Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Director: Nicolas Roeg

Screenwriters: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant

By Roderick Heath

Morning in the yard of an English country home. Christine (Sharon Williams), a young, blonde girl, clad in a plastic rain coat the colour of blood, plays in the drizzle with a ball, skirting the pocked surface of a reedy pond, whilst her brother rides amongst the trees. The scenery is shot in that indefinably specific manner of early ‘70s filmmaking, all soft watery light, grainy mists, and fecund hues of green and brown and grey, the few patches of primary colours alight with portentous power. The playing girl’s listless parents inside the house in the comfortable envelope of their lives, with a touch of youthful cool and countercultural edge still to their learned, bourgeois calm, scents of green tea and marijuana blending with the pot pourri in cool English domesticity. Wife researching the deceptive minutiae of natural phenomena, husband surveying slide stills of the medieval churches he restores as cultural artefacts without any spiritual belief, before he suddenly senses disaster. He jumps up, runs outside, and plucks his daughter’s angelic corpse from the water of the reedy pond. He surfaces in a slow motion shot that captures every stir of water, a depiction of raw, primal agony elongated into a fateful eternity, transmuted into art, a motion Pre-Raphaelite painting depicting transfiguring grief. Art dissolves into life just as future, present, and past splinter and speak to each other in Don’t Look Now.

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The reputation of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s third film as director, has steadily climbed to the point where some surveys have named it the greatest British film of all time. That kind of acclaim is particularly noteworthy given that Don’t Look Now is a horror film, a genre that rarely attracts such regard. But Roeg found a way to make the genre the vessel for stylistic ambition and cinematic invention it hadn’t been since the silent era, and Don’t Look Now straddles modes of filmmaking in singular fashion. Similarly, Roeg, who died recently at the age of 90, defied convention and cliché just as intrepidly. The son of a one-time diamond merchant with Dutch roots, Roeg entered the British film industry as a tea boy and worked his way up through studio ranks, becoming camera operator on a range of prestigious films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before gaining repute for his second unit photography work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Roeg soon served as cinematographer on the likes of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). Working with such filmmakers at a time of great cinematic energy and experimentation emboldened Roeg began developing a distinctive approach to filmmaking. He was soon courted for collaboration with Donald Cammell to make his directing debut with Performance (1970). Many talented cinematographers have tried to make the leap into directing before and since, but even greats from Karl Freund to Jack Cardiff to Janusz Kaminski have made it with often less than stellar results.

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Roeg, however, turned out to be something else entirely, a well-trained technician and product of studio cinema who nonetheless proved a unique and challenging film artist. The dazzling visual sensibility he demonstrated as a film shooter was unleashed, although he was lucky to emerge at a time when filmmakers of all stripes felt freer to improvise with the texture of cinema. Roeg took more advantage than most, and created in his early works bold fusions of narrative and experimental cinema, playing freely with cinematic time signatures and composing images in contrapuntal rhapsodies. Even as his style settled down in later films, they retained an element of jagged strangeness and sensual immersion that was utterly distinctive. The roots of Roeg’s style and status in the midst of a national cinema usually praised, or written off, for its penchant for classical calm and literacy, were evident in Petulia, and took that film’s experiments with structure and time to hallucinatory, hyperbolic places in his first two films. Performance offered a brain-twisting graph of blurring identity and the cacophony of Swinging London’s surreal collision of subcultures, whilst Walkabout (1971), his Australian outback odyssey, depicted a crisis in mutually uncomprehending ways of being which Roeg characteristically conveyed as fractured ways of seeing. Don’t Look Now was comparatively straightforward. Only comparatively, as Roeg stitched a dense fabric of image play and time distortion whilst telling an intelligible and deftly intriguing story. that managed to satisfy the generic requirements of a horror film but also, like some other, rare entries in the genre, moves into a realm of mystification and distortion of reality that lays bare a strange, extreme psychological landscape.

