(1970, 105 minutes)

Warner Studios, 1992; VHS, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

Directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell
Screenplay by Donald Cammell
Cinematography by Nicolas Roeg
Music by Jack Nitzsche
Produced by Donald Cammell & Sanford Lieberson


James Fox (I) . . . Chas
Mick Jagger. . . Turner
Anita Pallenberg. . . Pherber
Michèle Breton. . . Lucy
Ann Sidney. . . Dana
John Bindon. . . Moody
Stanley Meadows. . . Rosebloom
Allan Cuthbertson. . . The lawyer
Anthony Morton . . . Dennis
Johnny Shannon. . . Harry Flowers
Anthony Valentine. . . Joey Maddocks
Kenneth Colley. . . Tony Farrell
John Sterland. . . The Chauffeur

According to the Internet Movie Database:

Visually compelling and disturbing look at two diverse sides of 1960s London; the criminal underworld and hippie culture, respectively symbolised by Fox’s Chas, the wayward gangster, and Jagger’s Turner, a semi-retired bisexual rock musician.

It’s Chas’ world we are first introduced to during a highly charged furiously paced scene of gangland violence. It soon becomes clear to us that he is not only an outcast to society but also dangerously individual within his own mob circle. On the run from both the law and the mob he takes refuge in a Notting Hill home which he finds is occupied by Turner, his junkie girlfriend, Pherber, and her French lover, Lucy. Tunrer becomes infatuated with Chas’ violent charisma and his “vital energy” he himself feels he has lost.

As the title suggests the film is all about performances. Chas is initiated into Turner’s underground world of drug experimentation and gender bending. Turner’s name in itself is symbolic of the way he tries to play with and turn Chas’ psyche around. It is ultimately the “performance” of Turner which brings the two worlds together, as he poses as Chas’ mobster boss, Harry Flowers, in a scene shot similarly to a modern day music video.

Some critics had felt the film lost its way once Chas entered Turner’s world. Yet surely such disorientation is indicative of how the film successfully explores Chas’ own uneasiness in confronting his own subconscious in an alien atmosphere. The film is full of visual flourishes as one might expect from Roeg, who had been cinemaphotographer on films such as Fahrenheit 451. Fox is mesmerising playing out the evolving identities of Chas, whilst Jagger’s persona is exhibited to its full potential. Roeg was again to explore the theme of alienation using a rock star (this time David Bowie) in a more literal sense in his landmark science fiction film The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Performance is a brilliant film, a rare work where opposites seem to blur together in a soft coupling of mirror images: reason and madness, beauty and ugliness, joy and terror. While not overtly based upon any Borges story, Performance charts a twisted odyssey through a world that contains not a few Borgesian ideas, particularly about the nature of identity, duality, and the tension between an artist’s persona and his real life.
From its very first moments, Performance pulls you into its own unique world. Tracking the movements of Chas, a professional gangster, the film unwinds across a surreal landscape of characters and situations that twist around each other with little regard for conventional narrative structure. Eventually things begin to come together as Chas finds his way to the Notting Hill home of Turner, a declining rock star living in a Pre-Raphaelite idyll, played with mesmerizing ease by a gloriously young Mick Jagger. There, in a virtual retreat from the world, Turner lives in a menage-à-trois with two female lovers, their lives played out in a theater of velvet, mirrors, and monstrously large bathtubs. Accustomed to being in control, the gangster quickly discovers that he is surprisingly out of his depth among Turner and his women, who begin dissolving away his hard edges in a sensual pool of sex, drugs, and hallucinations. But the dissolution is far from one-sided, and Turner becomes likewise fascinated with Chas’ life of suits, guns, and power. As the movie swirls towards its paradoxical conclusion, the dreamlike quality increases, with the sudden ending occurring like the peak of a bad acid trip. Though its ending may leave behind as many questions as it does answers, it all seems balanced by some enigmatic internal logic, and will leave you craving a cup of coffee and a few hours for discussion.
That Borges is an influence is obvious – not only are various characters seen reading a copy of A Personal Anthology (1968), but the image of Borges’ face appears during the last few moments, reflected in a mirror at a crucial instant. Though certainly not for everyone, Performance is a haunting film, a voyage into alienation and unreality that calls to mind some of Borges’ darker visions. It also has one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever seen, a bizarre Mick Jagger video-interlude, and some completely kick-ass music. I couldn’t recommend this movie more if I made it myself.

Additional Information
Below are two excerpts that highlight the Borgesian influence on Performance. (A word of warning – the second reveals the ending of the film.)

Donald Cammell: Nic [Roeg] and I had been friends for years. We both read the same books, which to my mind is more important than seeing the same films. Our initial inspiration came from Borges and Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair, a story which makes a kind of ecstatic exploration of a character’s fatal encounter with his double or alter ego – as in Performance. I was fascinated by the idea of murder which might also be suicide.
(Interview with Daily Cinema)

The story’s complexity is congenial to Turner’s universe which is much like those described in the Borges stories to which the film periodically refers as tales within a tale. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is the name given to a world with inverted natural laws, whose objects have no clear definition and whose nouns exist as endless strings of adjectives. Preparing for his own imminent murder-suicide while Chas lurks in the basement like a waiting assassin, reads aloud from The South, which is about a convalescent who leaves his sanatorium for a train journey to an obscure province, engaging in a fatal knife fight pre-ordained the day he opens a volume of The Thousand and One Nights. But perhaps the most important story is Death and the Compass, which is never directly mentioned. Here, the police inspector tries to decipher an oracular series of homicides whose locations describe a geometric puzzle, the final piece completed only when the inspector himself enters the murderer’s carefully assembled lair. This is an understated allusion to Performance’s own geometric murder when Chas aims his gun precisely at the section of Turner’s head that corresponds to the patch of hair Chas mysteriously leaves on the chauffeur’s scalp. The connection becomes more obvious when Borges’s photograph flashes in a shattered looking glass as the camera takes us on a visceral tracking shot down Turner’s punctured skull.
(Lanza, Joseph. Fragile Geometry: The Films, Philosophy And Misadventures Of Nicolas Roeg. Paj Publications, 1989. Pg. 96)

That Donald Cammell has been influenced by Borges may be further illustrated by two more examples. His 1977 film Demon Seed – a visionary but unsettling work where an AI named Proteus attempts to conceive a child with a human woman – contains a scene where a programmer discusses the paradox of Shi Huang Ti, as related by Borges in The Wall and the Books. The second example is more grim, as it involves Cammell’s suicide. After shooting himself in the head with a shotgun, he remarked to his wife that he “couldn’t see Borges yet.” He died a few moments later, with the ambulance on its way to his home.

Offsite Links

PhinnWeb “Performance” Page – An excellent page devoted to the film, with images, articles, reviews, and more.

The Man That Time Forgot – A wonderful article on Donald Cammell, online at PhinnWeb. Contains some information about the filming of Performance.

IMDB’s “Performance” Page – The Internet Movie Database’s page on Performance.

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25 March 2004