Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg, 1973
I remember hearing about Don’t Look Now when I was a youngster. I probably even saw it, although it was at such a young age and was competing with a lot of schlocky horrors and thrillers, that I undoubtedly forgot it. Even though it was and is a highly regarded thriller, it was probably not my cup of tea. Now, many years later, it is interesting to revisit it as an art film and a thriller. It works effectively as both.
This film also deserves the requisite warning about spoilers. It cannot be discussed without mentioning pivotal scenes in the beginning and end. If you haven’t seen it, please do not read this review. It is an ending that has to be experienced without foreknowledge. It is also an ending that enhances further viewings and analysis.
Don’t Look Now could be seen as a story told backwards from the ending, as there is symbolism about what’s to come littered throughout the mise-en-scene. It could also be seen as a film with appropriate bookends. It begins and ends with a tragedy involving some (or all?) of the same characters. While there is plenty of room for exploration, what’s unquestionable is that this was crafted in a way that recalls the beginning and projects the future. Virtually every scene has some reference to either, and most nod to both.
As for the symbolism, the most obvious is water. The majority of the movie takes place barely above water, from the tragedy in the beginning to the wanderings around Venice. They constantly tie water to death and, by extension, to the daughter. As he floats the canals, John sees murder victims extracted from the water. In one scene he notices a peach-colored, naked baby doll in the water, which is one of the most overt references to his daughter. Through John’s eyes especially, he is constantly searching the water for some meaning, whether it has to do with his daughter, his wife Laura when he believes she has not left, or even for his own spirituality.
The idea of belief is another major theme. John would not choose to visit Venice after the drowning of his daughter, but his profession as an architect brings him there. More specifically, a church brings him there. Does God lure him there? We can tell by his mannerisms and statements that he does not believe in a God. He actually feels some hostility towards the hypocrisy he sees within the church. Conversely, his wife takes on a more uncommon belief while she is in Venice, which is that of the paranormal. She believes that a blind lady could see her daughter Christine in between them at a restaurant. John tells her that “seeing is believing” and that he believes her, but he may be lying in the same way that he lies to his clerical associates. Because he does not believe in God and doubtfully believes in the paranormal, his lack of belief contrasts with the devout belief of the others in the film. Maybe God lured him to Venice, or maybe a paranormal intuition of his daughter lured him. Whatever power is at hand, he is naïve and dismissive of it.
There is also the matter of acceptance and overcoming the grieving process. The Baxters are wallowing in their misery when they are in Venice. Whether the premonition is true or not, the reason that Laura embraces the psychics is because she needs some sort of resolution. The blind psychic tells her that she has seen her daughter, who was sitting between them and laughing. “You don’t have to be sad,” she tells Laura. She clings to the psychics because of this assertion of comfort and resolution. She yearns to understand what happened with her daughter, and wants to believe Christine is happy and that their agony is misplaced. Again, this contrasts with religion, because the entire concept of Heaven is what the psychics claim to have seen in Christine – a happy and comfortable place. Once she has embraced belief of the psychics, she seems to accept the death of her daughter. She even interacts between the psychic and religious worlds by lighting candles in the church for Christine, which is out of happiness. What is ironic is that emotion is borne out of something far from the church, yet it is expressed within the church.
Regardless of how he acts around his wife and the clergy, John does not get relief from either psychic phenomena or religion. He instead is a practical man. Again, he believes in what he sees, and he is constantly looking for something in Venice even if he won’t admit what. He exclaims at one point that “Christine is dead!” and then repeats the word “dead” several times for good measure, as if he is trying to force himself and his wife to accept. He is not convinced, otherwise he would not have followed the red raincoat at the end of the film, the same one that results in his undoing. His belief that “seeing is believing” ends him. He was mistaken when he saw the red raincoat and chased after it, just like he was mistaken when he thought he saw Christine in Venice after her departure. The ladies think he has second sight, but it is his first sight and reliance on observation that deceives him.
What about the love scene? It is quite a brilliant bit of filmmaking despite all of the controversy and rumors about it. Many have argued that the scene is unnecessary, but I think it is a key component of the movie and expertly done. First off, the scene is a “love scene” and not a “sex scene.” They may be engaging in the act of intercourse, but they are expressing the love between them. In some ways this is a way of them taking solace in each other, and in another way it is another example of the relaxation after Laura believes that Christine is happy. The quick cuts between the actual sex, dressing and undressing make it less provocative, but they also show that it is a momentary reprieve. We are reminded during this lovely moment that it will end, and that they will have to go on about their lives. The scene also reinforces that they are unquestionably in love with each other, and it is a combination of the love for each other and that of their daughter that prompts this obsession. In Venice, they are looking for comfort with and for each other. The love scene is the only time where they truly accomplish it together.