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The unfortunate parents glimpsed at the outset are John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). Sometime after their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) died in that pond, Roeg rediscovers the pair in Venice, having left their son Johnny (Nicholas Salter) in boarding school. John supervises the restoration of an historic church. The first shots of John in Venice see him and workmen drilling into the church’s fabric like a dentist hacking into a cavity about to release foul and nasty rot. When the couple have lunch in a Venetian café, they notice a woman who seems to be staring at them. Laura learns the staring woman is actually blind when they meet in the washroom. Her name is Heather (Hilary Mason), and the woman she’s travelling with she calls her sister, Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather claims to be clairvoyant, and she thrills and appeases Laura profoundly when she reports having seen a young girl sitting with them, meaning that Christine’s spirit is close and benevolently watching over them. Laura returns to John in the café but suddenly faints, knocking over the table. She’s rushed to hospital, but quickly recovers and indeed emerges in better spirits than any time since Christine’s death. This epiphany kicks of a subtle polarisation in the couple, as John’s regulation male rationalism seems beggared and suspicious of Laura’s equally regulation female mysticism, but also reunion, as the couple spend an episode of utterly carnal passion, seemingly their first in a long time, fuelled by a sense of liberation from disaster and guilt.

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The basis for Don’t Look Now was a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, who had also provided Alfred Hitchcock with material for Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), and it has certain similarities – the encounter with the travelling duo of English women recalls Rebecca and the preoccupation with marriage and mating under the pretext of an enigmatic and disquieting plot is clearly reminiscent of many of Hitchcock’s films, going back to the likes of Rich and Strange (1932). The marriage of the Baxters, united both by passion and sorrow, is the true engine of a storyline that covers the span between two deaths, for a film that analyses the ephemeral experiences and connections that constitutes life whilst also suggesting a tentative belief in things beyond. The opening scene sees Laura trying to solve a question her son asked her as to why, if the Earth is round, frozen water is flat, and finds that it isn’t, but the arc can be imperceptible. John’s book, Beyond The Fragile Geometry of Space, sits on the sofa. Perception is limited, existence is infinite. John studies slide photos he’s taken of the church he’s working on, spying a red-clad figure seated on a pew, and when a psychic intimation warns him of Christine’s danger, he springs up and dashes out, knocking over a glass of water that causes the red figure on the slide to dissolve and create an abstract swirl encircling the stain glass window of the church; Roeg cuts between this act of incidental art-making with the terrible sight of John rising from the water with Christine’s body, past and future, spirit and flesh, love and hate all blurring in an inscrutable melange.

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The Baxters in Venice are still a handsome couple, but weighed down by experience, as John testily oversees a project that involves digging into the past literally and finding what he describes as layer of faux-Byzantine fakery after another. Laura loses herself in memories of rain-sodden melancholy whilst sitting in a tony restaurant. The encounter with the milky, staring eyes of Heather and her happy pronouncements of lingering personality and beneficence draw Laura out of depression, even as her prompt collapse sets the world into chaos. Roeg zeroes in on the spilt wine, oil, and salad dressing on the motley flooring, a shot reminiscent of the puddle of commingled perfumes glimpsed in one of the stronger precursors to Roeg’s style, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), and with a similar import reflecting the director’s obsession with reality in flux. The film’s most celebrated sequence follows soon, as John and Laura reunite in a scene of sexual passion that pushed the envelope about as far as it would go in a mainstream film sporting two movie stars, intercut with shots of the couple dressing and preparing for dining out. Roeg’s careful structuring, including his deadpan sense of intimacy with the couple as they go through the motions of life together, showering and stripping and lazily eddying within the world-precluding walls of their room (save the hapless hotel maid who comes in to find John sitting naked), invites the viewer into John and Laura’s crucial moment of rediscovery of each-other in both the carnal sense and the subliminal.

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Roeg’s easy feel for the erotic was another facet that distinguished him amongst British filmmakers, and set him in both unity and contrast with the other major radical voice of English cinema of the early ‘70s, Ken Russell, fonder of outrageousness for its own sake. Roeg certainly didn’t spurn perversity as a subject, but he was more clean-cut in his way. Walkabout revolved around the sense of threat and disconnection when Jenny Agutter’s prim schoolgirl cannot comprehend the mating overtures of the young indigenous man, although they should be plain and natural enough, ironically identifying the incoherence of the erotic as the perversion; The Man Who Fell to Earth would invert the equation and contemplate intraspecies sexuality as a potentially valid form of communication. In a way, the pivotal sex scene of Don’t Look Now is fascinatingly square in celebrating connubial passion for a married couple, like Last Tango In Paris (1973) for high Anglicans, depending on Sutherland and Christie, at the height of their sinewy beauty as movie stars as well as actors, to fully inhabit the carnal display. It’s also a moment of cyclical meaning, the eruption of the life force that gives renewal between two losses: what is life but a chain of birth and death, and what are John and Laura Baxter but two momentary expressions of that cycle? The presence of the medium who gives hope of spiritual persistence gives hope of other layers of existence, but John and Laura are trapped, and liberated, by their continued existence on the one where the flesh has such exalted potency. Roeg’s crosscutting was aimed at helping get the scene past censors but also makes poetry out of sublime disparity the couple restoring their social visages, their worldly guises, after all the naked ape business: Roeg inverts moralistic assumption by noting the purity of sexuality and the puerile falsity of the restored worldly appearance and its peevish, isolated insecurities as John and Laura contemplate aspects of their bodies and appearance.

