Don’t Look Now (1973) is a classic British film about grief and what it does to a marriage. It’s a classic Venice movie. It’s a Julie Christie classic and a Donald Sutherland classic. It’s a classic psychic thriller. It’s considered by many to be director Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece, and therefore a Roeg classic. Even the actors’ wardrobes are classic — classic tweed for Christie, and classic plaid and argyle for Sutherland. But Don’t Look Now is mainly a classic film about misinterpretation, one that’s built on tricks of sight and sound, on miscommunication, mistranslation, and self-deception. Characters get turned around in the maze of Venetian alleys; they have to punch through language barriers to be understood; unreliable telephone connections chew up meaning; precognitions are cryptic; images with the authority of age — sculptures, friezes and mosaics — are blurred by decay; a husband and wife disconnect when they can no longer understand the other’s perspective; and, ultimately, a man is destroyed by his own mistaken sight. While there are moments of keen anticipation in the movie, it’s best to expect an atmospheric drama rather than a thriller. The film is more a study of character, architecture, marriage, and weather than the nail-biter its DVD packaging might suggest.
In Roeg’s adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier short story, nothing is firm in the characters’ hands, whether it’s love, language, art, stone, scaffolding, or even existence. Disintegration is the primary trope, here; signs scream “Venice in peril” while old churches rot along the canals, hotels wind down for the season, and cops pull corpses from the drink. The decay of solid architecture — of an entire city — makes human life seem even more impermanent in Roeg’s treatment. Venice is, of course, the perfect backdrop to transmit this kind of message, and it’s served filmmakers and storytellers well over the years (see Death in Venice, where we can’t miss themes of aging, plague, and moral corrosion). Roeg takes advantage of his setting and, if nothing else, Don’t Look Now works as a postcard from (if not a love-letter to) La Serenissima, which is practically a third character in the film. Let’s face it — some locations can’t help stealing the show, and Venice on celluloid has always been a preening attention-whore. The challenge for any director is to try to make the place seem mundane and functional rather than totally fairy-tale, and better Venice movies manage to do so by corralling its unique scenery into backdrop or metaphor, and steering wide of travel-brochure idealization.
Sutherland and Christie play John and Laura Baxter, a couple transplanted to Venice after the drowning death of their daughter, Christine. They’ve left their surviving son back home in England while John supervises the restoration of a sixteenth-century church and worries about his wife’s state of mind (because moving to a city of canals after you’ve pulled your dead kid from a pond is always good for one’s mental health). Laura’s outlook improves after meeting a set of weird sisters in a hotel dining-room. One of the sisters (Hilary Mason) is blind and claims to have second sight. She tells Laura that she saw Christine sitting at the table between her parents, “laughing and happy as can be.” Laura faints, then feels better than she has since the accident. She begins to find comfort in Catholic tokens and spirituality, and in the idea of life after death, while her empiricist husband gets more and more rankled. Great sex ensues, but so does the uncanny: there’s a murderer on the loose in Venice; a small figure lurks in the corners wearing the same red coat Christine wore the day she died; the sisters tell Laura that her husband is psychic despite his skeptical outlook. Venice is thoroughly haunted, in effect, and not just by the bland old past. The sisters insist that John’s in danger so long as he stays in town, but specifics can’t be coaxed out of anyone, and communications are too fritzed to act on. The couple is left to flail along as best they can, chaffing against culture shock and their own misalignment as believer and cynic.
Better critics might find nits to pick out of Don’t Look Now, but nothing stands out for me as a legitimate flaw in technique or story. Personal taste in aesthetic, pacing and narrative transparency might hold off some viewers’ devotion, but the film is the cinematic equivalent of strong bones wrapped in flawless skin. Roeg, who worked for a quarter-century as a cinematographer before turning to directing, is an undisputed visual master (for further proof, see the hypnotic Walkabout, which follows two children through the Australian Outback with a lens that practically eats the sky). He has a lot to work with here, capturing Venice’s architectural vaults and autumn clouds, and Christie’s and Sutherland’s matching gaunt beauty and soft, ash-blond curls. They make one of the most striking couples ever committed to film, brisk and dignified in their lean coats, haunted at the eyes, gingerly navigating the pathways of a marriage transformed by recent events and geography. The edges of Roeg’s world are soft, though no diffusion lens appears to be used, and everything looks rained on and a touch sickly. Most shots are canvases of grays and browns, broken only by the stalwart blue of Sutherland’s coat and the rare burst of red. The sight of children or the charisma of John and Laura — just as their youth is beginning to sunset — seems out of place in Venice’s ancient setting. You can almost smell the must, and you doubt anything here can thrive.
