Don’t Look Now (1973)

26 Oct

This shot is the climax of the amazing opening sequence. It's beautifully filmed, extremely atmospheric and a masterpiece from an editing standpoint.

Don’t Look Now” may be the most adult horror film I’ve ever seen. By that, I don’t mean it’s a film full of nudity (although there is some) or cursing (what foul language there is is quite mild) or over-the-top violence. Rather, it’s a horror film that creates its scares through emotions uncommon to most young people — true grief, despair, the hope of an end to such emotions. It isn’t the most heart-pounding horror film I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly the most heart-breaking.

John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) suffer the loss of their daughter Christine — she drowns in a small pond on their property while playing. In need of time away from England, the couple embark on a working vacation to Venice where John has been contracted to restore a crumbling cathedral. One day at lunch, Laura meets a pair of mystical sisters, Wendy (Clelia Matania) and blind psychic Heather (Hilary Mason). Heather claims to be able to “see” Christine sitting between her parents and attempts to ease Laura’s worries about her daughter. At first, Laura seems changed, saying Heather’s message has given her hope. It isn’t long, however, before that glimmer of hope isn’t enough, and Laura presses the sisters to conduct a seance for more communication with Christine. Meanwhile, John keeps seeing a mysterious figure in a red raincoat roaming the back alleys of Venice, a red raincoat eerily similar to the one Christine was wearing when she drowned. He also is becoming increasingly irritated with Laura’s wholesale belief in Heather’s predictions, particularly after she claimed to have received a dire warning from Christine regarding his own safety. As Laura seems to slip further and further away from her husband, he must decide who (or what) to believe.

From the ominous opening sequence to the heart-pounding climax and bittersweet finale, it’s clear this is a “horror” film that reaches beyond the confinements of genre to touch deep emotions. Of all the hundreds of scary movies I’ve seen, this is one of the few where I feel it’s completely possible to identify with the characters and the action is mostly or completely believable given one’s stance on psychic phenomena and the afterlife. Even though the depth of pain may not be comparable between the sudden loss of a child, as the fictional Baxters experience, and the loss of a parent, or sibling, close friend or lover, the human experience of grief is universal. And so, when Sutherland’s stoic exterior cracks and he begins chasing the red-slickered “phantom” through the streets of Venice, we understand why he does it; we would do it too. He doesn’t know what he’s chasing, or why; he’s not even sure of what he hopes to find under the hood, but he is compelled to seek closure and release from this spectre.

There may never again be an actress as stunning and tremendously talented as Julie Christie.

“Don’t Look Now” creates the twinned atmospheres of intimacy and enclosure, one reassuring and the other malevolent, to tell its tale. In addition to presenting supernatural elements, offering sneaky foreshadowing and providing the main plot point from which the story develops, the gorgeous opening sequence gives us our first experiences with John and Laura Baxter. Theirs appears to be a happy, easy marriage of equals, with neither husband nor wife showing outward signs of unhappiness. After Christine’s death, it is implied the Baxters leave England mostly in the hopes of helping Laura cope with the tragedy. The fact that she has previously been medicated is alluded to, and her general listlessness is remarked upon. As a married couple suddenly living alone in a foreign city, the Baxters face the strangeness of resuming a childless life together. They have ritual, they go to dinners, they meet for lunch.

After Laura first meets Wendy and Heather, she is a changed woman. We see a spark of life and a vitality that was clearly absent before. The couple are shown at home one afternoon, she in the bath, he fresh from the shower. They talk over trivialities. Later, they engage in passionate and extremely intimate love-making. The sequence is intercut with scenes of the pair dressing for a night out, reinforcing the notion that we are seeing a very private aspect of the characters’ lives. It is a scene much analyzed and discussed by film critics wiser than I, but for my part I was struck as much by the intimacy as the sensuality. For the first time in a long time, perhaps, John and Laura felt free at that moment to enjoy each other, to be playful, to let every other thought and care in the world disappear, and it seems intrusive that we as the audience are allowed to see this.

The closeness between John and Laura is assaulted, however, by the crescendoing sense of claustrophobia built over the course of the film. In a clever bit of filmmaking, the Italian dialogue in the film is left as is, no captions, no re-dubbing, creating a sense of the Baxters as outsiders from the start. Though John speaks a bit of Italian, he is not fluent enough to really get along without help. The language and culture barriers are put to particularly good use once John’s suspicions reach a fever pitch and he seeks help from the police. The film plays on the nuances lost in translation to create a sense of forboding, as if the Venetian police are somehow in on what John fears is a scam, if not worse. Venice itself, its labyrinth streets and ancient buildings towering over narrow byways, is used at great effect to heighten the sense of enclosure. In the film’s climax, as John finally chooses to confront his “phantom,” the city becomes like an obstacle keeping him from the answers he so desperately needs.

"Don't Look Now" is insidious in making very simple scenes and sequences ridiculously frightening. This innocuous glob of paint is a good example; out of context, it's meaningless. In the film, it seems downright malevolent.

To me, the film’s circular referencing of itself, the visual motifs which reoccur throughout the course of the movie, create another level of claustrophobia. The color red is a huge visual motif for the entire film, beginning with Christine’s red raincoat in the opening sequence of the film. Most of the movie has a quite muted palette, so when red appears on the screen, it is definitely attention-grabbing. Each instance forces you to recall not only the drowning incident, but other times when the color has been prevalent. It’s a purposeful tactic that, on the surface, serves to draw our attention to important elements as well as provide foreshadowing. But it also creates an overall effect of the film folding in on itself. Each time one of these visual cues is shown, it’s as if the film draws itself that much closer around our protagonists. Whether that’s the intended purpose or not, it certainly makes for some extremely unnerving sequences. The see-sawing back of forth of the intimacy of the Baxters’ relationship pitted against the tightening noose of their surrounding serves to ramp up the tension at a dizzying rate, especially during the film’s taut climax.

Though some may criticize “Don’t Look Now” as dated and a bit too reliant on art-school techniques, patient and mature viewers will laud its beautiful acting and genuine emotion. It plays upon our most basic of fears — the fear of what may be, the fear of loss — but slyly tricks us into believing we’re only scared of the Boogeyman. A haunting film. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

Don’t Look Now“: Rated R. Starring Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Renato Scarpa, Giorgio Trestini, Leopoldo Trieste, David Tree, Ann Rye, Nicholas Salter and Sharon Williams. Directed by Nicholas Roeg. Screenplay by Allan Scott (as Alan Scott) and Chris Bryant based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier. Cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond (as Anthony Richmond). Film editing by Graeme Clifford. Original music by Pino Donaggio (as Pino Donnagio).

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