The third in a series of immensely important and ground-breaking films to be directed in the 1970s by British auteur Nicolas Roeg (it was preceded by “Performance” and “Walkabout”), “Don’t Look Now” today stands as one of the pinnacles of the decade’s cinema, and has also been recognised as having had an incalculable influence on the horror genre, the reverberations of which can be felt running through the work of directors as diverse as Dario Argento (“Deep Red” and “Phenomena”), David Cronenberg (“The Brood”) and, more recently, Fabrice Du Welz (“Vinyan”). The story is really quite a simple and rather familiar one: an English couple lose their young daughter Christine in a tragic drowning accident, after which they relocate to Venice while the husband works on restoring an old church in the centre of the city. The wife then falls under the influence of two sisters, one of whom claims to be a psychic who is in touch with the spirit of the dead girl. The husband resists this idea, yet the old woman claims Christine has returned -- with a message that the husband’s life is in great danger so long as he remains in Venice.
Despite this traditional set-up, the film is not itself wholly a straightforward horror film; it’s a ghost story in some respects, but one in which the ghost remains forever elusive and where fragmentary portents and signs are instead woven together in a rich affecting skein of the intangible. Roeg does home in on the themes and ideas that usually motivate and anchor a great deal of work that appears in these genres though – the unreadable workings of fate; an ineffable sense of order behind the everyday randomness of life -- but does so the more effectively by eloquently manipulating the devices of cinema itself (principally with editing and the use of colour as a motif) to produce a powerful meditation on grief, loss and guilt, without recourse to the habitual narrative strategies that are more often expected within the parameters of the traditional ghost story.
The film, which was financed by a consortium of English, American and Italian producers, has its origins in a 1971 short story by Daphne du Maurier. The tale encapsulated the writer’s inveterate fondness for the Gothic tradition, capturing an atmosphere of the doomed faded romance of old Venice that so captivated her, but requiring screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant to considerably ‘bulk out’ the original story with new material in order to make a feature length film out of its shadowy storyline of occult foreboding. Their inclusion of an entirely new opening sequence, set in the two principle characters, John and Laura Baxter's (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) home in England on the afternoon of their daughter’s death by drowning, turns out to be the key sequence which goes on to catalyse Roeg’s innovative use and development of film grammar, and which resonates throughout the rest of the film as a result. But in du Maurier’s original tale, the child died from meningitis and the action started in the Venice café where John and Laura first encounter the two sisters Heather and Wendy. Roeg and his editor, Graeme Clifford’s stunning manipulation of chronology and causality through cinematic technique in the newly created opening is daringly experimental yet, vitally, becomes intuitively resonant with the audience as the story progresses. It makes use of well over a hundred shots in a seven minute-long sequence and its end effect is to produce exactly the feeling of a metaphysical connectedness being somehow forged amongst apparently unrelated moments and isolated events in time. It is this quality which is at the heart of the film’s ability to work so profoundly well as a popular tale of the supernatural -- marking it out as one among that rare group of films that can be said to be both artistically challenging and uncompromising yet, at the same time, fully appeals as a piece of popular cinema entertainment appreciable by a mainstream viewing public – a factor which is surely the key to the film’s longevity and the growth of its reputation in the subsequent thirty-five years since it was first released.
The first few shots of the film take us to the very heart of Roeg’s avant-garde editing strategy: the juxtaposition of an image of a rain-lashed pond in the Baxter’s front garden with a shot from a scene that takes place much later in the film’s chronology -- that of the obscured view of water and sunlight piercing through the shuttered window in the couple’s hotel room in Venice -- the audio track merging the sound of rainfall from the first image with the gentle lapping of the waters of Venice from that of the second. At this early moment in the film, we have no idea what these two images mean narratively speaking and perhaps barely register their importance, but already the system of visual motifs that will hence forth run throughout the movie is being fixed in place. In the sense of time being fragmented but also heavy with import; of the future being hard to interpret and of images carrying a meaning that will not become clear for us until much later in the narrative -- we are faced with a similar problem to John Baxter, who sees the future but misinterprets the signs. Time is treated as fluid and as a disordered, fractured collection of moments which, like the mosaic that Baxter sets about remodelling in the old Venetian church of St Nicholas, presents an image and suggests a form of synchronicity which does not become clear until all the pieces can be assembled in their correct place – this turns out to be the moment of death, when the final life-flashing-before-ones-eyes moment makes clear the warnings of peril that have been there all along.
