Don't Look Now (1973)

First published by Little White Lies

Spill

“Nothing is what it seems,” says John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) to his wife Laura (Julie Christie) in the opening sequence to Don’t Look Now, in response to her revelation that a pond’s watery surface is in fact curved rather than flat.

Moments later, as John examines a photographic slide that shows a red-clad figure seated in a Venetian church interior, he will spill red wine across the image – while outside the house, his young daughter Christine, dressed in a bright red mackintosh, will accidentally slip into a pond and drown. In this chronicle of a death foretold, John has just experienced a premonition – although of what, exactly, will not be fully comprehensible until the end, if indeed ever.

John rushes out and plucks his now dead daughter from the water – and the film cuts to Venice, the city of water, with Laura’s scream from the past now resounding and resolving into the shrill noise of a drill boring into an ancient stone wall.

This is only one of many jarring, at time violent cuts in Don’t Look Now, forging strange associations across time and space, and ensuring that we are indeed never able simply to ‘look now’. Like some manic slasher on the loose, Nic Roeg (WalkaboutThe Man Who Fell to Earth) cuts compulsively, severing the natural arteries between cause and effect to expose a more irrational kind of narrative continuum. Flashbacks, flashforwards, and a suggestive series of recurrent images (a child’s ball, a red mackintosh, breaking glass, a body pulled from water) allow both the Baxters’ past tragedy and their future destiny to infect what we see in the film’s diegetic present.

Even the sex scene between John and Laura, much celebrated for its credible intimacy, is rapidly intercut with images of the pair subsequently dressing for dinner, making eros and its afterglow merge into a timeless fluidity. Here, every moment, every line and every detail seems to ripple, rhyme and resonate, bleeding uncannily into what ought to be entirely unrelated episodes – and everything bears the ghostly traces of a different story trying to break through.

The Baxters are now in Venice, trying to rebuild their grief-stricken marriage even as John works on the restoration of a church whose very foundations are slowly sinking into the sea. The traumatised Laura takes unexpected comfort from an elderly blind psychic (Hilary Mason) and her sister (Clelia Matania) who reassure her that Christine, though departed, is still happy – but they also warn her of mortal danger for her husband in Venice.

John remains sceptical of the eccentric English women’s ‘gift’ – but, increasingly lost in the city’s backstreets, he keeps catching glimpses of Christine’s distinctive blood-hued coat in the distance, as well as seeing Laura on a boat with the sisters (despite the fact that she is supposed to be back in England). Confused and paranoid, he turns to the Venetian police who, suspecting a link to several local murders, have John followed. Nothing, however, can make John change course as, Oedipus-like, he ignores the words of a blind seer and rushes inexorably towards a fate that he cannot properly understand.

It is easy to see how and why Don’t Look Now, adapted (by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant) from the 1971 novella of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier, has not only earned but retained its reputation as a high point in both the horror genre, and in British cinema more generally (unbelievably, it was originally released on a double bill with that other great classic of British horror, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man).

Rather than resorting to the cheap (and rapidly dating) trickery of SFX to convey the supernatural, Roeg turns to the more classical filmmaking technique of montage, evoking all manner of eerie associations through intelligent editing alone, and leaving it to the viewer to find their way through his maze of images – much as John must retrace his steps through the claustrophobic labyrinth of Venice’s alleyways, bridges and canals.

Indeed, bleak, off-season Venice provides the perfect backdrop for this tale of Escher-like layers and ever-returning history. “The deeper we get, the more Byzantine it gets,” John says of the church that he is excavating and restoring – but he might just as well be describing the film itself.

Roeg shows a similar sensitivity to characterisation. Not only are Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie top-notch actors, but Roeg’s focus on John and Laura’s abiding grief and fragile love, as much as on their growing anxiety, allows his two leads to craft complex performances. Leaving aside Roeg’s fragmented cross-cutting, it is the nuanced mix of familiarity and intensity that Sutherland and Christie bring to the scene of their characters’ love-making – by implication their first procreative act since their daughter’s death – which has led to the persistent (albeit utterly unfounded) rumour that the sex on screen was in fact unsimulated.

That such a story could gain widespread credence is in fact very much to the credit of Roeg and his cast, who have succeeded (where so many others have failed) in making their cinematic illusion seem all too real. Here even relatively minor figures – the aloof Bishop (Massimo Serato), the bemused Police Inspector (Renato Scarpa), the harried hotel manager (Leopoldo Trieste) – are fleshed out with tics and idiosyncrasies that, precisely for their quirky gratuitousness, make these characters seem like real people with lives that go beyond the mere functionality of plot.

The shock of this film’s giallo-esque climax – expressed in an orgasmic explosion of cuts that links virtually every scene of the film together – is one that John, and the viewer too, should have seen coming. All the signs have been there all along, as evident as they are irrational, but they are readable only with the second sight furnished by retrospect (or indeed by multiple viewings). It is what makes Roeg’s moody mystery of love and death in Venice a true classic, worth looking at not just now but long into the future.

Anton Bitel