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 both narrative and formal fragmentation was already well established. In his debut film, Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell), a working class gangster finds his identity fracturing while he hides out with bohemians who are 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  The sexual awakening that she undergoes on their journey 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 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, once more evoking the nature of memory. The most obvious of these is 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 iconic 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, it’s 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 harboring strange powers of his own. Twice John is given reason to leave the city. The first comes as a warning through a seance that his life is in danger if he stays. The second, in the form of 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 sister whom Laura comes to the assistance of 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 find 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 blood-like streak, like the one seen earlier on the photograph. As if to underline the point, the camera rests on the restaurant’s furniture, shrouded like ghosts to await 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 a few meters apart, Laura having fled some 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 being 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, 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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Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)

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If the appeal of the ‘job for life’ still exists for some today, we can imagine its attraction for the generation that came of age in Italy in the chaotic aftermath of World War Two, the years that spawned neorealist cinema. The concept haunts Il Posto, the much repeated goal that the parents of shy Domenico have for their son who, it emerges, they have withdrawn from school so that his more extroverted brother can continue his education.

Il Posto is a story of transitions, of a teenager entering adulthood before his time, and the changes that the world he joining is undergoing. An ambivalent take on the Italian economic boom of the 1950s and 60s, and a satire of its attendant work culture, the film is heartfelt, tender, and at times bitterly humorous. Within its modest narrative, abundant pleasures are to be found in the smallest of details.

At the start of the film, Domenico (Sandro Panseri) has to leave the dusty Milanese suburb of Meda to test for a clerical job at an unnamed company in the city. Walking towards the station with his brother, a horse drawn cart is ahead of them. As Domenico walks on, his brother jumps onto the cart. A vehicle carrying mechanized farming equipment enters the frame behind them. As it passes the cart, Franco jumps from one to the other. Olmi reveals how the world is changing, and that the more confident Franco may be better equipped to traverse the changes than his brother. Standing on the station platform Domenico shyly watches through a window as a group of students enter the station. Shattered dreams and loneliness established in a few seconds.

Arriving at a modern glass-fronted building, Domenico is sent to a waiting room where he is amongst the youngest of a large number of job applicants taking a series of ridiculous tests, ironically claimed to “reveal your individual qualities”. They are given an hour to solve a simple math problem, a physical, and finally an all important aptitude test. Domenico is asked a series of questions, obviously designed to weed out potential troublemakers, he responds seriously when asks if he has fears for the future, struggles to maintain his composure when asked if he is repulsed by the opposite sex, and with a deadpan expression replies ‘sometimes’ when asked if he ever drinks to forget his troubles.

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In a crowded cafe on his lunch break, Domenico meets a fellow applicant, the pretty Antonietta (Loredana Detto). They spend the time walking the streets together, joining the window shoppers in admiring the consumer goods on display. As they walk, the couple talk about their aspirations. Antonietta, more mature, has a clear idea of what she should be paid and where her future lies. Domenico repeats the refrain that he has heard from his parents, the benefits of the secure, if low paid, job for life. As seen previously at the train station, the camera observes Domenico and Antonietta through glass windows, emphasizing their desires and creating a symbolic barrier to achieving them. The result is that when they make the decision to go from looking into a coffee shop to actually entering it, the banal is turned into something quietly significant. The scene inside is beautifully observed, Domenico, standing formally while Antonietta sits, clearly relishes the sharing of a teaspoon and follows his companion’s example in handling the cup. Antonietta shows off her experience in pronouncing the coffee ‘slightly bitter’, but like Domenico she needs to take the cue of another customer to know what to do when it is empty. That evening, Domenico accompanies Antonietta to her bus stop. In a moment of silence, his shyness causes him to miss an opportunity to advance his relationship.

That Domenico gets the job is revealed obliquely, but his excitement is now palpable. Antonietta also gets hired. However, after reconnecting briefly they are placed in different buildings. There being no clerical work available, Domenico is given the temporary position of a messenger. Sat at a little table, decorated with postcards from a colleague’s vacations, Domenico is taught the ropes. The department is a lowly but proud one, it’s members determined to get through each day with as little work as possible.

