Directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell
Written by Donald Cammell
Cinematography by Nicolas Roeg
Starring Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, James Fox, Allan Cuthbertson
Nicolas Roeg’s films appeal mainly due to their distinctive style, which creates a world for the viewer to enter into. The story centers loosely around two men inhabiting an apartment after one of them seeks to escape from the police and his fellow gangsters. The pair are diametrically opposed: one flamboyant, the other controlled. Their forced proximity creates a psychological melodrama akin to Bergman’s Persona, in which small gestures take on bold meanings and the underlying unity between opposites is subtly revealed.
The filmmaking itself is what evokes these themes, however, more so than the script. His use of editing – sound editing in particular – is deliberately jarring and ignores certain Hollywood techniques as basic as the eyeline match, the establishing shot, or continuity editing. Parallel action is common in Hollywood films, but Roeg intercuts scenes whose relationship is not necessarily defined temporally; their context is often ambiguous, as when explicit s&m sex is juxtaposed with a car driving. A later scene of a violent beating is then intercut with the same prior sexual encounter. This surreal and disorienting use of montage is enhanced by Roeg’s diverse use of musical scoring. Performance features ambient electronic music, rock songs, Indian classical music, and a “conventional” orchestral score near the end which ironically turns out to be diegetic sound emanating from a radio. Two parallel actions frequently feature two parallel scores, which are intercut without any attempt at a seamless transition – a technique that has rarely been duplicated by other filmmakers.
Roeg uses flashforwards in a way that doesn’t really enhance tension of the narrative but merely creates a sense of time collapsing in on itself. He frequently shows silent flashes of events that will actually occur in the film within a minute. Even his camera techniques contrast with basic Hollywood conventions, employing quick zooms, pans and tilts rather than tracking shots. Normally the “handheld” effect might be used to create a sense of chaos in the midst of action, or a sense of minimalist credibility as in the Dogma 95 films. Here, however, they paradoxically feel even more contrived and detached, since they are used in the most counterintuitive ways and at the oddest moments.
Because the style of the film is so striking, it becomes the content in and of itself. The fourth wall is broken, which in the case of Performance is a thematically relevant part of the film. Even the casting of an identifiable celebrity like Jagger, whose real-life persona inhabits the film alongside his ostensible role as a “character”, makes us acutely aware of the artifice of filmmaking. I enjoyed Performance for its unique style but felt that it was put to better use in Roeg’s subsequent films. I frequently wondered what the characters here were thinking, but Roeg only takes us inside a character’s head at the end of the film, when the camera zooms into Jagger’s gunshot wound and literally provides a glimpse into his brain. The surface of the brain is slimy, complicated, and fascinating, but it also has no mind.