There is for me a mystery called Art Garfunkel. You could say the mystery is his appeal which, indeed, I do not perceive. But I don't believe even the lead actor in a movie needs to be appealing to make the movie work. Though, in a way, Garfunkel's complete failure as an actor and a star in 1980's Bad Timing contributes to that film's story about sex and a masculine obsession with control and pride. All the other actors work brilliantly--Theresa Russell, Harvey Keitel, Denholm Elliot. But at the centre is a violently jealous, scrawny nebish whose presence is never quite explicable.
The film begins with professor of psychology Alex Linden (Garfunkel) riding in an ambulance in Vienna with his unconscious lover Milena (Theresa Russell). She's close to death after a suicide attempt involving unnamed drugs mixed with alcohol.
We see the beautiful woman's throat cut open by surgeons in an effort to save her by getting air to her lungs, shots juxtaposed with scenes of her and Alex having sex. The film is mostly told in flashback, mainly Alex's flashbacks, as we see how the strange relationship between himself and Milena developed.
For the first half of the movie, I couldn't understand why I was meant to care about either character and I couldn't fathom why they cared about each other. Well, Theresa Russell is gorgeous, but the party where they meet is made absurd from the moment we see Garfunkel lounging in tuxedo against the wall, apparently seducing her with just a few half interested words.
The opening credits use Tom Waits' "Invitation to the Blues". With lines like, "And you feel just like Cagney, she looks like Rita Hayworth," the song presents a scenario like a classic, rough movie romance. But despite frequent shots of Garfunkel smoking and brooding, there's nothing in his weak frame, dumb face, and flat delivery that makes him worthy of inhabiting such an archetype.
I could maybe understand it if Milena mainly pitied him or just got off on the sort of worshipful attention a nerdy guy like Alex might feel for one of the few women in his life who ever liked him. But the film seems to imply he somehow has sex appeal. It tries to support its argument that Milena feels a genuine attraction to him when he tells her a story in Cairo about an old building near where he grew up. But Garfunkel's delivery is so unconvincing that Alex sounds phoney. We're struck more by how self-conscious he is than by any admiration on Milena's part.
And then Alex is also a real jerk. This is really interesting, though--Milena leaves him a note at one point that says, "I wish you'd understand me less and love me more." An interesting way of describing how he tries to dominate her through analysis. There are some real interesting ideas about a bad relationship in this screenplay which is why Alex really needed to be played by someone for whom you could understand why Milena would make the effort in the first place.
Russell plays Milena perfectly well and she makes sense of being a hedonistic woman with many male friends and a quiet, much suffering husband thirty years her senior in Stefan (Denholm Elliott).
Milena more than once expresses a desire to Alex that she wants freedom from the identity created for her by marriage. This is something he fails to understand despite obsessively analysing her. In one rather brilliant scene for her on the stairwell, she says how she never had ambition to be a great artist or a revolutionary, she just wanted to give what she has. She has a lot of sex with a lot of men but with a genuine affection. In one of the uglier scenes in the film, she implores Alex to have a simple conversation with her one day instead of sex. When he gets weird and angry and starts to leave, she cries and pulls open her panties. And he fucks and leaves angrily, still not understanding why she won't go exclusive with him.
It becomes clear her multiple suicide attempts are for her the final result of calculations she's tried to make in order to satisfy him (again, why anyone would go so far for Art Garfunkel is beyond me, but we'll set that aside for the moment).
Harvey Keitel plays the Viennese Inspector Netusil investigating the circumstances of Milena's suicide attempt. He starts to form a suspicion regarding Alex and his attempts to lure Alex into a confession are rather illuminating in terms of Alex's real motives. Keitel proves what a great actor he is by feigning sympathy for Alex's disgust at Milena's untidy lifestyle convincingly enough we know Alex believes him yet we can see the Inspector is feigning. I sort of wished Milena somehow would have ended up with him though Denholm Elliott's not bad, either.
Did Alex try to murder Milena? Well, I won't spoil the ending but regardless of whether or not that's the case it's clear that Alex would rather regard her as a disposable sort of doll, completely under his power.
Stefan makes Alex's problem clear when he says something to him Alex clearly doesn't understand: "You must understand you see it's not enough to love a woman when she's, eh . . . difficult. You must love her tremendously. More even than one's own dignity."