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Roeg’s evocation of Venice as a place spies flashes of tourist board-friendly glamour but more often regarding a place of festering, mouldering age, hovering like a semicoherent dream just above the water. It’s cold and out of season, not a summery abode of Italianate cheer but the same place of autumnal persistence of Death in Venice and Across the River and Into the Trees. Roeg drolly notes the workaday locals for whom the city is less a place of picturesque enchantment than a waterlogged, tourist-clogged mess. The staff in the hotel where John and Laura are staying waiting out the time until they can close down, still hovering in faintly desperate helpfulness for their single patrons. The cops roused to action over the most imprecise fears. Streets are as painful and confusing to navigate as memory; John’s attempt to rediscover the pension where Heather and Wendy were living sees him wandering in circles. Rats scuttle about with impunity. A killer is at loose in the town; John watches as the filthy and bedraggled corpse of a dead girl is fished out of a canal. He and Laura hear strange noises and cries for help echoing through the city night, and glimpse a diminutive figure wearing a red hooded coat dashing through the alleys. Roeg’s desaturated images give the city’s waterways a grey, crystalline quality, whilst the crumbling brickwork and paving seem near-organic, not entirely sapped of romanticism but charged with something more elusive and uneasy in its intimations.

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The city is as much as body as John or Laura’s or the corpse dragged from the water, a physical manifestation of an entire civilisation, arthritic in its bones and unmoored in its thoughts. John and Laura have trouble telling bridges and alleys apart. John is nagged by the feeling he’s visited certain places before, or denies having been places Laura swears he has been. The often withholding nature of the city architecture, which can harbour boles of chic modernism or ancient, pellucid beauty, also mediates the story’s invocation of psychological space, and the narrative hinging on characters who can no longer trust things lingering in their thoughts to remain obediently in place. A church John and Laura visit lulls them with its aura of hallowed calm and beatitude, encouraging Laura into ritual and John to lapse into prayer-like introspection. Venice offers elusive promise of communion with the past with all its bedraggled beauty and fetid richness. John’s job automatically invokes a sense of past and present commingling, digging into the matter of Venice itself, piecing together mosaics and restoring gargoyles. John interacts with the marrow of past and understands it’s in part an illusion to be sustained by keen eyes like his, the expressions of the long dead, the ghosts of their minds and eyes, needing faithful upkeep. John’s business is with the substance of human expression, where Heather speaks of the ethereal aspect, weaving unseen like mist around people.

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John has been hired by a bishop (Massimo Serato) from a rich and influential family, who takes solicitous interest in the Baxters’ spiritual welfare (“I’m kind to animals and children,” Laura tells him with fumbling humour and honesty when he asks her if she’s a Christian) and eventually proves to have a more ethereal connection with John, sensing when he’s in danger and witnessing his near-fatal accident on a hoist in the restored church. “Churches belong to God, but he doesn’t seem to care about them,” he notes with sad gravitas: “Does he have other priorities?” Meanwhile John and Laura play out a familiar tension, between her willingness to embrace Heather’s message and the possibility of the supernatural, versus John’s stiff-necked rationalism and simmering concern Laura might be slipping back into an irrational state she seems to have lingered in for a time after Christine’s death. And yet John ultimately proves vulnerable to irrational belief himself as he becomes convinced the red-cloaked figure he keeps seeing dashing through the Venetian alleys could be his daughter. Laura’s visit to speak with Heather and Wendy and gain deeper reassurance as to Christine’s benevolent presence sees John left to get drunk in a neighbouring café: he goes into the pension to find his wife only to get caught lurking by a resident and forced to run off in case he gets arrested as a peeping Tom. John later can’t find Heather and Wendy precisely because they moved out after reports of prowlers, a subtle fillip of humour that’s also a deftly reasoned consequence of plot.

