Don't Look Now (1973)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-10-29 08:57

Written by: Allan Scott and Chris Bryant (screenplay), Daphne Du Maurier (story)
Directed by: Nicolas Roeg
Starring: Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland

Reviewed by: Brett G.

"Nothing is what it seems."

I imagine the loss of a child to be one of the most fragmenting experiences possible. Nicholas Roegís adaptation of Daphne du Maurierís short story is all about fragmentation, and not just for its two grief-stricken protagonists, but also for viewers, who are treated to one of cinemaís finest and most elegant examples of disorientation and dizzying allure. A haunting Anglo-Italian co-production, Donít Look Now is simply a fine example of pure horror, not so much as spectacle, but as a deceptively simple, chilling story.

After John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter Christine to a drowning accident, they retreat to Venice. Itís there that John has been charged with the task of restoring a church, perhaps in an attempt to bury himself in his work. By chance, Laura befriends a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to have psychic powers and the ability to communicate with the dead; she insists sheís seen Christine, and she also carries a warning that the Baxters should leave Venice because Johnís life is in danger.

So much has been written over the years about the pure, stylish power that Roeg infused this film with: the elliptical editing, the eerie recurring imagery, the bravura camera-work, etc. It all adds up to something that just feels ďoffĒ; so many horror films seemingly scream their terrors loudly and clearly from a rooftop, but the sinister dread of Donít Look Now is delivered with a hushed, understated whisper. British films of this era have a certain deterministic vibe to them, particularly the ones with a supernatural slant like this one; this is an ominous, unsettling film that thrives on uncertainty. Its enduring image is Christineís blood-red rain jacket, which often haunts the screen, darting around the corners of the frame; like the characters in the film, we want to follow this enigma around every corner, though weíre wary of every turn.

Itís also a very melancholy film, but not drearily so; as the Baxters put their lives back together, they do so naturally and not without a gentle humor. Much of the filmís first act consists of small, intimate moments that indicate their repression of the tragedy thatís befallen them. Their resolve to move on isnít spoken even though their loss hangs over them like a specter. The intrusion of the two sisters is like a catalyst that pushes their tensions to the forefront, and the scene where they boil over is startling, affective, and speaks to how drawn in viewers are to the proceedings. The performance of the two leads aids in this as well; as a duo, Sutherland and Christie are nearly unparalleled in horror.

If I were to make a short list of my favorite actors of all time, Sutherland would land on it; heís usually such a warm, reassuring presence, and heís no different here. Heís cast in a role that makes him skeptical of the odd events his wife staggers into, but he plays it with the correct amount of empathy, almost as if heís going along with it for her sake. In horror circles, Sutherland perhaps will always be identified with that ghastly, climactic image from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but this is certainly his finest hour. He doesnít know it, but the film slowly becomes a battle for his own sanity. Roeg is sneaky like that, as the film seemingly is without footing until we learn a murderous psychopath is on the loose; we know there is a certain menace before then, however, and when that menace begins to throttle the picture in the final act, itís riveting.

Donít Look Now is maybe the best example of art house horror; really, itís almost pure artifice in its insistence on refracting imagery back onto itself. Even the filmís infamous sex scene (legend persists that itís real, though Sutherland himself has debunked this) simmers with eroticism and arguably best captures the filmís stylish mix of editing and pure, powerful imagery. Mirrors and glass are some of the repeated images (along with water and the act of falling), which is appropriate because I feel like Roeg is exercising his power as an imagist by presenting a dazzling array of motifs, many of which serve as omens. Ultimately, the proleptic nature of the film begs for a second viewing because itís as if it was telling you something the whole time, only you werenít aware of it. Roeg effectively utilizes his images to bury his surprise in plain sight; if not for the somber tone, you might see him winking at you in the end, not unlike Hitchcock himself.

Also buried beneath it all is one heck of a horror film that almost defies description. Itís maybe a ghost story without ghosts, possibly a giallo without an abundance of on-screen murders (its climax wears its Italian influence on its sleeve), and itís vaguely occultist all the way through. The word ďuniqueĒ is tossed around a lot, but Donít Look Now earns that description by being genuinely unsettling, a scary bit of artful storytelling whose fractured aesthetic reflects its on screen events. Death has left a gaping hole in the lives of John and Laura Baxter, and it hovers over this story in grand fashion. Every jarring editing decision and bizarre image feels like deathís touch nudging us in our seats, reminding us of his presence; in the end, we know that something bad is going to happen simply from what we see and feel.

Roeg definitely seems to be playing havoc with the power of the image, but it doesnít diffuse the powerful undercurrent of emotion stirring the work. A fine example of a director elevating his material above its pulpy trappings, the film is an intoxicating visual feast thatís also concerned with themes of grief, loss, miscommunication (witness how there are no subtitles for the preponderance of non-English dialogue) and skepticism; on that latter note, I am sure the presence of the church is intentional. It has been reduced to a simple place of work instead of worship, as the priest laments how weíve lost our touch with God; that the Baxters might use Him as comfort doesnít even seem to be a possibility. Instead, they drift through their grief and pain, which only yields more of both.

In many ways, Don't Look Now is a bitingly cynical piece of horror film-making, but it isnít a sadistic one. Itís much too elegant for that. The filmís lasting effect is its mournfulness, a sense of loss not only on the part of the Baxters, but, perhaps, the world. That falling motif seems to be a play on the first, most infamous fall in the Garden of Eden, and the worldís been tumbling ever since; here, we found a world thatís dwindled into an ominous, fractured nightmare where image is without any apparent meaning. Perhaps the scariest thing of all is finding oneself awash in a world of pure signification and left without the ability to navigate the signals; Donít Look Now taps into that fear splendidly. Forget horror fans--no one who considers themselves a cinephile should be without it. Paramountís lone DVD release is fine (albeit featureless), but now out of print; hopefully it resurfaces on Blu-ray sooner rather than later (if any horror film begged for high def treatment, this is it). Do whatever you have to do to track it down. Essential!

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