Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973)

Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973) treads a very fine line between suspense and horror. I think a case can be made either way, though clearly I lean towards the latter. The supernatural element especially leans it towards horror, as suspense and thrillers tend to be rooted more in reality (I don’t want to spend too much time on this, I wrote about it Here. The discussion afterward is just as interesting if you care…). Roeg’s film especially deals with the fear of death in particular, as the Baxters still reel from the untimely death of their daughter a few years ago. Now they’re in Venice, where John (Donald Sutherland) is working to restore a church. During a meal, Laura (Julie Christie) meets two older women who are on vacation in the city, one is blind but sees beyond life and death. She tells Laura that she sees her dead daughter between her and John, and that she is laughing. While at first this terrifies Laura, she soon takes it as a sort of salvation. John begins to notice that very quickly, she seems over the grief that has been haunting them for many years. He is never convinced that the women are sincere, though increasingly he finds himself confusing reality and his dreams, and it’s hinted at that he may too have the “second sight”.

Roeg’s haunting atmosphere is really what makes this film as memorable and effective as it is. He is often elongating moments, using repetition, parallel editing and using slow motion. Shot mostly in hand held, the film is never quite balanced, despite the often elaborate camera movements. The editing itself is sometimes confusing, or else, so calculated that it gives off a particular sense of unease. This is particularly apparent in the first sequence of the film, where the match-cuts between two separate locations are so calculated and constant, that the viewer is left with the foreboding unease that something is being anticipated. The entire sequence actually serves as the template for the rest of the film, and time and time again the film comes back to these moments, as direct flashbacks or else in terms of motifs.

There are two particular motifs I’d like to highlight, the use of red and water. It’s important to note that overall the film has very cold and drab cinematography. Though Venice is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Roeg paints it as a dirty, grey city, that seems to reek of death. The red pops out as the only source of life, a vibrant beacon in a cold and unfriendly world, though it only reminds the audience of death and suffering. The first instance of red is the rain jacket that Christine (the daughter who dies) wears that morning, she’s running around playing by herself when she falls into the pond. Simultaneously, John is looking at slides of this Venice church he will be restoring and notices that seated in one of the pews is what appears to be a child in a red hood. Distracted for a moment, with what may be a vision, he accidentally drops water on it, and the red “bleeds”. Once the red finally settles, it’s clear that Christine has died. After this crucial scene, there is at least one thing that is red in every scene. For me at least, it has two meanings, at least depending on who you believe. First it’s the idea that though dead, Christine has never really left her parents. Whether or not she exists as a spirit is up to your personal discretion, but she continues to live at least in their memories. Second, which is a lot less optimistic, is that every moment of every day, both John and Laura are constantly reminded of the death of their daughter. It’s clear that neither of them has recovered from the trauma, and if something so common as the colour red can evoke those strong memories, you are almost constantly suffering. Also, throughout at least one exchange, it’s clear that Laura blames her husband for their daughter’s death, and he blames himself. That kind of guilt can destroy any person.

The water is also interesting, clearly because the daughter drowned and of all cities, they happen to be in Venice. The shots of the water throughout the film, like the colour red is an immediate reminder of Christine’s death, but also serves as key to the unconscious. Notice that whenever there is a direct shot at the water that John will either see something, or experience something that is out of the ordinary. He enters a state beyond his usual reality where he can see or understand things that normally would not occur to him. It’s a fascinating, and rather subtle device. Also, as a symbol of death, there also happens to be a murderer on the loose, and all the bodies found happen to be in the canal. So, John is subjected to watching lifeless bodies pulled from the water, much like he pulled his daughter from the stream early in the film.

There is a really great moment in the film where John is in the police chief’s office explaining that his wife has been kidnapped or put under some sort of spell by the two old women. He tells a rather outrageous story, which from an outsider sounds quite mad. At the end of the story, the chief asks “What are you afraid of”… there is a pause, and he answers “Well, a killer’s on the loose”. I am a sucker for these moments, because it’s clear this is at the very back of his mind. He is afraid of almost everything but the killer oddly enough. For me at least, I feel that he’s most afraid of feeling happy after his daughter’s death, but also that she blames him, like he blames himself. I think this is partially why he is so unwilling to believe the women or his wife, because he’s afraid if they’re right he will be confronted with the unhappy truth that not only was he responsible, but that she holds it against him.

Finally, I want to discuss the best sex scene ever. It’s brilliance lies in it’s subtlety, it’s graphicness and of course, Roeg’s incredible editing. He cuts their very passionate love making with them getting dressed afterward, which suggests a familiarity of the scene. I think this is an absolutely beautiful cry, because for me it emphasises the passion of the every day, and feels like such a strong release. Despite the obvious accent on the routine of the act, it’s so clear just watching the scene that there is nothing subdued or tired about the experience. It’s further strengthened by the pain that you can just feel both of them holding, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the first time they’ve had sex since Christine died because it not only comes at a crucial development in their healing, but seems to unleash a series of thoughts and reactions by John. I think my very favourite part of it, that also plays into the psyche of both of them, is how quietly it’s initiated. It’s actually Laura who engages first, by running her fingers down John’s back. Especially for the 1970s, it’s an interesting and encouraging idea to see women who not only crave sex, but do not need to be coy, or sluts to get it. It’s just so natural and organic. I love it.

The ending itself is incredible, very surprising and filled with an aching and horrific dread. There is also a brilliant montage… mmm… montage.

8 responses to “Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973)

  1. That torrid sex scene, the shocker ending…this one will definitely stick with you. Roeg is an unusual film-maker, definitely an auteur in that his vision is his own AND his films are rarely entirely successful. But a director and cinematographer worthy of respect…

  2. Yes, it’s hard not to be marked by this film. Unfortunately I still have a lot of Roeg to see, as of now aside from this gem I’m only familiar with Walkabout. I don’t like it quite as much, but it’s still a great film. I think I’ll see Bad Timing next.

  3. I’ve seen 3 Roegs and this one is far and away the only one I really, really loved. Venice is like a horrific, gothic maze, and of course the use of red is blatant and startling. I think it’s a story about grief, and overcoming that grief to live for the present and the future…it’s what made that sex scene so powerful, and how the intercutting of past, present and future throughout were so subtle, and so surreal. Donald Sutherland couldn’t overcome the past, which is why that final ‘WHAT THE FUCK’ moment took that memory that he couldn’t overcome and threw it in his and our face as a really, really rude awakening 😕 . Great movie.

  4. I’ve seen Walkabout, I think it’s VERY good, but it is flawed. Especially compared to Don’t Look Now. I’ve never had an urge to see The Man Who Fell to Earth.

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