James Fox gives a scalding, brilliant performance as Chas, a vicious East London enforcer hiding in a faded rock star’s mansion following a killing that his boss had warned him not to commit, in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. Chas becomes unexpectedly helpless as he more deeply enters the drugged, delirious, androgynous realm of Turner, the rock star (Mick Jagger, okay—and riveting when he sings). Each young man is forced to confront subconscious elements of personality that test his survival. The experience proved discombobulating for Fox, who left acting and fled into religious retreat for nearly a decade before (thank God!) regaining his sanity and resuming his career.
“I know who I am,” Chas tells Harry, his boss. But, like the rest of us, he only thinks he does. Before being picked up and escorted to his finish, Chas is drawn into a transformation of himself—including wig, costume, makeup—that blurs the distinction between him and Turner, and between him and others—females—in Turner’s house. Chas’s face becomes Turner’s; a small hand mirror attaches a woman’s breast to Chas’s naked chest. Indeed, this is a film full of mirrors and reflections off glass. Fleeting confirmations of identity ironically underscore the vast terrain of human mystery always gaping below one’s idea of oneself. At a point when he still believes he may elude mob capture and death, Chas, masquerading as a juggler, pleads with Turner to rent him the basement room: “I’m determined to fit in. I’ve got to fit in, Mr. Turner.” (Cammell wrote the script.) But this will not be possible based on who he “knows” himself to be.
This kaleidoscopic film suggests the piecing together of a puzzling identity—and the disintegration into chaos of Chas’s preëxistent role.
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