The stunning sequence at the start of the film, in which John suddenly has a foreboding sense of his daughter’s death just at the instant the dreadful event is taking place outside the house, after he knocks a glass of water onto a slide of the church he is later to travel to Venice to restore, systematically sets about establishing the symbolic visual rhymes which then go on to haunt almost every image for the rest of the film: reflective surfaces are potentially a portal of precognitive insight but their information can so easily be muddled and distorted by, for instance, a pelting rainstorm clouding the reflected surface image of a pond or the rain-splashed windscreen of a car; a bucket of water being thrown onto the still surface of a deserted Venetian waterway; or, indeed, a glass of water being knocked onto a slide, which then obscures a vital clue to John’s fate with a smear of red ink (which itself then becomes another prefiguring image -- suggesting the spurting arterial blood that occurs at the very climax of the film). Repetitive images of broken or smashing mirrors are, like the distorted water imagery, another ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ reference to the fragile nature of John’s own powers of precognition; and mirrors are associated throughout with the blind physicic sister and her power to ‘see’ the dead girl Christine: the sightless woman is frequently pictured with her sister gazing, for instance, into multiple mirrors in the café restroom where the two first encounter Laura, or standing before the mirror behind the dressing table collection of odd family photographs and heirlooms the strange duo keep in their hotel room.
The movie’s strategic implementation of this signage of repetitive visual symbols and running themes, and the experimental editing techniques that make use of brief but insistent elliptical flash forwards and flash backs, lends the film an intimation of the notion of the compression and reordering of time. This implies the idea of an invisible connective causal tissue that might join moments separated in both time and space within some veiled conspiracy of dark fate that is closing around the two central protagonists, an idea which is augmented by an apparently simple but enormously powerful and equally resonant use of colour throughout the work. Roeg was a very colour conscious cinematographer early in his career, as is seen in the films he shot for the likes of Roger Corman (“The Masque of the Red Death”) and Francois Truffaut (“Fahrenheit 451”). In collaboration with his long-time partner Anthony Richmond, who was the director of photography on “Don’t Look Now”, he instigates a subtle, almost subliminal system of signification based on the use of the colour red. Apparently unconnected or ambivalent images become highly charged with significance because of the way the colour is made to pop vividly out of the screen every time it appears within the context of the otherwise wintery palette if greys, browns and greens Roeg and Richmond set it amongst – it draws the viewer’s eye and reminds us, however obliquely, of what lies behind the perpetual sense of grief and loss which underpins the relationship between John and Laura.
The dull greens and murky browns of the wet and misty Sunday afternoon on which Christine, in her bright red plastic raincoat, is retrieved lifeless from the Baxters’ pond; and this event's oblique, unfathomable connection to the photographic slide of a stained glass church window John is seen viewing just before he somehow becomes psychically aware of the event of his daughter’s drowning -- a slide on which a strange red hooded figure is clearly to be seen -- decides the palette for the set design as well as that of the costumes and lighting of the whole of the rest of the film; it turns the events of this powerful opening sequence into a kind of overshadowing spectre that haunts the two characters as we follow them through a similarly wintery off-season Venice. (Itself, of course, full of murky green waterways and mottled careworn grey and brown-green architecture.) Every time even the merest splodge of red appears inside the frame it immediately jumps out of the screen -- and the colour’s overwhelmingly strong association with the dead girl is what allows Roeg to suggest the possibility of her perpetual presence without ever having to resort to anything quite so crass as the appearance of a ghostly apparition. The red is an emblem of the couple’s enduring memory of their departed daughter, but also of the wife’s desire to believe the child is still watching over them and the husband’s guilt over the accident which led to Christine’s sudden death – and therefore of the distance that threatens to open up between them. It’s also a symbol of danger for John Baxter. But the ultimate irony is that in finally learning to accept the possibility that his daughter has come back to him after resisting it for so long, he is led into a dangerous confrontation with the red hooded dwarf manifestation first glimpsed on the slide, after a tense chase through the darkened echoing alleyways of Venice at night. This final sequence brings forth the abject and the uncanny as represented in the grotesque form of the murderous dwarf killer (Adelina Poerilo). John Baxter’s death finally brings together the whole mosaic of associations and prefigurative images in such a way as to ominously suggest that, warning from beyond the grave or no warning from beyond the grave (or maybe even because of it), this fatal event was always destined to occur.
Roeg’s stylised use of colour and his innovative attitude to the representation of time and causality through his chosen mode of editing are extremely important factors in making “Don’t Look Now” one of the most memorable films of the 1970s, but without the humanity in the two central performances of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, such techniques wouldn’t have counted for much. Sutherland in particular is somehow both commanding and understated in his portrayal of the grief-stricken architect who throws himself into his work as a way of dealing with the loss of his child, while Laura allows herself to be more openly emotionally affected by the accident, as effectively shown in Christie’s simple and unshowy performance. The couple are portrayed as sympathetic and attractive, and are openly supportive of each other as they attempt to recover from the trauma of grief, yet Laura’s emotional receptiveness to the idea of their daughter’s continuing presence in their lives after the blind woman in the Venice tearoom claims to be able to see the child sitting between them, still wearing her plastic red coat, is the key event which drives the rest of the narrative.
