For their debut feature, Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell ambitiously tried to remake, in their own way, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), which electrified the European art film scene a few years earlier. Despite the addition of genre violence, Roeg’s trademark graphic sex scenes, and a little bit of rock’n’roll, Performance replaces Bergman’s cold, psychologically provocative allure with hyperactive tedium and immature subversion.
James Fox stars as Chas, a sociopathic gangster whose zeal for cracking heads without permission gets him in trouble with the bosses, so he hides out in the sublet basement of reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). Turner and his two lovers, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton), do their best to deconstruct Chas, with the implication that his violent tendencies are the result of repressed sexual expression.
Roeg and Cammell tart up Performance with an overload of camera, editing, and sound design tricks, but these seem purposeless beyond distracting from the lack of depth to the characters and narrative. In a straightforward movie, Chas would make for a poor central character as a collection of irredeemable characteristics with no awareness of his need to change. In Performance, he barely matters; all Cammell and Roeg are interested in is bodies and playing camera tricks to muddy the lines between them.
As an art piece, Performance looks neat, with production design that perfectly evokes the mix of hippie pop-art hedonism and faux-gothicism of the early 1970s decadent rock scene — I could see this influencing the look of Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) — but all it has for content are trendy platitudes about gender fluidity and identity as a construct dressed as ideas ripped from Bergman. When the film calms down for stretches of near-narrative, it reveals its dull dearth of ideas — elliptical dialog short of the quality of Albee or Pinter is no joy to behold — and when Roeg ramps up the style, Performance is both annoying and empty, a deadly combo.
Performance no doubt deserves some credit as a trailblazer for androgyny, even though its take on the subject veers from simple-minded to bleak. At one point, Turner declares, “The only performance that makes it all the way… is the one that achieves madness!” but his own polysexual expression looks like a reclusive dead-end, maybe even as its own form of identity obfuscation. I suppose Roeg and Cammell intended that "madness" line also as a description of their own movie, but there were far madder, wilder, more interesting and more fun movies that came out of the post-60s experimentation on the edges of mainstream cinema. Performance is like the extravagant, drugged-up party-goer who thinks he is wild but is just a boor in slightly garish clothing.