Nicolas Roeg's intimate, fractured horror film Don't Look Now begins with a brilliant opening sequence-quite possible the most brilliant sequence in all of Roeg's films.
In a carefully structured cross-cutting montage, Roeg introduces the two main characters, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), as they sit inside on a lazy Sunday afternoon while their two children play outside. Roeg and his editor, Graeme Clifford (with whom he also worked on 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth), build tension slowly but surely by shortening the shots, connecting the actions of the parents inside and the children outside through aural and visual match cuts, and using increasingly strange imagery-the boy riding over a pane of glass on his bike, John spilling water on a transparency which causes part of the image to run like blood, and the eerie upside-down reflection of the little girl, Christine, in a rippling pond into which she will suddenly fall and drown.
The emotional intensity and devastation of this opening sequence, the way in which it constructs the ultimate parental tragedy while also carefully establishing the film's main theme of time, carries through the rest of the film, right down to the shocker climax. The excruciating, slow-motion shot of John emerging out of the pond with his daughter's lifeless body in his arms is a horrible/beautiful image that is among the most profoundly moving in any of Roeg's work.
The majority of the film's narrative, however, takes place in Venice an indeterminate period of time after Christine's drowning. John and Laura are living there temporarily while John works on restoring a church (their son is in boarding school in England). It is clear that their daughter's death has devastated the Baxters, and their emotional state seems to be reflected in their environment. This is not the Venice of lights and romance, but Venice at the end of the season, with canals and alleyways that are often deserted, gray skies, and a stark chill in the air. We get plenty of shots of beautiful Italian architecture, but we also see lots of decaying walls, exposed brick, dank streets, and frozen breath.
In a restaurant one afternoon they meet two elderly English sisters, Wendy (Clelia Matania) and Heather (Hilary Mason), the latter of whom is blind. Heather, whom Laura is told has "second sight," informs her that Christine has been in touch with her. Laura takes great comfort in this, although John is skeptical. Yet, there are suggestions throughout the film-starting with that brilliant opening-that John himself may be gifted with second sight, although it is something he clearly represses. When Heather then tells Laura that John is in danger and he must leave Venice, he is even more resistant.
Based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, whose works have also inspired Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), Don't Look Now is a complex, challenging horror film, one that rewards greatly if you're willing to give it the attention it deserves. While directors like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Christopher Nolan (Memento) have been rightly celebrated for their ability to twist the linear narrative paths of their films, it is arguably Nicholas Roeg who pioneered such narrative trickery in its modern form.
Like most of his films, including The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing (1980), Don't Look Now is a film that is narratively fractured and often removed from the comforts of time and space. Past and present intersect, and we are often unsure whether we are seeing a flashback or a flashforward or even something taking place in the present. This works on one level to maintain tension and suspense, but it also works thematically, as the film is primarily about the uncertainty of time, which is underscored by numerous scenes in which characters constantly arrive too late. The entire story will ultimately hinge on one character's misinterpretation of an image as being rooted in the present, when in fact it is an image of the future, giving the film a weighty sense of predestination; no matter what the characters do, they are doomed to enact their futures, even if they can see them in advance.
Formally, Don't Look Now is a masterwork, the kind of the film that needs to be studied frame be frame to fully grasp how intricately it has been put together. Working from a good script by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, who added thematic motifs about faith and Freudianism to Du Maurier's original story, Roeg makes superb use of cross-cutting throughout the film, including in a love scene between John and Laura that is as emotionally overwhelming as it is erotic (it is known largely for its graphic nature, but it is a deeply moving scene, clearly the first time John and Laura have been able to make love since the death of their child). Roeg's use of color is also perceptive, particularly the way he inserts a figure in a red hooded jacket (which may or may not be Christine's ghost) into the otherwise grayish imagery.
Although his career has slowly dwindled over the past few decades, Roeg was one of the most exhilarating and original cinematic voices to emerge out of the 1970s. His films are generally a love-them-or-hate-them affair, with his detractors arguing as fiercely as his admirers. Some have described him as a "mad poet" and a "visual genius," while others have accused him of being an pseudo-artistic poseur (most notably the infamously grouchy critic John Simon, although he accused virtually every major director short of Ingmar Bergman of being a pretentious hack).
Don't Look Now shows Roeg near the peak of his form, employing his considerable visual skills (he started as a cinematographer in the 1960s) and his keen understanding of associational montage and cross-cutting to create a deeply layered and fascinating horror story that is more tense than scary. Roeg delivers an appropriately shocking climax, one that is as absurd as it is horrifying. Yet, it is absolutely appropriate to the story and, like the film's opening, leaves what can only be described as a lasting impression.
Copyright 2015 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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