John and Laura’s differing reactions to this claim illustrate their varying coping strategies: repression through work and open emotional confrontation – and it is this disjunction which threatens the possibility of a rift in the couple’s relationship; yet the film goes to great pains to stress a tenderness and surviving love between them, most prominently in the infamous love scene, shot in almost guerrilla style with a handheld camera by Roeg and Richmond without authorisation at the hotel Bauer Grunwald. The intercutting of the act of coitus with shots of the couple dressing and preparing to leave the hotel for dinner, grounds their relationship in a truthful emotional reality, without sentimentality or the body objectification which is so often synonymous with Hollywood sex scenes. It would have been all too easy and manipulative for Roeg to have made the couple much more explosively at odds over their attempts to cope with their loss; instead, the preceding sequences in which we see the couple comfortably naked around each other in their hotel bathroom, surrounded by the film’s predominant water symbolism and its mirror imagery in which they are captured in multiple refracted images, embeds their relationship within the matrix of associative portents that relate back to the absent child and makes their separate fates all the more moving in the long term, though the viewer may initially feel the film drifts a little in the middle section on first viewing.
In actuality, it sets up the unease and isolation felt by John Baxter after the couple learn of their son’s accident at his boarding school back in England and Laura ostensibly exits the narrative and catches the next flight home to be with him, John carrying on his work alone in Venice. He later almost has a fatal accident while trying to recreate a mosaic (falling is another recurrent theme in the film) as he’s precariously balanced up on a rickety scaffold in the church; and, while strolling among the many bridges and walkways that crisscross Venice (finding curious broken plastic dolls by the waterside or witnessing the dredging of a body from the murky depths – another victim of the city’s elusive serial killer), he appears to catch a glimpse of his wife, travelling on a barge in the company of the two sisters who’ve made such an impression on her ever since they appeared with their disruptive claims of occult knowledge: this despite the fact that, at that moment, she’s supposed to be England.
The interesting place these two eccentric spinster sisters, Heather and Wendy (wonderfully played by Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania), occupy in the narrative provides the film with much of its sense of ominous, forbidding threat during the unfolding of the greater part of the story. They are the harbingers of a potential rift between the apparently perfect but deeply troubled couple. Roeg makes their relationship with Laura and their position in respect to John seem always very ambiguous and menacing, overlaying shots of either one of the old women during key moments of danger in the narrative for him -- such as when he is almost killed in a fall at the church, and near the end when he finally corners the red-coated figure he has been chasing through Venice – by now believing it to be his dead daughter returned to life. Unexplained shots of the couple laughing maniacally between themselves when alone in their room are suddenly edited incongruously into the time-disordered sequences in such a way as to suggest the possibility that their intentions with regard to the couple might be something less than benign after all – echoing John Baxter’s own feelings of mistrust about them and their burgeoning relationship with his fragile and vulnerable wife. The two certainly do seem to have an unnatural interest, not to say obsession, with the couple, which they sometimes appear to try to mask with an assumed air of eccentric bumbling and fussing. Was Heather’s stumble and collision with John and Laura’s table in the café an accident, or just an excuse to make Laura’s acquaintance? When Laura visits their room to take part in a séance where she assumes she might get a chance to make contact with Christine, Heather’s trance instead appears to tap into a bizarre recreation of the husband and wife’s earlier lovemaking – the elderly sightless spinster grotesquely mimicking Laura’s orgasm and repeating John’s name with a coital relish as she violently caresses herself. It’s a strange, disturbing scene, suggesting a traditional Freudian confluence of sex and death which is further compounded when Heather next claims to have made contact with Christine, this time after having apparently precognitively ‘seen’ and then enacted John’s coming death.
Filled with the foggy, doom-laden atmospheres of a haunted Venice (Venetians were apparently up in arms over the film’s representation of their city as a place of decay that portents death) and an overwhelming sense of mystery at the hidden nature of reality, “Don’t Look Now” remains a film that buries itself deep in the consciousness of the viewer but never becomes part of the mental furniture, always retaining its oddness and strangeness. Despite an ostensibly simple story (you can summarise it in a few sentences), there are many elements of the uncanny and the abject that bubble to the surface of the narrative just occasionally, before submerging, leaving a lingering sense of mystery in much the same manner as the work of David Lynch at his most creative is capable of doing. The sense of there being hidden depths and meanings to almost everything we see (‘nothing is what it seems’ is one of the first lines of dialogue Sutherland’s character utters) permeates almost every frame. Even the hotel manager and his staff, who have to maintain their role play of public service even though John and Laura are the only remaining couple staying in the off-season hotel, seem to be part of a hidden story that’s playing out all the while behind the scenes -- as John discovers when he goes back to the hotel after having checked out, to find out if his wife ever went back after she was supposed to have left for England. The disturbing appearance of the blind psychic woman, whose milky cataract-clouded eyes give her face an ambiguously harsh, slightly cruel appearance, and the twisted corruption of innocence that is suggested by the child-like red riding hood figure of the sinister dwarf, are particular elements of the carnival-grotesque and the surreal flavouring the otherwise subdued approach Roeg takes to the supernatural with the textures of the horror genre, suggesting a whole buried world of occult significance that remains forever beyond our grasp but which nevertheless has its own designs on us – and not necessarily with our best interests in mind.