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Roeg described Don’t Look Now as his exercise in film grammar, a concise if rather dry description that hardly encompasses all the flourishes encoded into the film’s tapestry-like form, one that recounts a simple story in the most enriching fashion. Adapting Du Maurier allowed Roeg the chance to offer his own, highly individualised tribute to Hitchcock. As many genre writers have also noted, Don’t Look Now also strongly resembles as an upmarket equivalent to the giallo style that was all the rage in Italian film at the time, a distinctive mode of artfully shot, narratively baroque thrillers also influenced by Hitchcock, instituted by Mario Bava and take up by a range of talented directors including Dario Argento. Roeg might well have taken ideas from Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966), with its similar use of a young female figure that proves deadly in the midst of a crumbling, deserted-feeling city, and the shock finale with its revelation of an unexpected killer certainly has a strong giallo flavour. Argento sometimes betrayed stylistic ambition similar to Roeg, as in the revisited, revised stabbing in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and the flash edits of Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), but Roeg’s specific, more overtly audacious method distinguishes his movie from both his model and his rivals, not just in his approach to editing and his fulsome sense of his characters as more vital than machinations of story and spectacle, but his rejection of the rectilinear succinctness of Hitchcock’s visions and the games of framing in giallo.

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Roeg’s visual lexicon is, rather, restless and troubled, sometimes settling into a careful observational rhythm, as in the build-up to John and Laura’s sex scene, or cranking up to outright jangling hysteria, as he zeroes in on the finale. Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond employ zoom shots and handheld camerawork throughout, and angles that could swoop up high or crouch down on floor level. Don’t Look Now composites a wealth of images that mimic both the psychological reactions of its characters, unmoored as they are from the moment by grief and blurred perceptions of reality, and also their physical straits, anxious attempts at control giving way to increasingly frantic and belaboured searching. Recurring visual touches – water, flashing light, mirrors, broken glass, the colour red – are keys to an associative symbology alongside moments of totemic import for the characters that accumulate meaning as the film goes on and are finally ticked off in the rapid succession right at the end. Immersion, with all its uterine import, is also a state between life and death. Venice sits above the water, defiant but frigid, a lot like John’s masculine being: intellectually hip, as his book indicates, he is nonetheless reflexively entrapped by his own conviction that he’s saner and straighter than anyone. In fact, as Heather realises, he’s rejected his own second sight, and so is at its mercy, inflicted with visions that foretell the future but give no context or sense of the illimitable. The warmth and vitality of John and Laura’s relationship is underscored by lingering shakiness, anxiety and discord finally defined as John berates his wife for being taken in by the two women he dismisses as charlatans.

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When the couple get a phone call from their son’s boarding school back in the drizzly English countryside, telling them Johnny has been mildly injured, Laura immediately flies out, leaving John to his work and anxiously await her return, alone in a cold, grey, decaying labyrinth of a city where every step he takes brings him closer to his end. He becomes distracted after he sees Laura on a passing boat accompanied by Heather and Wendy, and alerts the police, who ask him to locate the pension where the women were living, and have him followed by one of their men. There’s a strong suggestion that heather and Wendy are actually a lesbian couple. It doesn’t feel coincidental that female homosexuality was once sometimes euphemistically described as “Venetian tastes”, and both couples reflect Du Maurier’s divided life as a married mother who often had queer affairs, and John’s reaction to his wife gravitating to the women has an aspect of reactionary jealousy. Roeg finds pathos and humanity in both duos as John’s recourse to the police eventually results in him pathetically apologising to and guiding Heather back to her rooms after he gets a phone call from Laura, safe in England and secure in her restored sense of sanity and security. Everyone, according to Roeg, has Venetian tastes, at the mercy of forces encoded in the blood and the mind, hungrily seeking their fulfilment on the way to dusty death.

