Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973)

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By the time Nicolas Roeg came to Don’t Look Now, his third narrative feature, his interest in the intersection between spirituality and fragmentation, narrative and formal, was already well established. His debut film, Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell), sees a working class gangster finding his identity fracturing while he hides out with bohemians delving into Eastern mysticism. In 1971’s Walkabout, the Australian wife of a successful executive negotiates the shiny appliances of her suburban home as she reminisces on a teenage trek through the outback with an indigenous boy who is on a spiritual rite of passage. On their journey, she undergoes a sexual awakening that collides with a culture beyond her understanding.

That Don’t Look Now, an adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier short story, has similar concerns is suggested in the midst of its tense opening sequence, when the camera pauses to catch the title of a book cast aside: Beyond The Fragile Geometry Of Space. The words alert us that here the basic rules of physics do not apply, that time and space themselves will be disrupted. They further hint at two forces at work within the drama, the natural and something existing outside of our rational everyday world.

The rupture hinted at by the book title has already been encountered within the first two shots of the film, although we aren’t yet aware of it. In the first we are outside, watching rainfall splash into a pond surrounded by long grass. The second brings us indoors, where sunbeams pierce between window slats. Each image is taken from a different time and place. This fragmentation captures that manner in which memories may be recalled, appropriate in that Don’t Look Now concerns a couple whose grief holds them in the past. Yet, at the point at which the film’s narrative begins, these two images occur not in the past but in the future. Time is not linear, it may shift backwards or forwards without warning.

Don’t Look Now famously begins with the accidental drowning of little Christine, of which her father, John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) appears to have had a premonition prompted by the appearance of a blood-like streak of liquid on a photograph. An unspecified amount of time following this, he travels with his wife Laura (Julie Christie) to Venice, where he is commissioned to work on a church restoration. The city they find themselves in isn’t the crammed tourist mecca of repute. With the season at an end, the hotels are closing. Rats congregate at the water’s edge beneath crumbling passageways. One character considers Venice as “a city in aspic. Left over from a dinner party. All the guests are dead and gone.” That a serial killer is on the rampage, with bodies being pulled from the depths, does nothing to leaven the atmosphere.

The film proceeds, less with outright scares than with a palpable sense of dread. It is aided in this by Clifford’s razor sharp editing, Pino Donaggio’s hauntingly evocative score, and an embrace of ambiguity ranging from the supporting characters to the disquieting blurring of the natural and the supernatural. Not least, an eerie repetition of elements create echoes throughout, evoking the nature of memory again. The most obvious of these are perhaps encountered in those opening shots, the blue of the pond (behind the blue lettering of the credits) and the red of the sun. These colors crop up regularly, notably in the sequence of Christine’s drowning, where rapid crosscutting splinters the narrative into shards, contrasting her red coat with her brother’s blue jacket, the blue pond with a red bike and from there to the sky reflected in a shattered mirror. Simultaneously, Laura sits in a blue shirt in front of a roaring fire whose reflection dances on the surface of a table, much as the reflection of the red coat does in the ripples of the pond. Later, John negotiates Venice wearing a red scarf submerged into a deep blue coat. Their hotel room combines red wood with blue wallpaper and fabrics. Mirroring Christine, the city itself, its many churches filled with red carpets and lighted candles, is slowly sinking into the water.

Colors are imbued with symbolic properties. That red signifies danger is clear well before dashes of the color start to appear disconcertingly in the background of Venice’s scenery. Blue commonly represents faith. The symbolism of the color comes into play in Venice, when Laura goes to the assistance of two Scottish sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic claiming to have ‘seen’ Christine sitting between her parents. The parents respond to this news differently, John with angry denial, a comforted Laura by seeking out a church to pray in and a priest’s hand to kiss.

Rationality and faith might sometimes be considered conflicting positions, but in Don’t Look Now the difference is blurred. A second featured paperback is Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. The play, which was the source for Costa Gavras’ film Amen (2002), concerns Pope Pius XII’s alleged complicity with the Holocaust, the spiritual conniving with an evil claiming scientific justification. This combination is embodied in John Baxter, who disavows both organized religion and the supernatural whilst restoring churches and harboring strange powers of his own. Twice John is given reason to leave the city. A warning through a seance that his life is in danger if he stays. Later he receives news that his son is sick in England. The spiritual and the rational combine to push John away, but neither fear nor parental responsibility is sufficient to move him.

Just as the film plays with the experience of perception and memory on a structural level, individual characters have their own issues with sight. The sister with second sight is blind. The other sister, when Laura comes to her assistance, is temporarily blinded by something in her eye. John’s gift of second sight announced itself with a premonition of his daughter’s death and was subsequently repressed. His inability to engage with this gift will have serious ramifications. Newly optimistic following her strange encounter, Laura’s own eyes are reopened. As with her husband, her first observation has discomforting connotations. Fully taking in her husband’s body for the first time since tragedy struck, she notices that the lumps on his side have returned. Despite her apparent unconcern, Laura’s words inevitably cast a pall over John’s future.

Laura’s observation of the lumps marks an unusual precursor to one of cinema’s most famous (even infamous) sex scenes. While John and Laura’s intercourse achieved notoriety because the sex appeared so real, what actually is so remarkable about the scene is how the actors’ superb performances make the relationship itself ring so true. Two people damaged by a shared trauma finding temporary relief in a tender connection.

The lovemaking marks the high point of John and Laura’s post-Christine marriage. Roeg and Clifford repeatedly cut from the couple in bed to their getting dressed in the aftermath and back again, already hinting at a downfall. Laura glows as she applies her lipstick, but the couple are now placed in separate compartments. Having previously shared the bathroom in intimate nudity, Laura now occupies this space while John puts on his clothes in the bedroom and pours himself a drink alone. At one point he views Laura as he crosses the hallway, but he doesn’t enter the room. At the end of the sequence the couple walk together through the hotel foyer. Happy, they hold each other close, but the thin red carpet that they tread resembles a streak of blood, recalling the marking on the photograph that launched John’s first premonition. As if to underline the point, the camera rests on the restaurant’s furniture, shrouded like ghosts while awaiting the next tourist season.

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From this point on, John and Laura become increasing separated. That evening, John’s surprise sighting of a small figure in a familiar red coat comes as the couple are some distance apart, Laura having fled from rats. The next day, when Laura joins the sisters for a seance her skeptical husband is caught listening from the corridor as the blind woman, in a trance, lets out orgasmic sounding groans. From their loving congress in bed, he is now reduced to his wife’s peeping tom. Extending this split, John’s decision to let Laura return to England without him represents a betrayal of his familial duties (“You should have gone,” the priest informs him). Following another unexpected sighting, John’s struggle to reunite his family brings the film’s complex interplay between rationality and belief on the one hand, and sight and memory on the other, to a head.

There is much more that could be said about the final act, but this oft spoiled film really is best approached with its mysteries intact. In shattering the fragile geometry of space, Don’t Look Now emerges as a horror masterpiece that transcends its genre, offering a profound meditation on the condition of grief.

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