This High Definition restoration of “Don’t Look Now”, with new picture and audio supervision by Nicolas Roeg, is for the most part a revelation: stunning new levels of detail bring the film to life with an even greater clout than ever before, and those reds now really burn themselves into the retina. From the powerful opening sequence to the extensive shots of Venice and its ancient, semi-dilapidated architecture, the film’s imagery now comes with a whole new level of texture and clarity that will have fans spellbound. The disc is definitely worth the upgrade then, but that’s not to say it is absolutely perfect: this is a thirty-five year old film so of course there are moments when the colour balance changes, or a brief shot or two that looks a bit fuzzy in relation to its surroundings, but these moments are few and far between: for the most part it simply looks stunning. The 2.0 mono audio is similarly impressive: free of crackles or unwanted noise and distortion and really showcasing Pino Donaggio’s magnificent score. The film retains all the extras that have appeared on various DVD versions over the years, but Optimum Releasing have really gone the whole hog to make this a really special release, commissioning a whole slew of brand new original interviews that run for well over an hour-and-a-half in combination.
So, starting at the beginning, you have the option of watching the film with an introduction by critic Alan Jones. This feels much like it was once a written film review that Jones is now reciting from an auto-cue (he appears to be gazing at a prompt that’s situated just to the right of the camera, creating a somewhat disconcerting effect), but it’s a succinct appreciation of the film and a good summation of the main features that make it the timeless classic it’s since become. Nicolas Roeg’s audio commentary appears here again, moderated by Adam Smith. It’s probably true to say it is not the best commentary track ever recorded – Roeg tends to mumble sometimes and Smith isn’t always the best at coming up with pertinent questions; but most of the key ideas in the film are addressed and there are plenty of anecdotes about the shooting of the film’s key scenes -- such as the opening drowning sequence and the infamous love scene between Sutherland and Christie. Next Blue Underground’s excellent featurette, “Don’t Look Now: Looking Back” is included: a making of focusing on the technical side of the production with Roeg, editor Graham Clifford, writer Allan Scott and director of photography Tony Richmond discussing the distinctive elements of Roeg’s direction. Look out for the little red figure that suddenly appears in the background of the church half-way through Roeg’s interview segment! Another excellent Blue Underground documentary focuses on the work of composer Pino Donaggio, the Italian composer who started his career as a pop star (he wrote the original version of the song that later became known as You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, and was sung by Dusty Springfield) but almost fell into film composition by accident. Amazingly “Don’t Look Now” was his first score and the composer goes through each of the main themes in the movie explaining his thinking for each one.
Optimum’s new collection of material for this release includes further comment by Tony Richmond and Allan Scott in respective interviews that go into much greater detail than could be accommodated in their contributions to the ‘making of’ documentary. The Scott interview really explores the collaborative working relationship between Roeg and the writer in fascinating detail, while Richmond gives a run-down of his career, starting with his work for Basil Dearden before moving on to his becoming part of Roeg’s film unit. Perhaps the most fascinating contribution comes from Donald Sutherland, who contributes a lengthy interview during which he comes up with some engrossing anecdotes. He credits his working with Roeg with curing him of the idea that an actor should consider himself anything other than a tool for the director to manipulate in service of the film, after his attempt to get Roeg to alter the screenplay so that it portrayed a more positive image of precognition was met with a dismissive ‘do you want to do this movie, or not?’ from the director! Finally British director Danny Boyle gives an eloquent 15 minute appreciation of the film, citing Donald Sutherland’s performance as one of its strongest features. The director was asked to edit a compressed, five minute version of the film for a BAFTA tribute to Roeg, and he talks a lot about his approach to this project and what he learned from it. Boyle’s version is also included on the disc. It’s of only limited interest and comes across as little more than a music video version of the film, in all honesty – it’s the kind of thing you’ll probably only watch once and then never think of again. Finally, the theatrical trailer is included.
“Don’t Look Now” defies easy categorisation. It fits uneasily into the mystery, ghost story and horror movie genres though it owes something to each of them, yet it remains an incredibly affecting piece of work that pushed the boundaries of film grammar in a way that continues to pose a challenge to modern cinema, and it is possibly Nicolas Roeg’s finest film. This is an excellent enhanced and restored version which is absolutely worth the upgrade. Highly recommended..