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Roeg’s faults as a filmmaker could be as pronounced as his strengths, as he often didn’t know when to quit or moderate his flow of images, and could sometimes lapse into atonal showmanship, as in some of the more sophomoric and drawn-out passages of Performance or The Man Who Fell to Earth. Don’t Look Now stands as his best film precisely because its storyline gave a coldly deterministic enclosure that allowed him to deploy his signature visual invention whilst also compressing it with clear purpose. The notion that fate is pressing down on John Baxter grows all the more omnipresent as Roeg’s camera picks out mysteriously significant sights as casual as a man crossing a bridge or as pointed as a double-exposure vision of Heather’s sightless eyes as John ascends to a rickety vantage to inspect a mosaic only for a piece of falling lumber to almost cause his death. Don’t Look Now has strong affinity with the same year’s The Wicker Man as a bleak game of sliding panels unveiling a man’s predestined fate, complete with a nasty twist involving the search for an elusive girl. Both films tried to define new ground for horror cinema whilst also honouring the genre in some essentials, including their gruesome finales and cunningly delayed revelations of the hovering blade over their protagonists. Don’t Look Now is particularly beguiling in the way it traverses arty pretence and character drama before arriving at a final twist that’s as bizarre and grotesque as anything in horror cinema.

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Along the way Roeg casually tosses off a superb sequence of physical suspense staging as John clings desperately to the collapsed hoist in the church, saved by a worker’s cool and clever efforts. This near-disaster seems to prove Heather’s warnings that John is in danger, but its happy ending also gives the illusion of restored safety. Don’t Look Now is built around evoking a sense of a thin and permeable membrane that constitutes reality, a membrane easy to mistake for solidity and security. The hoist accident sequence dramatizes the concept as John’s secure footing turns instantly to chaos, dangling high above the church floor, debris falling on his bishop sponsor and workers alike. The shock of the incident coming on the back of Johnny’s accident and Laura’s departure informs John’s quick segue into clammy panic after he catches the bewildering sight of Laura with the two women. Don’t Look Now verges on a fatalistic statement that fate claims its pounds of flesh sooner or later, but also strives to make a vital point that it’s precisely the vulnerable, all too perishable bonds of being that give life its beauty as well as pain.

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Despite the mounting sense of portent, the later scenes of Don’t Look Now have a quality reminiscent of screwball comedy in the sense of criss-crossing paths and missed meetings, using Venice’s torturous routes as a stage to enact an anxious sense of disconnection, as Laura dashes back to her husband but can’t quite catch up with him as he takes Heather home from the police station. The faintly comic element twists into panicky concern as Heather experiences a mediumistic fit as she’s possessed by Christine, and tries desperately to warn Laura that John’s headed off towards danger. The climax of Don’t Look Now, as vivid and delirious as its opening, sees John pursuing the small, red-clad figure, oblivious to the cries of warning and fear that often ring out whenever it appears, locking himself inside an abandoned building with it so he can corner it. Roeg offers some familiar horror movie hype here, as the Venetian canals and cavernous ruined interior swim with mist and shadow, whilst his handheld camerawork becomes frantic as Laura tries to chase them down, scuttling over bobbing boats and beating at the locked gate.

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John corners his quarry, who seems until the very last instant to be some lost and desperate child if not an actual ghostly manifestation of his daughter, but turns to him at last finally reveals a wizened and malevolent visage – an elderly, viciously psychotic dwarf who whips out a knife and cuts John’s throat. This is ridiculous touch on one level, of course, but also Don’t Look Now’s most inspired and gleefully cruel conceit. John’s paternal grief and misfiring second sight bring him to a brutal end, his life flashing before his eyes as his life blood gushes out of his neck in a great red spume: Roeg’s most symphonic editing arrives as he revisits sights and actions from the rest of the film and stitches them together in new context, the desperate striving for meaning in the last few moments of a man’s life. The killer has been waiting for John ever since glimpsing her in the church photo, mysteriously conjoined with his daughter’s loss. Could she be regarded as an agent of fate, the minion of some patiently boding evil, or just a random expression of chaos, of the things that maul and mutilate? The coda offers a mordant yet also grand, even triumphant sense of revelation and completion, as it’s revealed his sighting of Laura with Heather and Wendy was actually foresight of them accompanying his body to a funeral on a hearse boat. The salving aspect of this could be Laura’s firm and centred gaze and gentle smile as she buries another loved-one, alone but also bolstered by new faith that nothing is every truly lost.

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