Warning: All of the below are spoilers, except the bits where I'm speculating. If you want to be shocked by the ending of the film, don't read any of it at all.
What's all this 'ear, then?
Performance was released on DVD this February; it's taken me until now to manage to sit down and write about it. And that doesn't include the fact that I've had it on VHS for several years. Or that I first saw it in 1976, six years after it was released in England. How, you might ask, does it take 31 years to try to sum up a film? Partly it's me, but Performance is a difficult film to summarize.
The movie Performance starts in the outside world with a linear story. Chas is a junior enforcer with a firm, a man with a sadistic gift for putting the frighteners on people – when he finds an antagonistic lawyer who purports not to be afraid of him, his destruction of the lawyer's Rolls Royce and humiliation of his chauffeur is a balletic masterpiece. We see him going about his usual business – smashing up a shopkeeper's premises until he agrees that he needs his firm's protection – when he hears his boss mention a bookie Chas knows – and hates. Chas destroys the turf accountant's shop, not realizing that his boss had other plans. He finds himself out of favor. It gets worse; the bookie, realizing the tables have turned, breaks into Chas' flat with a couple of goons and beats him up. (Everyone seems to be convinced Chas is queer; they make jokes about it as they tie him up and whip him. There are BDSM references throughout the film, but Chas, despite a sequence suggesting he's a sexual sadist, has a chirpy and unbruised girlfriend.) Chas manages to reach his hidden gun, shoots the bookie but lets the other two go. Only then does it dawn on him that he's put his firm in danger and he has nowhere to hide.
He pulls out his emergency money and buys a train ticket, but in the station waiting room sees Noel, a black guitarist with a Hendrix 'fro talking to his 'mum', an elderly white lady. He's got a gig, and is leaving his room in Powis Square with the back rent unpaid until he can get the money to his landlord, Turner. Chas changes his mind. He'll hole up in Turner's basement until the heat's off. He takes a taxi to Powis Square, blags his way in by claiming to be a performer himself, a juggler. He pays off the back rent and an exorbitant extra fee Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) thinks up on the spot, and goes to ground. Laraine, the cleaning lady's daughter, a youngster with a deep voice and masculine walk, acts as our Exposition Elf, providing Chas and ourselves with background information on the house and its inhabitants. The cinematography of the 'real' aspects of the house is so clearly defined I swear you can smell it. Upstairs it's patchouli, frangipani and joss sticks; the kitchen is Fairy Liquid dish detergent. The basement smells of damp plaster, dry wood, winter cold and old varnish.
Turner is a retired rock musician, who has, as Pherber says later, lost his demon. He's trapped in the house, a recluse. The upper part of the house is all carpets, silks, divans and cushions in rooms around a cavernous in-home recording studio. Downstairs is the kitchen. Pherber is cooking dinner, a live eel crawling from its fishbowl across the kitchen table as she and Lucy, a boyish French girl, attempt to plug in a transistor radio using two leads ending in sockets rather than a socket and a plug. "You can't fit those together," Pherber says, demonstrating. "It's all holes." In the greenhouse she grows mushrooms, but today she picks a wild one from the garden – an Amanita muscaria, a fly cap, a semi-poisonous and notably powerful hallucinogen. Chas likes mushrooms, he says, so she gives him three-quarters of it, mixed in his food. "That's insane," Turner later says. "I can't make that scene."
On to part II