Along with his penchant for complex, often fragmented narratives and innovative montage editing techniques, one of the things that makes Nicolas Roeg such a fascinating filmmaker is his approach to the supernatural. Roeg’s interest in strange phenomena can be traced all the way back to Performance (1970), which saw Roeg and co-director Donald Cammell present a sort of symbolic form of reincarnation or “rebirth” via the fusing of the characters played by James Fox and Mick Jagger. With Don’t Look Now (1973), Roeg established what was clearly his favorite area of the mystical and unexplained, that being the concept of psychic ability, second sight and warnings from beyond. Telepathy would also come into play in Eureka (1983) with hints of a psychic connection between Gene Hackman and Theresa Russell and said film is also ripe with various other supernatural components be it fortune telling, Hackman’s superstition of his soul being threatened and perhaps most unforgettably, voodoo. Then there’s of course The Witches (1990), Roeg’s memorable adaptation of the Roald Dahl book and Puffball (2007), where Roeg again turned to witchcraft and superstition along with Pagan mythology and references to the Norse god Odin. Following The Witches, Roeg continued on a supernatural path, albeit in a more adult fashion with Cold Heaven, yet another neglected later Roeg title and one of his most peculiar supernaturally themed films due to its religious (specifically catholic) preoccupations.
While vacationing in Mexico, Dr. Alex Davenport (Mark Harmon) is accidentally killed after being struck by a boat. Prior to the accident, his wife Marie (Theresa Russell) had planned on leaving Alex after admitting to him her affair with another doctor, Daniel Corvin (James Russo). A few days after Alex’s death, Marie is given the unexpected news that Alex’s body has inexplicably disappeared and she gets an even bigger shock days later when Alex appears to her in a motel room where she had planed to meet Daniel. Soon after Alex’s reappearance, Marie, a lapsed catholic, is compelled to tell a local priest of a vision she had years prior of whom she assumed to be the Virgin Mary, a vision which mirrors the nightly dream of a fanatically devout nun, all of which force Marie into an existential crisis of loyalty and fate.
Cold Heaven is the type of film that epitomizes the term “open to interpretation”. More specifically, it’s the kind of film that, while watching, its easy to take everything at face value, once its over however a plethora of questions arise about what Roeg intended to be taken at face value or what was intended as metaphor. This is especially true in regards to the films metaphysical content. The biggest question hovering over the entire film is whether or not the reappearing Alex is actually a ghost. Certainly that would be the obvious guess but Roeg offers up a bevy of other possibilities as well in that Alex could be stuck in some sort of purgatory state, or could even be a figment of Marie’s guilt-ridden imagination, although this is highly unlikely given later developments in the film but its an interesting suggestion. At one point Roeg even hints at a possible demonic possession. The films religious aspects are particularly curious as to how Marie’s supposed vision of the Virgin Mary are linked to the dreams of the nun which leads to the films most astounding visual moment which again, leads to further mystery rather than any concrete answers considering that what takes place could either be an act of nature or something of unknown origin. There’s also the issue of Marie’s lapsed faith, which Roeg utilizes in a manner not unlike Abel Ferrara, and the idea of “sanctuary”, a word which is used quite often in the film and given multiple meanings.
Cold Heaven was Theresa Russell’s fifth film with her then husband Roeg following Bad Timing (1980), Eureka, Insignificance (1985) and Track 29 (1988). It would be their last feature film together, their final project being “Hotel Paradise”, an episode of the anthology television series Erotic Tales. While being interviewed by a British TV station during a behind the scenes look at Cold Heaven, Russell described her working relationship with Roeg (rather appropriately) as “telepathic” stating “I guess because I know him so well I need less direction when I do a film with him because I know how his mind works, we have like a short hand or if I’m having trouble in a scene or something he’ll say two words to me and I’ll go “Oh yeah, yeah I get it, I get it” you know, I mean so its kind of almost a telepathic affair really in a way.” A brilliant and fearless actress, Russell’s performances for Roeg, particularly in Bad Timing and Track 29, display a boldness most actresses would shy away from and the same could be said for Russell’s performance Ken Russell’s (no relation) notorious Whore (1991) which she did prior to Cold Heaven. Cold Heaven was yet another heavy role in a very unique film. It’s a film that may confound many but its ability to remain just as interesting after viewing makes it a rewarding watch.
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