2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle rather than making his own hell. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, particularly Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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1970s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

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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