versions of themselves.) Frequently naked, even as she keeps changing her outfit, the then 24-year-old Pallenberg is a stunning creature. Her sexual insolence and petulantly garbled line readings give a mocking edge, seldom encountered outside the Warhol factory, to her erotic scenes with Fox (who evidently had a Christian conversion as a result of the movie). Supremely self-conscious, Jagger makes do with a diffident, hooded stare. He's less sacred monster than youthcult sage and, like the Wizard of Oz, seems overly dependent on reputation and technology for his effects. When Chas is first ushered into Turner's presence, he's assaulted by a blast of the Last Poets.
Directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg
Written by Cammell
May 11 through 17
Seen today, it seems remarkable that Performance could have inspired so much acrimonyparticularly as it appeared only weeks after the truly horrific Hollywood sacrilege that was Myra Breckinridge. Legend has it that the wife of one Warner executive became violently ill during a sneak preview, and John Simon (who reported on this "most loathsome film of all" in The New York Times) reported that the Manhattan theater where Performance held sway reeked of vomit. This tribute notwithstanding, Performance seems more like eye candy than castor oil in the brave new world of Freddy Got Fingered.
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