Friday, October 30, 2020

Don't Look Now (1973)

UK / Italy, 110 minutes
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Writers: Daphne Du Maurier, Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
Photography: Anthony B. Richmond
Music: Pino Donaggio
Editor: Graeme Clifford
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Adelina Poerio, Renato Scarpa

The Daphne Du Maurier story on which this Nicolas Roeg picture is based was published originally in Ladies' Home Journal, which seems strangely appropriate to this enigmatic piece of gothic horror. Du Maurier, author of the novel Rebecca and the short story "The Birds" (Alfred Hitchcock obviously a long-time fan), as well as the peculiar time travel science fiction novel The House on the Strand (in which the journeys are induced with chemicals), remains her own intriguing problem. But glossy women's magazine fiction is just right for this deceptively low-key picture, set in Venice, where a sad young bourgeois couple repairs to recover from the unexpected death of their daughter Christine, who may or may not have died for their sins.

In tone, Don't Look Now veers from half-generic travelogue piece to soft-core pornography—persistent rumors claim that a tender scene of John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) making love actually involved Sutherland and Christie having sex on the set. Sounds right anyway for the early '70s, for director Nicola Roeg, for the soapy score by Pino Donaggio, and for all involved. John and Laura are also art historian restoration experts and it is ostensibly their work that takes them to Venice. John is bringing an ancient church back to glory. But Venice is more than just a convenience for making your movie look classy. Anytime you want a story that suggests drowning in repressed emotion, experts agree you should set it in Venice. See also the long story "The Aspern Papers" by Henry James, or Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr.Ripley, or many other examples.

Flinty director Nicolas Roeg, meanwhile, takes his usual intuitive and elemental approach to making a movie, focusing on evocative surface abstracts such as the color red, and water. His bewildering, rapid-cutting style of telling a fragmented story is under control perhaps more than at any other point in his career. That may account in part for why the critics aggregated for the big list at They Should Pictures, Don't They? appear to consider it his best picture. It currently sits at #127, followed by Performance at #198 and Walkabout (the one I would have guessed for most highly regarded, which shows how much I know) way down at #681.

John and Laura have endured the tragedy of losing a child, we see that in the early scenes, but they are also comfortably professional and middle-class. After Christine's death, they send their son to a boarding school and head for Venice to put their shattered lives back together again with work, time, love, and patience. It's a beautiful scene, but not perfect. Everyone knows everyone deals with grief in individual ways. John seems to be hiding out in his work rather than dealing with his feelings. When Laura meets a strange pair of elderly sisters, Heather (Hilary Mason) and the vinegary Wendy (Clelia Matania), things start to go sprawling. Heather is blind but has psychic "second sight" and in a strange scene in a public bathroom she seems to know things she couldn't possibly about Christine and her death and Laura and John.

Laura is vulnerable but Heather's story has credibility. How can she know these things? She doesn't seem to want anything from Laura, seems to have only Laura's best interests at heart. John smells a rat—who wouldn't? He's certain these sisters are working some kind of con. Random cuts to the sisters laughing in a sinister way would seem to emphasize that. A rupture is created between John and Laura when they need each other most. They can't communicate with ease any longer, and rapidly, almost against their will, they begin to see themselves as pitted against each other.

Another odd point about Du Maurier is that this long 1971 Ladies' Home Journal story, "Don't Look Now," also made it into the impressive 2012 anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, The Weird, which surveys horror and fantasy stories in the "weird" vein (as carefully defined by the VanderMeers). Finding this story there surprised me, but I have to say Du Maurier's story also sharpens one of the most baffling scenes in the movie, when John, who believes Laura has departed for London that day, sees her in a boat in Venice with the mysterious sisters. It's a pivotal moment in this story, but Roeg, especially with his swirling confusing style (even as under control as it is here) has lost the ability to focus and amplify that moment as key, as real not delusional on John's part, whereas Du Maurier, in the written narrative form, makes it plain with ease.

I say that by way of confessing this movie was lost on me when I saw it in the theaters when it was new. I also plead some trauma from seeing The Exorcist that same year and thus perhaps a temporary flinching inability to pick up on the subtleties of Don't Look Now, even though it has always been a well-loved movie, by critics and peers alike. When I finally got back to it I could see better how well done it is, with a busy but quiet background story of a serial killer operating in Venice at the time. The use of red attaches primarily to Christine, who was wearing a red coat when she drowned, and to the mysterious diminutive figure who haunts John in Venice from the corner of his eye. But many things in this picture are red, including, of course, blood, which is also watery.

Don't Look Now has a shock ending, which overwhelms the pivotal moment earlier when John thinks he sees Laura and the sisters on a boat. The point of the movie seems to be this abruptly violent end but it's better balanced in the story, where the ultimate importance of the sisters to this story is more clear. I'm quibbling a little now maybe. Don't Look Now still seems altogether too sumptuous and sensual to me to qualify truly as horror. I don't like this high-end horror as much. It somehow keeps us a little too distanced from its own best uncanny qualities. But really, I don't know what to call it—"gothic" doesn't seem right, nor "weird" either, the VanderMeers notwithstanding. Maybe it's more like Robert Aickman's "strange." Still, in terms of categorization for filing purposes, I really don't know where else you would put it besides horror, and a classic at that.


  1. In my film-major days in the early-70s, Roeg was my favorite director. I lost track of him in the 80s, but the double-whammy of Performance and Walkabout still affect me, as does Don't Look Now to a slightly lesser degree. I seem to recall an interview with Roeg long ago where he was asked if all that stuff in his movies means something. Of course it means something, he replied, I put it there. (This may be a serious mis-remembering of the interview.)

  2. I kind of had a thing for Roeg too in the '70s, more based on The Man Who Fell to Earth and Performance. Later I caught up with Walkabout and loved it. Unfortunately, Bad Timing kind of put me off of Roeg in a lasting way. Some great stuff in the '70s anyway!

  3. "Anytime you want a story that suggests drowning in repressed emotion, experts agree you should set it in Venice. See also the long story "The Aspern Papers" by Henry James, or Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr.Ripley, or many other examples."

    Aren't movies set in Venice to some degree gothic by definition? What about a psychological thriller? Walkabout is the Roeg that has stayed with me most. I've noticed, though, the rising stature of Performance over the years and need to check it out again.

  4. Venice is very gothic, but gothic fiction is also generally drowning in repressed emotion, so a good match!