A rare cut away from Domenico presents us with the office that Domenico aspires to. We see the administrators at work, where little useful is being done, and through a further cut, at home in the evening. It is a montage of the bullied, the vain, the selfish, of talents unrewarded and ambitions unachieved. It culminates with a mother discovering that her delinquent son has emptied her wallet. Cut back to her desk, and she dissolves into tears. Elsewhere, an elderly man sits in the corridor everyday. Now retired, he doesn’t know what to do with his days. Domenico’s ‘job for life’ begins to resemble a prison sentence.

If looking through windows defines much of the activity in Milan’s streets, windows in the office are largely absent or out of reach. With Antonietta not only in another building, but also on another lunch shift and finishing work before him, Domenico spends a long time tracking her down. When eventually they meet in a corridor, she suggests that he goes to the company New Years Eve party. Hopefully her mother will let her attend.

Anyone who has experienced awkwardness at an office party will experience a shudder at the tragicomedy of Olmi’s version. But for the drawn curtains that adorn the room, the venue might be the company basement. Full of anticipation, Domenico arrives early and is presented with a Buster Keaton hat and, being alone, a bottle of wine. The latter item attracts him to an older couple, who invite him to join them. Mournful music plays as guests start to stream in, and it becomes clear that Antonietta won’t be one of them. Domenico sits awkwardly. With his romantic dreams dashed, he is cruelly caught between the amorous glances of a man and woman seeking to peal away from their respective spouses. Finally, in spite of himself, spurred on by the wine and his new companions, Domenico dances. From unpromising beginnings, everyone enjoys themselves, the pace of the music building and building until…

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The scene changes abruptly. Back in the office the administrators stand silently as the content of an empty desk is divided into ‘business’ and ‘personal’. A quick cut to a previously seen, but now empty, bedroom confirms our suspicions. Among the effects is a chapter from a manuscript that the man had been writing. ‘Personal’, says the manager dismissively. Domenico finally gets his clerical job, but not before the existing staff have fought over the new seating arrangements. This really is a job that is only left through death, and where progress comes through switching desks, not rising up the ladder. As Domenico sits down to work, his predecessor’s effects are thrown up on of a cabinet. A coworker uses a mimeograph machine. With the camera focusing on Domenico, the volume of clicks get louder and louder. As Domenico looks into the camera, it is clear that a terrible realization has been made. At the moment in which his ‘job for life’ begins, the potential horror of the situation has hit home. A few seconds later, he goes back to his work.

Prior to directing Il Posto, Olmi produced numerous documentary shorts for his employer Edison Volta, and he brings that experience to bear in this film which bears all the hallmarks of neorealism. Key to its success is Olmi’s entirely non-professional cast. Panseri’s Domenico is a deeply sympathetic character, sensitive to others and conveying volumes through his soulful eyes, be they surveying the world around him or turned shyly to the floor. Throughout the film  we see him taking in the world around him, framed to emphasize his slight stature, often invisible to his ‘superiors’. Detto is riveting as Antonietta, wiser, comparatively mature, and who clearly quite likes the young man, if only he’d ask. The two have great chemistry, so much is conveyed without the need for words, and indeed very little of true importance in the film is conveyed through language. The film is full of characters, many on screen for small amounts of time, who are equally well cast and fully defined: the older woman in the cafeteria who wraps up her meat for the good of her dentures, the work shy messenger who shows Domenico the ropes, the woman at the party with an eye for Domenico’s bottle. And it goes on. Il Posto is full of tiny yet rich moments that add up to a beautiful whole.

Following Antonietta’s no show at the party the two may never see each other again. Maybe her mother didn’t give her permission, maybe there is another reason. Olmi doesn’t judge his characters for love failing to bloom. The promise of work pulled the two of them together. The job itself pushed them apart.