Performance, 1968 film by Nicholas Roeg & Donald Cammell

A critique by Alice Gebura

Cecil Beaton, Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, October 1968. ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Running from his mob boss and the law, sadistic thug Chas falls down a rabbit hole, Alice in Wonderland style. His exit from a seedy and gratuitously violent world into a psychedelic and gratuitously sexual one projects two fantasy experiences for the adolescent male. As such Performance is a typical film pandering to the male gender. It’s a man’s man-world with lots of creative torture on the streets. The two women who inhabit the wonderland mansion serve up sex fantasies in the favored prototypes blonde bombshell and pubescent nymph. Pherber, the blonde, also tends to Chas’ wounds. How convenient when your sex priestess is also a mother figure, at the ready to kiss your boo-boos. The au courant counter culture embellishments that gave the film its cache can’t disguise its underlying service to the hormonally-driven male persona. 

I suppose it’s admirable that the actors were so dedicated to their “deep-method” craft.  They say James Fox spent time with real London criminals to perfect his character. Too bad the film didn’t otherwise extend its authenticity. Since when does Uncle Mobster read Borges? Performance tries to be Warhol Factory cool but the sanitized bodies, all glamour and no grit, are more in the spirit of Playboy Magazine. Also, those were not psilocybin mushrooms. The red aminita muscaria will kill you within 48 hours.

The duality-themed reveal when Turner and Chas reverse identities is foreshadowed with mirror shots and pretentious dialog.

“The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way is the one that achieves madness.”

[Guffaws in the room]

Lots of food for Freudian analysis, I suppose. What a nightmare for some poor schmuck psychiatrist. Performance is a postmodernist journey into the male psyche on a quest to aggrandize its ordinary propensities.  As a female viewer I experienced it as a singularly effective sleeping pill.

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