The Real Star

Back when I was a wee sophomore in college, I developed this cherished ritual: maybe once a month or so, when my group of friends was going out or studying or something, I’d smoke *something or other* and head over our local outpost of the legendary (and much missed!) Kim’s Video.  There, I’d browse aimlessly through the selection and just pick a DVD or two, bring it back to my dorm room, and escape into another world.  Sometimes my selections were because I knew I was supposed to like those directors––like L’Avventura, or Hannah and Her Sisters––and sometimes it was based solely on the Criterion imprimatur.  More often than not, it was entirely at random.

I had surprisingly good success with this (“surprising,” because I wasn’t taking film classes and clearly had no idea what I was doing).  Even the notoriously judgmental Kim’s staff occasionally nodded in begrudging approval of my choices.  I still own a lot of DVDs I purchased then, and to this day, I count some of my filmic discoveries of that time among my favorite movies ever, including the terrifying Dutch-French thriller The Vanishing (which I’ve actually never quite had the stomach to re-watch) and Robert Altman’s atmospheric, hazy Three Women.  

But I had actually forgotten about one of the best finds of this era, Nicholas Roeg’s 1980 erotic thriller (kinda?) Bad Timing, until I fell down a mini-wormhole watching Criterion Closet Picks on YouTube (Ben Sinclair and Isabelle Huppert selected it)!  Bad Timing is the story of the beautiful, enigmatic Milena Flaherty, portrayed by Theresa Russell (who would later go on to marry Roeg) who seduces the clinical, controlling Dr. Alex Linden, an appropriately cerebral Art Garfunkel.  The two meet at a party and embark on an obsessive love affair, which eventually reaches a devastating, violent climax.  The film is set in Cold War Vienna, kind of the fifth main character here, which is depicted as equal parts decadence and paranoia, as evoked by alternating shots of paintings by Klimt and Schiele.

I could have sworn I had the Criterion DVD of Bad Timing, but I guess I lost it somewhere in the ensuing decade-plus because I don’t see it on my shelves.  Bummer, as it isn’t, even now, easy to find: the film’s distributor released it only briefly in 1980, calling it “a sick film made by sick people for sick people,” and it remained largely unavailable until Criterion released in the early aughts, which is around when I would have nabbed it.  (It’s now sold out on that site but there are some slightly-too-expensive copies on Ebay.)  But luckily for me, you can rent it on iTunes, so the other night I charged my card and settled in for an evening of nostalgia.

It was fascinating revisiting something that I remembered not only for itself, but for the particular reaction I had to it at that point in my life.  For example, I very much wanted to be glamorous and mysterious in exactly the way Theresa Russell was, so encountering her character was like locating a new icon.  And yet while watching it, I remember feeling like I had to consciously overlook one aspect of her character I found truly ridiculous: her HAIR!  Throughout the movie, Russell dons a truly baffling array of hairstyles, from the futuristic to the schoolmarmish.  Herewith, a compilation (incomplete):

This look is from the scene where Alex and Milena first meet, at a party.  It’s hard to tell from this picture, but her hair is in a bun towards the front right side of her head, and obviously curled throughout.  (Not clear if her hair is naturally curly or straight, based on other hairstyles.)  This is the first of a few times she opts for this front-of-the-head bun thing, to which I say: why?  Just, why?


Another angle.  You kind of have to see her in motion to get a sense of how hideous this is.

Final shot.  Sorry for the poor photo quality.


This is from the scene when she’s separating from her husband, played by Denholm Elliot, at the border of (then) Czechoslovakia.  This is one of my favorite of her styles: a kind of corporate hausfrau situation?  I’m sure there is a thesis written by an FIT student out there somewhere that explores the origin of this style.

Back view.

A similar look, from a scene where Alex Linden gives her a personality test.  (This photo is of Roeg directing Russell.)

Here is Russell in some classic Von Trapp braids, which were a specialty of mine in my early and mid-twenties.  (I could do my hair this way without looking in the mirror!)

Okay here is where it gets even weirder: after Alex asks Milena to move in with him, she goes back to Bratislava to have farewell sex with Elliott, and then does herself up nicely in this fancy rabbit fur situation and… some kind of space age hair wave?  This is truly confusing both on an aesthetic and practical level (meaning, how would one even accomplish this? Some kind of claw clasp)?

Really, why?!

And my absolute least favorite of the bunch: hair severely straightened and then put into a side-front bun, with a few loose baby wisps for added ugliness.  Mystifying! 

Aside from the styles I liked on this list, there are some scenes where she looks truly spectacular, mostly when her hair is wild and down or the little strands at the side are pulled back neatly with small clips., kind of like this, or in the bar scene where she makes out with a rando and is rocking an eagle t-shirt.  You’ll have to watch the movie to see those looks.


So in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the re-watch, despite feeling occasionally distracted by the odd coifs.  On a more serious note, it was interesting to watch it now, knowing how sordid people thought it was upon its release––not that the denouement isn’t a terrible violation, but in the decades since, we’ve been subject to so much depraved behavior on screen––just to pick one example, anyone seen Antichrist? That was not a good day, for me––that it weirdly registers as anticlimactic, or maybe just not something that would induce a moral panic?  Or perhaps I felt that way this time just because I knew what was coming?  (Don’t cancel me, this is a purely academic consideration, obviously rape is terrible!) Oh and one last thing: anyone care to weigh in on whether Harvey Keitel is supposed to be like, an actual Austrian or an American expat who somehow got a job in the Austrian police? Anyway, the real moral of this story is a) buy me this DVD and/or b) figure out how to get me invited to do a Criterion Closets Pick.

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