Although Performance was completed in 1968 it didn't open until 2 years later. Warner Bros canned the film when faced with the problem of how to market this unexpected X-rated feature film. The explicit sex, brutal violence and open drug-use, seemed to have caused Warner Bros to panic. Upon its initial release many critics condemned the film as one the most disgusting and worthless films ever made, but the truth was far from that. Performance was way ahead of its time with innovative film techniques and creative daring.
Performance also marked the directorial debut of Nicolas Roeg who went to direct the classic David Bowie vehicle, The Man Who Fell To Earth; and was co-directed and written by Donald Cammell, another auteur, best known for the 1977 sci-fi film Demon Seed, who was never able to fully live up to his potential. The irony is that many folks associate Performance as the definitive Roeg film, but it was Cammell who really came up with its vision, the story, even the spastic visual style. Cammell, aware of his own technical limitations brought Nicolas Roeg as director of photography to help him fulfill his vision and their collaboration resulted in this cinematic breakthrough. Eventually, Nicolas Roeg assume a larger role as co-director, after the production was labeled out of control by the folks at Warner. Roeg continued experimenting and developing this cinematic style for the rest of his very succesful career, while Cammell went into obscurity, finally commiting suicide.
Performance is both a psychological melodrama and one of the most revolutionarily experimental films ever made. The story is simple but filled with complex themes such as the idea of merging identities, doppelgangers and the ways that we perform in public. The film works at many levels challenging viewers with its complex structure, which is also a big reason why it divides audiences. Those who prefer linear storytelling will most likely hate Performance, but those up to the challenge will find the experience rewarding.
Set in 1960s London, James Fox plays Chas, a bisexual gangster on the run from his colleagues who is trying to disguise himself so that he can slip out of England. Chas finds a vast Notting Hill townhouse occupied by burned-out ex-pop-star Turner (Mick Jagger) and his lovers Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Brèton). Turner has become a hermit living in his own little world of art, sex, music, and drugs. When Turner meets Chas he immediately recognizes something of his younger daring self in the persona of the violent gangster. Turner embarks on a plan of mental seduction to absorb Chas's identity into his own by covertly poisoning Chas with drugs, sex and rock and roll. The longer Chas and Turner are together the more they begin to blend. At this point the storyline becomes concerned with the disintegration of Chas perceptions about himself and his world. As the identities of the two men become blurred the film becomes an assault of jump-cuts, point-of-view shifts, visual effects, elliptical editing and seamless changes between fantasy and reality.
Performance features intriguing performances by the two main leads. James Fox is very effective as the violent, narcissistic gangster, Chas, who hides an ambiguous sexuality behind his macho facade. Fox plays him as a narcissistic perfectionist who moves through the world detached and stone-faced, but always conscious of himself and his surroundings. Chas disguises his inability to communicate (possibly due to a lack of education) by initially appearing introverted and dreamy and unexpectedly switching to sadistic, violent and aggressive behavior. His acts of intimidation referred to as "performances" by the mob, are carried out with sadistic earnestness and sick perfectionism. This is brilliantly illustrated in the scene in which Chas pours acid on the paint job of one of his victim's Rolls Royce and then proceeds to further the act by shaving the chauffeur's head, leaving just one tiny patch of hair. Then he complains to one of his aids that got soap on the driver's collar. James Fox reveals many layers of his character by brilliantly alternating between his sex appeal with primal physicality and keen observed behavior. Another great scene shows him having violent sex while stealing glimpses of himself in a mirror. It is in scenes like these, that Fox demonstrates his brilliance in building a very complex character with limited dialogue.
But the biggest surprise in the film is Mick Jagger's self-conscious performance. Jagger's sheer energetic audacity is in full display in the role of Turner, the faded rock and roll star. Jagger plays Turner as a variation of his true persona with a more twisted sinister side. Turner as played by Jagger is a sacred monster fully dependent on his former fame and in his natural ability to shock. He is an androgynous but sexual figure always wearing a kimono with long hair and lipstick. Initially, Jagger keeps his act toned down with an almost feminine-like and whiny bitchiness as in the scene in Chas begs Turner to become part of his household and Jaggers yells “I don’t like sharing my house. This is my house! Leave me!” in a tantrum and tiara fashion. In factTurner is constantly performing. In the musical fantasy sequence Memo to T, Jagger's insolent aggression comes fully out of the closet. When he tells Chas at one point in the film, "The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Right?” he not only seems to comment on himself but on the very essence of what drives most of these characters on this film.
Perhaps the most important and much debated aspect of Performance was in the way that Cammell and Roeg invented a new language of images. The cinematography and editing techniques were considered groundbreaking upon its release and were also the source for the major split in opinion with audiences and critics alike. Cammell conceived Performance as a non traditional non-linear narrative that violated time, space and reality almost as a jigsaw puzzle in which the audience would have to assemble to figured out its mysteries. Cammell and Roeg’s technique is basically to heighten every aspect of the story with a cerebral montage of kaleidoscopic psychedelic images. They use frenetic editing to break down the traditional barriers between past and present, reality and fantasy. The film is filled with many haunting images.There is a memorable sequence in which mirrors are used to superimpose female parts on Chas's body and, later, Chas's face in place of his lover's visage. In fact most of the sex/nude scenes are purposely shot in ways that illustrate the duality of all the characters. At times it is hard to identify the sex of the persons that you are watching. A great example is in the character of Lorraine, a little girl who to lives in the compound, who wears skirts, but looks like a boy and talks like a midget. The characters are constantly changing their looks with hair color, wigs, and their couture, if not naked.
The sound mix and score by Jack Nitzsche who went on to do films like The Exorcist, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Blue Collar, and Hardcore, is absolutely fascinating incorporating fragments of human voices, environmental and synthesized sounds and classy pop idioms with the likes of Randy Newman, Merry Clayton, Ry Cooder, and Buffy Saint Marie. The film even features the first ever made MTV-like musical number when Jagger performs Memo from T.
At one point in the film, Turner quotes Hassan I Sabbah’s phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted" which illustrates everything that is fascinating and unnerving about Performance. The conclusion of the film is also left open to many interpretations and will either make you a devoted fan with its implications or will make you angry with disgust which is another reason why this film has divided so many critics and audiences. Regardless whether you are a fan or not, Performance has built a massive cult following and has ranked #48 on the British Film Institute's list of the hundred greatest British films. To me, even by today’s standards the film is a challenging, exciting and wild cinematic experience worth watching over and over again but if you prefer your films spoon-fed, then skip the headache and enlighten yourself with The Dukes of Hazzard instead.