Film Rating: 9/10
Don’t Look Now, Looking Back: 2002 documentary by Blue Underground. Director Roeg and Director of Photography Anthony Richmond talk about reoccurring images that are not understood until the end. Using the color red and broken glass were not coincidences. They were deliberate. They share some stories from the set, such as when out-of-character Sutherland says “I don’t like this church” to Christie. They overheard and liked the line so much that they scrapped the script and used the real conversation.
They talk about the love scene in depth. They knew it would be controversial, which is why the decided not to cut it in a linear fashion. To film the scene, they took a small crew to a hotel and the entire shooting took place in an hour and a half.
Death in Venice: 2006 interview with composer Pino Donaggio discussing the music he created for the film. This was his first film. He didn’t initially understand why they called him for an important movie. Roeg gave him a trial to come up with a couple of themes, which worked. They were excited about the music. Producers liked it as well and decided to give him a shot. It was a lucky break as it began his career scoring films.
He talks about his decisions during crucial scenes. The soft piano playing at the beginning is deliberately not played perfectly, as if a learning child could have played it. He wanted an orchestral tune for the love scene, but he admits now that came from his own pride. He changed his mind after watching the scene.
He intentionally did not use typical horror type of music, which I think really enhances the film. He used single instruments like the flute because that expressed pathos and fear. That flute sound has been imitated in other movies.
Something Interesting: These were some assembled recent interviews with co-writer Allen Scott, DP Richmond, Sutherland and Christie. It was the best of the supplements in my opinion, mostly because it was a recent wide ranging discussion.
Roeg was not the first director attached, but he was the most thorough. Introduced the theme of “nothing is as it seems.” They had to change the short story, which had a couple with a dead child, but the actual death scene is not in the Du Maurier story. The story did not give John the motivation to be in Venice, whereas the movie added his profession as an architect.
There are more good stories from the set, like how Richmond was in the cold water for six hours in order to capture the scene where John finds his drowned child. Sutherland wasn’t going to do the church falling sequences, and then stunt man refused to do it. Sutherland decided to do it after all and he got more than he bargained for. They left him hung up there suspending and even pushed him into the shot.
In the script, the love scene was only described as: “They make love.” They had a camera, a couple lights, and went in with skeleton crew and shot it. Nobody saw the negative. The AD says they did it so well that people thought it was real. They address the unsimulated sex rumors and refute them absolutely. Donald talked about how un-sexual the mood was during that scene. They had short actions and cuts, with loud noises in between. Christie says that filming sex has changed since then. Now they display sexual skill, whereas with Don’t Look Now it went from shot to shot, and she says even though it was not real, it was directed like it was real making love.
Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film: Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh discuss Roeg and how he influenced them. Boyle says you can spot a Roeg film in seconds. He used to think it was the zoom lenses, but it is not that now. They both say that the lack of writing his own work doesn’t bring him down. “He writes with the camera” – Soderbergh. They both acknowledge that Roeg was good at handling time, whether in a non-linear fashion or compressed. They both talk about how they were inspired by him to the level that they stole scenes from him. Soderbergh gives an example with Out of Sight, where they inter-cut the making love with getting dressed.
Graeme Clifford and Bobbie O’Steele: Film historian O’Steele talks to editor Clifford. Julie Christie actually got him the job after they worked on McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Roeg wanted subtlety and visually connective, so things could be pieced together later. A lot of it is about process, and they began after the shoot had finished and the director had rested. Having seen and loved Walkabout, he was confident of what Roeg would like.
Nicolas Roeg at Café Lumiére: This was a Q&A after a screening in London. Roeg has a slow and sincere cadence that makes him not the best interview subject although what he talks about his fascinating. He thinks that film writing is unlike any other writing, much closer to literary. He doesn’t like rehearsing because you miss “chance and chaos.” Studios and producers hated this strategy because they wanted their safety nets, wanted to evaluate talent. He says that everyone involved is “all nervous” because nobody knows if the film will work out.
He talks about how independent film is tough now. There were more independent producers back when he was in his heyday, but it was still not easy. He speaks in praise of Harvey Weinstein, despite his hostile reputation, and how he gave Tarantino a lot of room to work. Roeg has trouble reading screenplays that he is not working on because “they are rarely beautifully written.”
They were screening it for DuMaurier, but they would not allow Roeg to come because he had changed so much. Later he got a letter from her. She told him that his film reminded her of the couple she saw in Venice that prompted her to write the story. It was a pleasing letter.
He talks about how the BBC had the love scene cut out. People were outraged and demanded that it be put it back in.. The BBC put it back in, and most agree that the movie falls apart without it.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10
Posted on March 14, 2015, in Criterions, Film and tagged criterion, danny boyle, donald sutherland, film, julie christie, love scene, nicolas roeg, sex scene, steven soderbergh, the criterion collection, thriller, venice. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.