Christie and Sutherland convince as a married pair, and their work here is as memorable as the setting. Their performances are magnetic. They draw viewers towards them so tightly that the normal distance between audience and actor seems much thinner here than in most movies. They work through their drama in slow measures, moving no faster than the current of a canal even in the famous love scene, which is part of an even more famous montage of natural, marital behavior. Full-frontal Sutherland and Christie is the least of Roeg’s achievement in the acclaimed hotel room sequence. What should be noted is the way unflattering positions, bland lighting and unathletic thirtysomething bodies (1970’s thirtysomething bodies, so tack on an extra decade’s worth of wear) amount to a mesmerizing expression of affection and closeness. The sex scene (more naked in its starkness than most, and more comfortable than titillating) is intercut with Laura and John’s pre- and post-coital routines. Roeg takes the familiar and drags it by the hair through strange territory; he apotheosizes the domestic by placing it in a fancy Venetian hotel room and having it discharged by actors who are (admittedly) very appealing, but whose beauty is unadorned by cinematic tricks that normally conceal love-handles on his part and neck-wrinkles on hers. The hotel room sequence is the one spot in the film where misinterpretations melt away. When a chambermaid gets a peek at John in the buff, she’s standing in for the audience’s and Laura’s brief, unobstructed view of reality.
The editing in the hotel room sequence gets a lot of press, but there are two other scenes in the film — at the opening and the conclusion — which benefit from fluid cuts that mesh present and future, or past and present. They weren’t exactly innovative even at the time, but Roeg gives the technique enormous grace. The cuts show how much the doomed child is a part of her parents. When Christine (by the pond) covers her smile with a hand, Laura (back in the house) performs the same gesture in response to her and John’s conversation. When Christine drops her ball in the pond, John drops a water-glass inside the house. We’ve seen this again and again in movies, but Roeg and his actors, somehow, give it weight. The montage is designed to stick in the viewer’s mind, because things will come full circle by film’s end, both in event and in editing — and as much as I’d love to discuss the (somewhat controversial) conclusion, I’ll let it rest for etiquette’s sake.
Suffice it to say that Don’t Look Now has all the hallmarks of great 70s filmmaking, when the best acting was on the subtle end of the spectrum and the camera-work was more distinct, and when filmmakers knew how to whip up an atmosphere — an eeriness of mood — with nuanced strokes, and when an everyday face could transmit creepy without any kind of thespian antics (props to the matronly British sisters, who are perfect as the semi-sinister, semi-sympathetic walking catalysts). My biases for 1970s filmmaking in general, and for tranquil, suggestive movies in particular, are probably splashed all over your computer screens, but I can’t apologize for selecting one of the quieter pieces of the day for our 1970s Classics Week, or for looking abroad when many of you are probably looking for De Niro. Life is full of blazing moments, but it’s the muted hours that are the hardest to make interesting on film, and Don’t Look Now uses everything in its arsenal to lay the calm overtop the unnerving. Its setting, acting, tone, and its generous use of pauses improve its few scenes of anxiety or weirdness when those scenes do burst out of the stillness, making unusual events more realistic and plausible, and more unsettling than a gunshot. The film is drenched in its period, and it’s well-crafted and smart, and there are thirteen separate things going on in every frame in terms of mood, narrative, technique, metaphor and theme. It’s fat and pungent and defamiliarizing and still incredibly affecting. There’s a reason this one has lingered. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com‘s Classics Week, on June 23, 2008.)