“They were down for each other.” If one wanted to pitch the concept of Bad Timing in six words, this comment by its director, Nicolas Roeg, couldn’t be bettered. “They” are two lovers who meet by chance, though it’s the kind of chance that has a strong element of psychological necessity. It’s the attraction/repulsion of complete opposites, a force that will bind them to each other even while they torture each other.
There are other ways of unpicking that phrase, of understanding what put them down for each other. It might have been a fate with a malicious sense of humor—in their blind extremes, this pair deserve each other. It might have been a kind of Gothic doom, which the film’s lighting and design gradually emphasize. It might even have been a mysterious logic in the nature of things, which the film seems to be following in the way it breaks up and rearranges everything in mosaic patterns, where details of attitude and behavior, speech and gesture, pass from character to character.
“They” are two Americans in Vienna. Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) is a psychoanalyst who lectures at the university, and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell) apparently drifts, after separating from her Czech husband (Denholm Elliott) in the film’s first scenes. Alex and Milena meet at a party, she impulsively giving him her number while he tries to maintain a teasing distance, keeping control over any possible relationship by suggesting that it should remain just that: “Why spoil the mystery? If we don’t meet, there’s always the possibility it could have been perfect.”
Impulse and control—the relationship that does develop batters between these two poles. For Alex, what is desirable—even when it comes to physical desire—is determined by what is containable, what he can understand and hold in his mind, like a piece of psychoanalytic research or that formula for perfection that he suggests at their first meeting. For Milena, experience is never containable, imperfection necessarily follows from being open to the moment, and understanding hardly comes into it. Their relationship begins to resemble one of those impossible ball-in-a-maze puzzles—there are, in fact, two matching sets of these in the film—where he is drawn to her wildness and chaos and impelled to tame it, perhaps because he fears a matching chaos in himself. When he despairs that she’ll never change, she retorts, “If you weren’t who you are, I wouldn’t have to.”
Bad Timing: The Men Who Didn’t Know Something